The John Coltrane Jazz & Blues Festival

For two idyllic late-summer days jazz was in the air as Oak Hollow Festival Park was the setting for the 9th annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival! And believe me, you couldn’t have picked a better setting with the wonderful open-air allowing the glorious melodies and harmonies to fly to the heavens unfettered and free. It was almost jazz church. A perfectly kept park, a beautiful lake, perfect weather with a clear blue sky dotted with puffy marshmallow clouds, warm sun during the day with cool breeze at dusk and a large crowd of people having fun and anticipating some great jazz.

Sadly, I was able to attend for only one day, but numerous people I spoke to who had attended the previous days’ events showered the most praise on award-winning multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson, who was said to have put on an incredible show. Other notables that day included Lisa Fischer, who sings background vocals in the studio and on stage with The Rolling Stones and several other huge acts and released one acclaimed solo album in the late ‘80’s. Some might recognize Fischer from her inclusion in the acclaimed documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about background singers to the stars. Fischer was said to be in incredible voice and electrified the crowd with her vocal prowess. Legendary saxophonist Benny Golson was another standout from the previous days event. Over his long career, Golson has also composed and arranged music for Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Mama Cass Elliott, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Shirley Horn, David Jones and the Monkees, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Itzhak Perlman, Oscar Peterson, Lou Rawls, Mickey Rooney, Diana Ross, The Animals (Eric Burdon), Mel Torme, George Shearing, and Dusty Springfield among others and brought his incomparable tone with him to the festival along with special guest Nnenna Freelon.

But now on to the performances I was able to witness first hand!

Got to the festival just in time to see the Shea Welsh Jazz Institute All-Stars, and I would like to say the future of jazz is going to be just fine if these musicians keep pushing. They were a great opening for the festival as their youth, exuberance and skills were a great reminder that jazz is a living thing and is going to keep going strong far into the future!

The festival had some familial musical participation as Michelle Coltrane, the daughter of Alice Coltrane and step-daughter of John Coltrane, lit up the stage while performing with the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra with special guest, trumpeter Jason Palmer. Coltrane released her first album in the ‘90’s and then took time off to raise her family before re-emerging in the mid-2010’s. The performance was quite engaging, with Coltrane singing a selection of standards and making them her own, while the PTJQ held their own quite handily and had some memorable musical moments with Ms. Coltrane.

Bluesman Eric Gales brought the crown alive with an energetic set of blues and soulful r&b grooves, showing his mastery of his guitar and his skill at connecting with an audience. Starting his set with a little bit of an update about his life and his relatively newfound sobriety (3 years according to Gales) he expressed his gratitude for his outlook and seemed at ease with where he had been yet excited about his future. For this being his third appearance at the Festival, he seemed invigorated and his exuberance translated to the audience, who enjoyed his set immensely. Gales performed with a trio augmented by guest, guitarist Mr. Sipp, who proved a great foil for Gales and showed his own guitar prowess in the process. The set was a burner as Gales mugged, jumped and danced while playing blazing lead guitar for a full 80 minute set covering his entire career. It was a masterful performance from a seasoned vet who knows his audience and is willing to make the connection.

Though main headliner Boney James was no-doubt backstage getting primed to use his horn to get the crowd into a percolating, smooth-jazz groove, by far the highlight of the night was the performance of organist Joey DeFrancesco and his trio with special guest the legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders! Sanders appearance seemed fortuitous as he represented the main musical link to the festival’s namesake, John Coltrane, having played on several of Coltrane’s albums in the late 60’s such as Ascension, and on their dual-tenor recording Meditations. Sanders then joined Coltrane’s final quintet, usually performing very lengthy, dissonant solos and later worked with Coltrane’s wife, Alice, on her early albums. Sanders has remained a powerful force in jazz, recording as a leader and playing as sideman on many albums since, including guesting on DeFrancesco’s latest release In The Key of The Universe. As such, DeFrancesco focused on his latest release and played a more straight-ahead, seriously hard-bop set than he did during his last appearance in the area, the 2018 Charlotte Jazz Fest. Then he seemed more playful and gregarious, whereas the presence of Sanders seemed to add gravitas to both his mood and performance and the attitude of the crowd as well who were sitting on the edge of the seats awaiting the jazz legend. DeFrancesco began with two songs from his latest album that did not originally feature Sanders, but then Sanders was helped on onstage, and with assistance of his cane, made his way to his seat right in front of DeFrancesco’s B-3. Needless to say, the crowd perked up. Everyone was ready for jazz genius and Sanders did not disappoint! Sure, he looked every bit of his age, but when he blew into his horn the years melted away and his tone was every bit as pure and magical as it always was. Sanders played two songs with the band before DeFrancesco called for Sanders’ classic The Creator Has A Master Plan done first on Sander’s classic album Karma on Impulse and more recently on DeFrancesco’s newest album, hence the pairing. Words cannot do the experience witnessed this night justice. The band played for a while and Sanders took the horn away from his lips and started doing the chant done originally by vocalist Leon Thomas, first chanting, then saying the songs title then returning to the chant and then getting the whole crowd to chant with him. Jazz church at it’s finest. After a while, Sanders got up and started to leave the stage only to return and dance while people chanted at him. When the song ended, stagehands began removing the drums from the stage as if they knew nothing could follow that performance. DeFrancesco called for them to replace the drums and finished with another song while everyone recovered from what they had just seen. As someone from the stage said after the set, this was a moment that could never be duplicated and if you missed it, you missed one of the most amazing moments in jazz. One could only agree.

While Boney James is a jazz and R&B superstar in many ways and the ladies sure do love that smooth sax, after what had happened previously, James set seemed like it could be anticlimactic at least to this jazz fan. The crowd, however, ate him up and after the emotionally-charged set from DeFrancesco and Sanders, James managed to get the crowd into his performance, no mean feat!

As a whole, this was the event to be at this past weekend and if you missed it, you sure missed something amazing. Make sure you do better next year as the 10th anniversary is going to be special, and you can say I told you!

Scott Homewood


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