Preview: Eric Tullis' guide to this weekend's The Art of Cool Festival | Music

Preview: Eric Tullis' guide to this weekend's The Art of Cool Festival


So, here it is: a full-fledged, modern collection of soul and jazz and what could possibly become one of country’s most unique soul music festivals. If Durham needs another platform for its budding profile, here it is. 

Before Art of Cool co-founders Cicely Mitchell (a UNC statistician by day) and Al Strong (a jazz trumpet player by night) created The Art of Cool Festival as an offshoot of their jazz-advocacy nonprofit The Art of Cool Project, the Bull Durham Blues Festival—now limping toward its fourth decade year—seemed to be one of the few signs that the city was interested in maintaining and highlighting its deep heritage of blues, jazz, R&B and soul. But now, The Art of Cool is booking top-tier jazz acts and have may put together a festival that rivals Raleigh’s neighboring Hopscotch, albeit in a much different field.

In its early stages, The Art of Cool wanted to look like a jazz-only affair—matching local jazz champions like the festival’s kick-off act, PETER LAMB AND THE WOLVES (Friday, 4 p.m., Durham Central Park) with pioneers like opening-night headliner and funk god MACEO PARKER (Friday, 8:45 p.m., Carolina Theatre). But it slowly started to resemble an all-encompassing appreciation of everything born out of “America’s Classical Music.” Still, the N.C. CENTRAL UNIVERSITY FACULTY JAZZ COMBO will be setting the tone for the weekend, both outside at Durham Central Park and inside Durham Arts Council with renowned flutist, HUBERT LAWS (Friday, 6:15 p.m., Durham Arts Council) and under the direction of IRA WIGGINS. As head of NCCU’s Jazz Studies Program, Wiggins has led his various combos to many distinguished awards. He was also instrumental in helping NCCU land Branford Marsalis as an artist-in-residence.

By the time the NCCU BIG BAND wraps things up at Carolina Theatre, the evening blossoms into a series of colorful destinations. The young jazz-fusionist, GIZMO (Friday, 8 p.m., Pinhook), will display the far-out limits of vocal and bass experimentation. Likewise, Motorco hosts the evermore-distant arrangements and remixes of RAFIQ BHATIA (Friday, 8:45 p.m., Motorco).

One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make on Friday is how much time you want to spend getting down with funk maestro MACEO PARKER at Carolina Theatre. Personally, I’ll cut it short and head over to Hayti Heritage Center for the the two-and-a-half hour span with ALICE SMITH and BILAL—two of this festival’s most stirring vocalists. Everyone fell back in love with ALICE SMITH (Friday, 9 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center) recently, when the Washington D.C. songstress unleashed a slick rendition of Cee-Lo’s “Fool For You.” That also served as the precursor to her 2013 sophomore LP, She.

And for me, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being in love with the mythical falsetto of BILAL (Friday, 10:30 p.m., Hayti Heritage Center) and his dedication to taking his background as a classically trained jazz vocalist to soulful heights. Last year, when BILAL hit the stage at Motorco, his expertly pitched singing and screaming hit levels that even a few of his fans didn’t seem to expect. Now they know. Still, his show might reach even greater spiritual heights given its setting in the sanctuary of an old church, since converted into a multi-use facility and the cornerstone for the black Hayti district of Durham. 

Still, if last year’s BILAL show was too involved for you and you’d rather opt for something more party-inducing, head back downtown to Durham’s party headquarters, The Pinhook. The hometown hip-hop and jazz masher-uppers, THE BEAST (Friday, 9:30 p.m., Pinhook), will be in their usual upbeat mood. Meanwhile, the multi-faceted, magical showboating of DJ/producer MARK DE CLIVE LOWE (Friday, 9:30 p.m., Durham Arts Council) will provide the kind of party that will show what happens when electronics and jazz collide, hard. 
Saturday begins early and outside with the STANLEY BAIRD GROUP (Saturday, 12 p.m., American Tobacco Campus). For years, the quintet’s namesake has built an outstanding career out of making commercially accessible jazz that’s unapologetic, even when it’s idling on the “contemporary jazz” tag. He wields his saxophone like a tool to aid listeners away from hang-ups about jazz theory. No one should be thinking about that stuff anyway, right? After all, this festival could have gone in an entirely different, stuffier direction by booking nothing but avant-garde jazz practitioners for the 50-and-up crowd. Instead, it’s made up of bold talent from across a progressive musical range.
The rock sensibilities of CODY CHESNUTT (Saturday, 5 p.m., American Tobacco Campus), for instance, have been pushing forward ever since 2003’s The Headphone Masterpiece. His 2012 LP, Landing on a Hundred, was no different. The audacious songwriting of tracks such as “That’s Still Mamma” and “Don’t Wanna Go the Other Way” should fly away in the open space of American Tobacco Campus’ outside venue.

If you’re interested in taking a break from the live music, Full Frame Theater will have a free 6:30 p.m. screening of the 2010 documentary In My Mind—jazz pianist Josh Moran’s in-concert homage to his idol, Thelonius Monk. But I wouldn’t actually suggest watching a film on what’s supposed to be a gorgeous day, especially over missing either of the two acts in this time slot— generations and genres apart, but every bit as important to this festival. Swinging, hard-boppers THE CLAYTON BROTHERS (Saturday 7:30 pm, Carolina Theatre) will more than likely be playing from their three, fan-funded albums—the latest of which, The Gathering, found the quintet and some friends cranking out wonderfully modernist jazz.

Hayti’s second night of soul kicks off strong with the all-female R&B trio, KING (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center). While these ladies have only released one three-song masterpiece, 2011’s The Story EP, their compositions and class have caught the attention of everyone from Prince to a few fellow Art of Cool acts like BILAL and THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE, both of which KING has collaborated with in the past. I’d imagine that they’ll stick around to perform their joint song, “All of the Kisses,” with North Carolina’s ever-evolving Grammy-nominated soul crew, THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE (Saturday, 9 p.m., Hayti Heritage Center). Together, emcee/soul man Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay have turned their overseas file-swapping beginnings into a rich career of fun collaborations and how-to records on love and relationships.

Staying parked at Hayti for neo-soul disciple AMEL LARRIEUX isn’t a bad idea, especially for those of us who grew up enchanted by the former Groove Theory frontwoman’s whispery calls. I’m curious to see how her newest project, Ice Cream Everyday, can make us melt again.

You could go, however, in an entirely different direction and see The Art of Cool’s big, theme-driven, all-star spectacle—THE CAROLINA SOUL TRIBUTE (Saturday, 9 p.m. Carolina Theatre). Paying respect to legendary North Carolina soul and jazz artists like Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Roberta Flack, the stage will be packed with everyone from six-time Grammy-nominee NNENNA FREELON to R&B songstress N’DAMBI to MIGUEL ATWOOD-FERGUSON. His orchestral Suites Fa Mom Dukes tribute to the late J Dilla makes him the perfect person to preside over this tribute. Let’s hope Los Angeles bass ace THUNDERCAT, who closes Friday night with a set at Motorco (Friday, 11:45 p.m., Motorco), sticks around long enough to honor his granduncle, John Coltrane, before he closes out the festival with his own set 

Follow this guide at your own discretion, of course. More than anything, let your ears direct you around this full festival, with the hopes that it becomes a beloved part of Durham music tradition.

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