Saxophonist Tia Fuller, singers Jose James and Gretchen Parlato and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci will perform on the main stage during the 36th annual Atlanta Jazz Festival, to be held in Piedmont Park during Memorial Day weekend. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, young Cuban pianist Aruan Ortiz, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello will appear on a separate International Stage. The full lineup for the free festival, May 25-27, will be announced in April. Last year’s festival featured around 25 acts.
Organizers will again put together a late-night jam session after performances and are finalizing details for a ticketed performance at Chastain Park Amphitheater.
In a press release announcing the first eight performers, Camille Russell Love, head of the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs, said this year’s concert is about looking ahead to the next generation of jazz artists. “We have always presented the best and brightest on the scene,” she said. “This year, we continue that mission with a focus on where jazz is right now and where it’s heading.”
In the past few years the festival has hosted a diverse array of musicians, focusing on artists who blend jazz with popular music. Last year, for the event’s 35th anniversary, pianist Robert Glasper headlined a lineup of younger artists that also included young saxophonist Grace Kelly.
At Churchill Grounds, Atlanta’s most recognizable jazz venue, owner Sam Yi can feel the excitement created when all those top-flight jazz musicians come to town. This does turn into more foot traffic for the club, but it’s only a temporary phenomenon that happens while “people are actually talking and caring about the art form” during the festival, he said.
While Yi doesn’t recognize many of the names on the initial release list, he’s looking forward to the April announcement, which will likely feature some more widely known jazz acts. It’s becoming of the Atlanta Jazz Festival, an event rich with history, to have a world-class jazz lineup, he said.
“With this event being showcased through the years as one of the best free jazz festival in the world, we have a reputation to uphold,” he said.
Alto saxophonist Mace Hibbard, who has played the event as a featured performer and as the conductor of the Rialto Jazz for Kids ensemble, is looking forward to the festival this year.
“I’m really excited about the artists that were named today,” he said. “They are all world class musicians and all have unique musical voices that will be exciting to watch. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the lineup will be.”
But some local jazz insiders see the festival as moving away from the genre in leaps and bounds.
Mahanthappa is the one jazz name that jumps out at guitarist Jacob Deaton, a proponent of local music who just celebrated his first anniversary running the “Sounds From the Underground” jazz series at Elliott Street Deli and Pub. Looking at the initial names, he sees mostly a balanced blend of musicians who will appeal to both jazz and R&B fans.
“As a fan of improvised music, I’m very excited to see Rudresh’s name on the list; he’s definitely one of the premier alto saxophonists in the country right now,” Deaton said. “Cécile McLorin Salvant has a very dynamic voice and beautiful personality onstage, and Aruan Ortiz is a fine pianist.”
Tony Wasilewski, owner of Atlanta jazz label Hot Shoe Records, said this initial release of artists might not really appeal to a younger generation of music fans. The majority of the artists in the admittedly small sample size — around 25 acts were featured at the festival last year — are between 35 and 45, he said, and enjoy little name recognition.
Glancing at the lineup, he also voiced concern that the presented mix of jazz, R&B and other genres present in the first few names could fall a bit flat. “I am all for the evolution of jazz … but it seems to me that few have had the talent in recent times to revolutionize jazz by including large doses of other genres — Robert Glasper is an obvious exception to that statement,” he said. “I am very interested to see the rest of the lineup, but I think this announcement may hit with a thud or a ‘huh?’ in Atlanta.”