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REVIEW: THE THIRD ANNUAL ART OF COOL FESTIVAL PUSHES THE CULTURAL ENVELOPE by LARRY RENI THOMAS
(Published: May 21, 2016)

It rained and it was unseasonably chilly again this year on the first day of the Third Annual Art Of Cool Festival, May 6, 2016, in downtown Durham, North Carolina. The two previous festivals, which featured jazz and soul music, in 2014 and 2015, both had to deal with the typical unpredictable Carolina early spring weather, when one week the conditions might be sunny, summer-like and the next week rainy and late fall-like. This year the weather improved, just like it had done the years before and cleared up around 3 p.m., just in time to go to a crowded press conference in a small room in the newly-renovated Durham Hotel, featuring one of the festival's headliners, the much-talked-about, very busy, Los Angeles- area-based 35-year-old saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

"I love this festival because it's so musically diverse and the people who put it on are so nice," he said, sitting at a white table, near a bottle of spring water, dressed in a colorful brown African dashiki and sporting a large Afro. "This is our second time here in Durham. We love it here!"

Washington's latest album is called "The Epic," a three cd set of his lively, black consciousness-raising, African-centered compositions. For the past several months, he has been the talk of the jazz world. He has been written about in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, downbeat and has been interviewed by PBS-TV's Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. He is scheduled to perform in all the major jazz festivals this year, including Newport, Montreal and Monterey. Washington has also been called by some critics "the savior" of jazz. When he was asked near the end of the hour long conference, did he have a problem with the word "jazz," he said:

"Not really. I know that Miles Davis and Duke Ellington didn't call it that. I don't have a problem with it because I don't use it. I just want to play my music. I am just glad that the people like my music."

Kamasi took two more questions after that one. His manager explained that they had to cut the conference short because his band had to do a sound check at The Durham Armory in a few minutes. As Kamasi proceeded out of the room to the hall way, he was followed by most of the press conference participants who wanted autographs and who asked him to pose with them for a photo. Washington was very humble and gracious to all who approached him. On the way out the door to the sound check, he met and embraced the trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose group E-Collective was listed as the top act of the festival. Blanchard held his press conference after Kamasi left the building. It was very informative but not as spirited or as crowded as Washington's.

Minutes later, at the Kamasi Washingon sound check, the band sounded a great deal like Sun Ra's music with a strong taste of Fela's Afro Beat. The horns were all bright and busy, blending and always leaving room for Kamasi's big, bold, Gene Ammons-like, soulful saxophone sound. The band was as tight as it gets mainly because it has been working a great deal.

"We just got back from a European tour," said Kamasi's father and reedman Ricky Washington, after the sound check. "We will do all the major festivals here and aboard this season. Things are good. But, it can get better. We want to keep pushing the envelope. Keep pushing it."

That statement clearly proved to be what The Third Annual Art Of Cool Festival was all about. The festival has been pushing the envelope since its inception, making sure that a city like Durham, North Carolina, can have a first-class weekend of high quality African-centered entertainment, from jazz to soul to neo-soul to rap to hip-hop, all of it fresh and new. Most importantly the whole experience helped to make a good thing better, and expanded the minds and tastes of the festival goers. Thanks to its co-founders, Dr. Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong, their project has shown that the third time around is indeed a charm, and that the 3-day festival, with over thirty acts, at different locations in downtown Durham, with its workshops, lectures and a VIP party, has turned into a very positive event for the jazz and soul music communities, not only here in North Carolina, the land of Coltrane, Monk, Max and Nina, but all across the nation. There were a number of people there from out of state. It was not only a cultural boost, but, it was good for downtown business.

The highlights included: the sizzling, Count-Basie-sounding North Carolina Central University Big Band, with the swinging, soulful vocalist, Charanee Wade, Friday night, May 6, 2016, at The Carolina Theatre. Ms. Wade was in rare form, singing acrobatic Betty Carter-like phrases and scatting like Etta Fitzgerald. She was especially effective when she sang with the very hip tight North Carolina Central University Jazz Vocal Ensemble. It was one of the high points of the festival.

Friday's attendance was a little sparse, mostly because of the wet weather. Most of the venues were a little more than half-filled, including the Carolina Theatre where the crowd was very excited when Terence Blanchard and E-Collective hit the stage after the North Carolina Central University bands. Unfortunately, the performance was not as well-received as the previous performers. After the concert, some people were puzzled as to what the band was doing. Some admitted that Terence sounded great. It was the noise disguised as his band that was the big question.

Blanchard's concert was followed by a superb, perfectly entertaining concert from the very talented trumpeter Nicholas Payton who also played the keyboards in his four-piece band. They did an excellent set at The Durham Armory that was heavily Latin flavored, New Orleans-style, and swinging, as in 4/4. It had some of the patrons dancing, smiling and enjoying themselves. His show also consisted of a tape recording of a person reciting a monologue about black people and how they have been brainwashed, and what the person thought was the solution to the problem. The answer was music, according to the recording. No one in the festive audience seemed to notice that part of the Payton performance. They also didn't seem to hear it when the monologue called it Black American Music.

By the time Kamasi Washington and his band were into their second selection, at around 12 midnight, the Durham Armory was almost filled with the old, young, black, white, and in between. This was clearly the band that everybody came to see. Their stage presence was straight out of the motherland, Mama Africa. It featured Afros and African attire with Kamasi in the middle blowing his saxophone as if was his last day on earth. The crowd loved it and some knew his music. Some of them cheered him whenever he soloed, including Terence Blanchard who was also in the audience. It was quite a performance on and off stage. The best part of the Washington concert was the closing tune, the encore, "The Rhythm Changes," sung brilliantly by the vocalist Patrice Quinn.

Saturday, April 7, 2016, was a better weather day for the festival. There was no more rain in the forecast. Only sun and a slight chill in the air was the projection. It was a perfect day for a festival that saw the Durham Armory turn into an African village, with merchants packed in there, selling their wares-like books, suits, dashikis, oils, art work. Live music was provided by a series of bands, including the dynamic Afro-beat band, Caique Vidal. There were also vendors and food trucks, on the outside, selling steaming plates of Jamaican food and a produce truck full of fresh vegetables, melons and fruits. The owner of the produce truck said that his business was located in Durham County and was the only African-American owned one in the area. The joyous successful affair was appropriately titled "Jam Shop Sip Repeat."

Later on Saturday evening, the festival continued with performances in the PSI Theatre at The Durham Arts Council. The concerts were called the Revive Music Stage. The acts included the bands of the drummers Kendrick Scott, Derrick Hodge and Otis Brown III, whose spirited set featured the superb saxophonist Marcus Strickland and the former Greenville, North Carolina resident vocalist Christie Dashiell, the lady who may have stolen show with her smoking singing. Write her name down. She is not a rising star, as the Otis Brown III, the leader said, she "has arrived." Her voice on "God Is On Our Side" resembled an angel from heaven and sounded a great deal like Sarah Vaughan and Cassandra Wilson.

Other highlights Saturday night at the Third Annual Art Of Cool Festival was a packed concert that featured the Los Angeles-area-based neo-soul band Internet. The place was jumping when the group hit the stage and most of the audience, whose ages seemed to range from the twenties to the forties, danced and sang along with the female lead singer, Syd tha Kyd. Later, at around 12 midnight, the boss bassist Thundercat (also based in L.A.) delivered a thoroughly satisfying performance at the Motorco Hall, to a capacity crowd. The festival ended Sunday morning, April 8, 2016, with a VIP reception at The Durham Armory that featured New Orleans native, keyboardist/vocalist PJ Morton.

All and all, the festival was much more diverse and ambitious than the previous two, and seemed to attract more people of various colors, ages and backgrounds. It was big fun, and definitely cool. Weeks after the event, music lovers are still smiling and are passionately waiting for The Fourth Annual Art Of Cool Festival to come around next spring 2017 to help brightened up downtown Durham, North Carolina and the world. Congratulations Art of Cool Project organizers, you have done a soulful, uplifting, in-the-moment, great job again, the third time around!


(Photo by Alex Boerner)

More Information: http://www.aocfestival.org

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