Artists wrestle with Coltrane legacy at festival

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by Jordan Green

“Did anyone play one John Coltrane song today?”

Coming from Lalah Hathaway, the headliner for the Sunday-night finale of the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival in High Point, the question bore an odd provenance, but it was cloaked in an unmistakable feeling of lament.

It was the second time Hathaway had interrupted the song, a cover of Luther Vandross’ “Forever, For Always, For Love,” teasing an audience that was beside itself with anticipation for a hit. The first was to plug her forthcoming, crowd-funded album Lalah Hathaway Live!

“‘A Love Supreme’?” she continued. “‘Giant Steps’? Not one?”

In fact, as one person member shouted from the audience, “Giant Steps” had been performed earlier in the day.

It would be hard to argue with Hathaway as a headliner for the festival, considering her 20-plus-year recording career, building on her father, Donny Hathaway’s extraordinary legacy as a jazz and soul vocalist. The younger Hathaway’s technical excellence — her lustrous voice is played like a finely tuned instrument — makes her a fine standard-bearer for a festival honoring one of the greatest jazz saxophonists and composers of the 20th Century.

You could hear the distillation of beauty from suffering and the spiritual questing of Coltrane’s music in Hathaway’s exquisite performance of her song “Breathe,” her voice suggesting birds fluttering above crashing waves as a counterpoint to the lyrics: “All around me, everywhere/ Seems like nothing but despair/ Confusion, disillusion….”

And yet even in Hathaway’s set, with an emphasis on uplifting and classy relationship material, the absence of Coltrane in spirit was notable, never more so than when the singer’s utterance of “Thank you, and goodnight” set off a scramble for the exits rather than applause or cries for an encore.

To be fair, there were moments of direct reference and spiritual lineage to the Coltrane legacy. To answer Hathaway’s question, the NC Coltrane All Star Band, led by Greensboro pianist Turner Battle, performed “Body and Soul,” and conguero Poncho Sanchez and his band paid sincere tribute with their rendition of Coltrane’s harmonically complex “Giant Steps” earlier in the day.

Electric bassist Marcus Miller, an audience favorite, channeled Coltrane’s spirituality on the first day of the festival with his song “Gorée,” a reflection on the trans-Atlantic slave trade that he introduced as “a celebration that somehow we managed to survive that period of history.” With somber reflection giving way to a gale-force flurry of bass notes, it was perhaps the most political moment of the festival.

And Snarky Puppy, who followed Poncho Sanchez — and added a younger, more multicultural cohort to the festival’s core audience constituency of African-American boomers — proved themselves a worthy successor to Coltrane’s challenging legacy of searching innovation. Snarky Puppy’s set provided an excellent primer on the band’s genre-busting sound to uninitiated listeners, with a sinewy bass evolving into unexpected melodic expositions, radiant guitar coupled with tight bursts of horn playing, a pairing of conga and in-the-pocket drumming, and distorted squibs of synthesizer.

A guest appearance by Hathaway, with whom the band shared a Grammy last year for Best R&B Performance, was a festival highlight. Without the benefit of rehearsal, they took some risks with a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running to Me.” Hathaway’s lovely and virtuosic handling of the vocal prompted one audience member to remark, “Why doesn’t she just stay up there?”

But there were more surprises in store.

Eric Gales, the Memphis blues guitarist who now makes his home in Greensboro, made a triumphal and unexpected appearance with Snarky Puppy. Riffing off the band’s laidback early ’70s funk, he scratched out deceptively simple couplets that imperceptibly flowered into full-fledged, Hendrix-style solos.

While several sets heaved up small epiphanies here and there, much of the festival tended towards pleasant and saccharine smooth jazz, including portions of the performances by Miller, Hathaway and David Sanborn, who headlined the first day. No one exemplified the tendency more than Earl Klugh, whose technically impeccable acoustic guitar playing sets a mood for a romantic dinner without summoning feelings more turbulent or disruptive than that.

It made for a perfectly pleasant couple of weekend days lounging in the sun with a gentle breeze wafting off Oak Hollow Lake, but as an overall experience fell far short of the iconoclastic grandeur summoned by the Coltrane name. The setting itself — geographically proximate, but a world apart from the gritty and now deteriorating neighborhood where Coltrane grew up near High Point’s historic Washington Street district — might be part of what’s so jarring about the festival. With a single stage at one location and all amenities of food and drink provided on site, the festival provides no incentive to out-of-town visitors to explore the city and get a sense of the local conditions that nourished and frustrated Coltrane.

Perhaps next year, when repair work is complete on Washington Street, the festival could collaborate on programming in the community. A midnight jam session at Jackie’s Place for fans who want to hear more music after the final set at Oak Hollow Park comes to mind as one idea.

It’s hard not to come away from the festival wishing the programming were more bold, more restlessly innovative — more directly tied to the monumental legacy established by John Coltrane. Durham’s Art of Cool Fest, which featured Roy Ayers, the Kenny Garrett Quintet, 9th Wonder and Avery Sunshine this year, has proven it’s possible to develop a sonically bracing, culturally relevant and musically excellent jazz festival in North Carolina.

While it’s a shame to squander the good name of one of the greatest jazz performers and composers of the 20th Century, it’s also hard to blame the organizers for looking for an export product that’s clearly in demand. If High Point is centrally located in an urban corridor within 100 miles of X number of African Americans aged 40 to 65 with disposable income and a preference for inoffensive smooth jazz, so be it. Beyond the North Carolina market, the festival’s appeal was also demonstrated by the sighting of license plates from Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia and New Jersey. Even if the festival doesn’t make any waves in Coltrane’s old neighborhood, the city’s hoteliers undoubtedly appreciate the business.

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