The weather on Friday evening was nearly ideal for the final installment of Callanwolde Fine Arts Center’s 2014 Jazz on the Lawn series. Contemporary jazz artist and Atlanta native Bradford Rogers was the concert’s marquee name, playing flute and a Yamaha keyboard, but the list of players backing him read like it was drawn out of a Who’s Who of Atlanta’s jazz and studio musicians: saxophonist Karen Greene, guitarist Dan Coy, bassist Joe Reda, drummer Jorrel “JFly” Flynn and percussionist Chuck Bithorn. Rogers and his band delivered a solidly upbeat, engaging two-set show in the center’s 300-person-capacity, grass-and-granite amphitheater.
The show was somewhat of a comeback for Rogers as a marquee name after he spent the last two years producing the debut album of Tomothy P. Green, with mixing engineer Thom “TK” Kidd. Rogers described the CD, due out in a few months, as “Talking Heads meets Steely Dan.” Rogers has also spent a lot of that time sailing the Gulf of Mexico in his sailboat Jacie Sails, a 37-foot Hunter Marine cutter rig. According to his blog, at the end of July Rogers buttoned up the boat at its Florida berth and headed back to Atlanta in good time for the Callanwolde show.
Friday’s performance was the first time Rogers had assembled this particular group of musicians into one band, though he has long known and worked with each. They prepared the entire show in one full day of rehearsal, Rogers said after the show. When it comes to musicianship, Rogers remarked, “I consider myself a kind of rusty Swiss Army knife, but these guys are all surgical scalpels.”
Since the turn of this century, Rogers’ vocal-driven rock orientation of his 1990s music has evolved into an increasingly jazz-infused vocabulary, with influences drawn from traditional jazz, bebop, funk and Latin music; there’s a far greater emphasis on flute and a greatly scaled-back presence of his gritty vocals, earning himself a “Future of Jazz” at the 2008 Atlanta Jazz Festival.
Nevertheless, he is stylistically hard to pin down. In this performance, covers of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Marcus Miller and Astor Piazzolla shared the stage with songs of the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Blue Öyster Cult — all with his own take on them. Plus, there were some Rogers originals.
From the outset, it was a groove party and Rogers was in his element. The band opened with one of those Rogers tunes, the title track from his 2010 EP album, Guiro, followed by another number from the disc, Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” The funky “Cissy Strut” of the Meters gave way to the emotive Argentine atmosphere of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” To close the set, Rogers deigned to sing a number in his nitty-gritty voice, calling up from the audience Callanwolde’s executive director Peggy Still Johnson and jazz singer Gwen Hughes Hinton as backup singers for Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright.”
Daylight remained through the first set and Rogers wore sunglasses, though the sun was sinking behind the stage. When he was not playing, giving other players room to strut their stuff, Rogers roamed the stage, taking pictures of the band with his cell phone, occasionally even images of the audience. As light faded, for the second set he discarded the shades in deference to the mostly red and blue stage lighting.
That second set kicked off with another original track from the EP, aptly named “The Opener,” and the party went onward in covers of diverse stylistic origin: Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” and Duke Ellington’s “Boo-Dah.” Johnson and Hinton returned to the stage to back up Rogers in the Rolling Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The show capped off with the Marcus Miller tune “Hannibal,” concluding the show in league with the series’ jazz-oriented theme and leaving the audience feeling more than merely satisfied.
During and after the concert, Rogers was also busy promoting from the stage his father’s new book, Depression Baby, about growing up in western North Carolina during the Great Depression. Released at the end of July, the volume of stories marks Ray B. Rogers’ authorial debut and is published as an e-book by Bradford’s Worldsongs Books.