Art of Cool Festival
Photo by Eric Tullis
Friday, April 24-Saturday, April 25
Friday, April 24
In a world far removed from the stages of the 2015 Art of Cool Fest, which began Friday evening inside the Durham Armory, an intellectual beef between two titanic black academics—Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West—recently reached one of its most vicious rounds. Dyson delivered critiques of his estranged friend and colleague to Ebony
. “The unsexy normal versus the sexy spectacular: That’s what it’s about,” he said. “A lotta us are seduced by the sexy spectacular and not the unsexy normal.”
I carried that statement with me Friday, from the front window of Pleiades Gallery, where husband-and-wife duet Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz twinkled at each other in front of a pretzel-and-wine crowd, to my stageside experience during Robert Glasper’s improvisational set inside the Durham Armory. His less-than-sexy but playful renditions of Black Radio
jams won over a room full of neo-jazz converts.
In the context of a jazz-and-soul festival like Art of Cool, the “unsexy normal” is a misleading indictment; it all has the power to seduce. For jazz, it meant Takuya Kuroda’s sharp-shooting horns were no less desirable than the confident vocalisms of Moonchild’s ecstatic and blushing Amber Navran, pleasantly surprised at the number of Moonchild fans packed into The Pinhook. Navran’s face crinkled like a kitten’s while she purred a disguised cover of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” and rubbed soul elegance into the fan favorite “Don’t Wake Me.”
And the “sexy spectacular” is a given, especially when soul music is involved. More than simple serenading, though, it takes extra effort, as when Chris Turner invoked the spirit of one of his predecessors, Marvin Gaye, from the Motorco stage with “I Want You.” Back at the Armory, his Romantic Movement associate Jesse Boykins III—dressed in a gold sequined shirt and high-top moccasins—gyrated, percolated, prostrated and begged amid his own electro-soul eroticism.
It was a night, then, of choosing and defining your own seduction. “They [Art of Cool] shouldn’t make us pick which artist we want to see,” said one festivalgoer. “That’s just childish.” But there was little childish about Friday. From legend Roy Ayers and senior jazz authority Kenny Garrett to the festival’s mature soul selections, opening night was a sexy, cool game for the grown-ups.
Saturday, April 25
Photo by Eric Tullis
When Dizzy Gillespie composed “A Night in Tunisia” in 1942, the number was his way of linking the polyrhythmic drumming patterns of Afro-Cuban music with that of jazz’s “standard walking bass line.” Ultimately, that hybrid became famous as bebop, and “A Night in Tunisia” became one of jazz’s ultimate standards, with more than 500 recorded renditions to date.
In the spirit of that cultural connection, the second and final night of Art of Cool Fest 2015 ended inside Motorco with a jam session that included some of the musicians of Soul Understated. Earlier in the day, a tolerable light rain accompanied the band’s performance on the main stage inside of the Old Durham Bulls Ballpark. Lead singer Mavis “Swan” Poole set the vocal tone for fly-girl Maimouna “Mumu Fresh” Youssef and the night’s headliner, Anthony Hamilton. At Motorco, with most of the band reassembled, Poole climbed onstage one last time, closing out the night in true jazz form with her own cool styling of “A Night In Tunisia.” The song actually capped an evening of lesser-known acts covering well-known tunes.
Kendra Foster’s recent ascenet for her songwriting and vocal contributions to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah
may have increased her stock, but she’s still finding her footing as a solo artist. Still, when nearly 100 attendees of AOCF’s Innovate Your Cool conference crammed into a makeshift performance space on the third floor of American Underground to hear Foster talk, they also got to hear her cover one of her biggest influences, Chaka Khan. Later, Foster cheered from the front of the main stage as Mumu Fresh ripped through a charismatic cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” some Mary J. Blige, some old-school hip-hop and a self-love version of Lorde’s “Royals.”
By the time Anthony Hamilton performed, the outfield radiated with festivalgoers. Most of them (myself included) probably didn’t expect for Hamilton, his three background singers and the rest of the band to break out into dance routines as they the album Comin’ from Where I’m From
. Inside the Durham Armory, where a smaller and much younger crowd partied in front of the stage, vocalist Maggie Vagle led Sidewalk Chalk through a hip-horn rendition of “Purple Rain.”
I didn’t stick around long enough during Gretchen Parlato and Alan Hampton’s set to hear whether or not Parlato would tack on any of her own jazz makeovers to the duo’s originals, unfortunately dominated by Hampton’s louder microphone. On record, Parlato makes the fine connections between jazz and country and R&B, just as Gillespie once fused Afro-Cuban sounds with American jazz. But little of that seemed to make it into the set.
Marc Cary made sure his Rhodes Ahead Trio gathered several forms in the spirit of Gillespie’s innovation. During Cary’s shortened set at The Pinhook, he reminded the audience that the foundation of the blues comes from the traditional Ghanaian melodies and rhythms that enslaved Africans brought to America. Then he jumped into “African Marketplace,” conjuring celestial cries from his Rhodes keys and reconciling Afro-futurism with somehow hopeful blues. All of the connections had been made, and there was nowhere else to go.