With appealing, varied choices in every time slot this is easily the best edition of the Richmond Jazz Festival to date. The fourth annual festival, held Aug. 8 - 11 at Maymont, is a near perfect mix of art and accessibility.
Twenty six groups will be performing simultaneously on two stages — with slightly offset starting times — creating a practically endless variety of potential pathways through the program. (226 or 67,108,894 for those mathematically inclined ... excluding the option of wandering between stages.) The schedule, with few exceptions, offers clear alternatives between smooth jazz and spiky improvisation, with some crowd-pleasing-not-really-jazz acts in the mix.
"We've tried to put together a program that will appeal to everyone, from the casual listener to the jazz connoisseur," says Torrance Hampton, creative director at festival presenter Johnson Inc. "There are a lot of jazz festivals, but how many of them are in a place as beautiful as Maymont?"
There are two opening acts before the Maymont main event. The Larry Branch Agenda at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday is part of the Richmond Jazz Society's free weekly Jazz Café series. The quartet plays serious jazz with a light touch and the kind of interplay that comes only from a deep history as a working band. Its book mixes originals and standards, including Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit" and a languid, reggae version of George Gershwin's "Summertime."
On Friday night, the main, admission-charging festival kicks off at the historic Hippodrome Theater, the heart of Second Street, the Harlem of the South. The venue has been restored to the glamour of its art deco heyday, when it played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Homegrown at the Hipp features smooth-jazz pianist and Flo wine entrepreneur Marcus Johnson.
At noon on Saturday, the Maymont juggernaut gets rolling, with events running on two stages separated by a few hundred yards of pastoral beauty enlivened by a gauntlet of vendors and exhibitors. The opening acts are local musicians: on one stage, trumpeter J Tucker and Crew, followed by the swinging Central Virginia Orchestra; on the other, the smooth neo-soul violin stylings of Maestro J. The first out-of-town act is the phenomenal French harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, who comes on at 1:45 p.m. He has the unenviable task of competing against Richmond singer and songwriter sweetheart Susan Greenbaum, who takes the other stage at 2 p.m.
From midafternoon on Saturday, all of the serious action is at the Dominion Stage. The back-to-back performances of Jason Moran (3:30 p.m.) and Robert Glasper (5:15 p.m.) is the hip coup of the event. Both artists topped the 2013 Downbeat Critics Poll for their instruments — Moran for acoustic piano and Robert Glasper for the electronic keyboard. Moran's now long-running collaboration with saxophone legend Charles Lloyd and his work with his group Bandwagon — performing at the festival — has been among the best of the past decade. Glasper's synthesis of jazz and hip-hop is in a category by itself. Their sets are followed at 7 p.m. by the ridiculously multi-talented Cuban trumpeter, pianist and percussionist Arturo Sandoval.
A short distance away, on the Virginia is for Lovers stage, Greg Karukas will play lovely ditties, Big Sam's Funky Nation evokes the spirit of New Orleans brass bands. The great Jazz Crusaders pianist Joe Sample backs Randy Crawford crooning sultry songs of soulful love and loss to an appreciative if less modern jazz-oriented audience.
The day's closing event is a crowd-pleasing attempt at finding commercial common ground. Sandoval is followed by contemporary jazz supergroup Peter White, David Benoit and David Pack. On the Lovers stage, a mélange of genres is unified in festival headliner R&B, hip-hop, jazz and soul singer Jill Scott.
On Sunday, after local openers K.G. Experience, Love Logic and, once again, Maestro J, the harder edge shifts to the Virginia is for Lovers stage. Tiempo Libre, a multi-talented current import from Cuba makes its first Richmond appearance at 2 p.m. It is followed by the legendary pianist Dr. John at 3:45. The Doctor appeared in Richmond earlier this year backing the Blind Boys of Alabama, but given that this time he's backed by the Night Trippers, it's reasonable to expect some of his classic N'awlins swamp-rock-voodoo gumbo. John is followed at 5:30 by leading straight-ahead jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. Then at 7:15 it's Chick Corea, whose exemplary half-century acoustic and electric career stretches back to Miles Davis' pivotal recording "Bitches Brew." With a lineup like this, it's tempting to just stake out a comfortable spot in front of the Lovers stage until the sun goes down.
But that would mean missing one of the best female vocalists in jazz, Dee Dee Bridgewater at 3 p.m. on the Altria stage. And skipping the rest of the premier smooth jazz Altria stage lineup: the Sounds of Summer with Michael Butler and Elan Trotman and the Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown supergroup. It's all fun, funky and very well played. As Abraham Lincoln said, "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
The summer evening ends with a semi-cool blast from the last century with quintessential reggae band the Wailers, featuring one survivor of original lineup, and headlining former blue-eyed soul singer and Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald. S
The fourth annual Richmond Jazz Festival takes place Aug. 8 through 11 at Maymont. Tickets range from $20 to $110 for a weekend pass. For information, visit jazzatmaymont.com.