During the earliest editions of the Richmond Jazz Festival, the schedule was heavy on jazz’s smooth, easy listening suburbs.
But the programming has grown stronger each year, adding bracing, world-class improvisers as well as hard-edged funk and Latin players. And the fifth festival, extended to four days from Aug. 7-10, promises to be the best yet.
It isn’t all jazz in the conventional sense, but it all falls into the wider category of blues, soul, gospel and Afro-Cuban — which trumpeter Nicholas Payton calls black American music. The mix was balanced enough last year that you could find a deeply satisfying pathway through the schedule whatever your musical taste. For those who prefer their jazz straight, it’s even easier this year.
The new MeadWestvaco stage is host to what’s effectively a first-rate festival within a festival. Local trumpet phenomenon Victor Haskins opens Saturday, followed by trumpeter Sean Jones’ Quartet. Then it’s a trio led by the great bassist Christian McBride, premier jazz violinist Regina Carter and multi-Grammy-winning singer Cassandra Wilson.
On Sunday, local favorites Bop Nation opens, followed by vocalist Tierney Sutton, then premier lyrical Americana guitarist Bill Frisell, Blue Note legend Lou Donaldson, and closing with yet another top vocalist, Dianne Reeves.
But the schedule is rich enough to provide tempting alternatives. McBride may be the top bassist of his generation, but seeing his entire set might mean missing the phenomenally multitalented Latin musician Pedrito Martinez, and Grammy-winning female powerhouse drummer, Terri Lynne Carrington. As for Frisell, he may be the perennial winner of the Downbeat critics poll, but he’s facing off against James Brown trombonist and musical director Fred Wesley and the New JBs, hot off arranging music for the just-released Brown biopic.
But if the choices are difficult, moving between acts is easy. The starting times are staggered and there is an enticing gauntlet of vendors to run.
Of course serious jazz is only one path through the options. Most of the local players — Haskins, Bop Nation, Sharon Rae North — have early schedule slots, but local saxophonist James “Plunky” Branch has a prime spot late Saturday afternoon.
Fusion stars Roy Ayers and Earl Klugh are in the mix, as is James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, ’80s funk stars Cameo, hat-wearing, contemporary sax man Boney James, and a smooth jazz supergroup of Peter White, Rick Braun and Euge Groove.
Variety is the essential requirement in a musical buffet. The performances may lack the length and intimacy of club sets, the magic may be a bit attenuated by all the comings and goings, snacking and gabbing, but the payoff is seeing as many great players in a weekend as you might otherwise see in a year. Bringing it all together, year after year, is no trivial challenge.
It’s a yearlong process, says Jasmine Roberts of festival organizer and Richmond marketing company Johnson, spearheaded by company founder and chief executive — and former trombonist — Kenneth Johnson. The support of major sponsors Altria, Dominion, MeadWestvaco and others provides a bit of a cushion. It helps that the proceeds benefit worthy causes including the Richmond Public Schools, the Maymont Foundation, and for the first year, the Richmond Jazz Society.
But to survive year after year, the event needs a satisfied, paying audience. “For us, creating the best patron experience is the most important thing,” Roberts says.
The music is essential, but other amenities — the vendors, the wine tasting, the chef demonstrations, the artist meet-and-greet tent, the choice of vendors — are necessary complements. And surrounding it all are the 100 beautifully kept, hilly acres of Maymont. Since the beginning this has been one of the loveliest locations among dozens of summer music festivals. It appears that the quality of the event has fully grown to match the perfection of the setting. S
The Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont takes place over four days, Aug. 7-10, at various venues, with the primary weekend shows at Maymont. Tickets cost from $75 a day, plus $6 venue fee, to $140 for a weekend pass. For information visit jazzatmaymont.com.