Stage Hopping 

Listeners should walk to hear the best of the Richmond Jazz Festival.

click to enlarge Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

Last year’s crowd-pleasing mélange of artists at the Richmond Jazz Festival set an extremely high bar. The 2015 lineup equals it.

The festival has evolved during the past five years from a fledgling, predominantly smooth jazz event to a robustly scheduled, multigenre institution. There’s something for everyone, even jazz purists, on one of three stages. And the Maymont setting is one of the loveliest in Richmond, assuming anyone has time for a walk.

There are tough decisions to make in almost every time slot, exemplified by the closing headliners Sunday night. For the past couple of years those final spots were filled by blue-eyed soul singers Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. This year, on three stages, it’s a serious, simultaneous girl-power troika with Carmen Lundy, Natalie Cole and Lauryn Hill.

As for Saturday, the night climaxes with semi-competing sets from great straight-ahead jazz guitarist Pat Martino, popular jazz saxophonist David Sanborn and prototype boy band New Edition.

It’s a weekend overstuffed with music, not counting the Thursday opening acts: Curve Appeal at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and local soul powerhouse Sam Reed at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. As in previous years, local artists take the early slots, starting with the Lawrence Olds Band opening for Marcus Johnson at the Friday Hippodrome opener. The lunchtime crowds at the main event may be smaller, but there’s some heavyweight local talent, including great local pianist Debo Dabney, Virginia Commonwealth University trumpet phenom Victor Haskins, songstress Sam Reed (again) and, both opening and closing the venue, headlining singer Carmen Lundy.

Lundy’s set kicks off the serious jazz-focused lineup at the WestRock stage. T.S. Monk, son of the legendary Thelonious, is next. Then there’s avant saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who’s recently broken through with a sprawling, ambitious new CD, “The Epic.” Another recent breakthrough artist, singer Cecile McLorin Savant, leads into Pat Martino’s closing set.

Sunday starts with Dabney followed by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, amazing a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and then Joshua Redman’s all-star working group, James Farm, featuring VCU grad Nate Smith on drums. At the end, Lundy returns to the stage. That one stage is an estimable festival by itself. But settling down and staying there means missing a wealth of music on other stages.

For those with a sweet tooth, there’s a premier blend of smooth jazz. (“Serious” jazz may have the artistic cachet, but contemporary jazz brings in the crowds.) The respectable genre lineup includes crooner Will Downing, bassist Gerald Veasley, and summer festival all-star team-ups such as Jeff Lorber, Everette Harp and Chuck Loeb, or brothers Kirk and Kevin Whalum. There are worst ways to spend a weekend than floating on soft clouds of wind-chime tickled melodies.

The classic, charming New Orleans modern-traditional Rebirth Brass Band plays Saturday afternoon. So does the hardcore salsa group, Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

Mid-Sunday afternoon brings the conundrum of whether to catch Martino’s final set or head over to see what local Jellowstone heroes Butcher Brown are bringing to their festival debut. Afterward, there’s the rare opportunity to hear the Billy Holiday-tinged rasp of singer Macy Gray. Unless you’re willing to wander, you miss a lot of serious jazz music that isn’t on the serious jazz stage. And you miss Maymont.

The crowd is relaxed and friendly. The stages are close but sonically isolated in the rolling hills and hollows. There will be the usual assortment of food vendors, but a $5 fruit smoothie doesn’t seem a preposterous investment on a hot August day in a beautiful setting.

Topping it off is the re-emergence of former Fugee Lauryn Hill as champion and avatar of legendary singer, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Though she’s still battling legal problems regarding back taxes, Hill’s assured renditions of the late performer’s music were highlights of the soundtrack to the revelatory Netflix bio-documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Sometimes unpredictable in concert, Hill’s festival-ending appearance promises to be not only a performance, but also an event that may well leave the audience “Feeling Good,” another classic Simone song that Hill covers on the new tribute album, “Nina Revisited.” S

The Richmond Jazz Festival takes place Aug. 6-9. Thursday events at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Hardywood Park Craft Brewry are free. Tickets for Friday’s Homegrown at the Hipp at the Hippodrome on Second Street cost $30 in advance. Individual day tickets are available for Saturday and Sunday at Maymont for $85 each. A two-day pass is $160. Information at jazzatmaymont.com.



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