Saturday's Rhythm & Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival seemed like two separate and entirely unrelated events. The first one ran from 11 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Less than 1,000 people were on hand to hear a dozen local and regional acts. Attendance exploded immediately after the jazz and blues portion of the festival concluded.
"This is what I envisioned when I took the beating I did when I tried to get this area up and going again," Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II, said in his introduction of Kirk Whalum as he looked out at an audience of about 4,000 at 7: 40 p.m.
When I departed at 9:30 p.m., it looked as if 5,000 were on hand. The enormous VIP section in front of the main stage, painfully vacant all day, filled up during Whalum's set. Many of the fresh VIPs toted lawn chairs, leading me to speculate that the passes were being freely distributed at the gate.
Cleaver called Whalum "one of the greatest saxophonists to ever put a reed in his mouth." The Reverend and I will just have to agree to disagree about that assessment. The audience, however, didn't share my skepticism of Whalum's smooth gospel caterwauling. I may have been embarrassed when Whalum told the audience that he was the saxophone player on "I Will Always Love You" (yes, that's him at the 2:10 mark), but I was obviously in the minority. I also didn't appreciate that Whalum's set felt more like a Sunday morning than a Saturday night. He closed with "Falling In Love With Jesus". Thank heaven for Lalah Hathaway's appearance midway in Whalum's set. She doesn't try to be sexy. She just is.
Whalum's music may not be my thing, but an unlikely collaboration between Whalum and Nicholas Payton was the undeniable highlight of the festival. After momentarily riffing on "A Love Supreme," Whalum explained that he'd invited Payton to sit in on his set. Their rendition of "Giant Steps" was a symbolic triumph. While no sparks flew, the pairing epitomized what the festival organizers surely hoped to prove- that fans and musicians representing disparate styles can find common ground.
It's a nice thought, but very few people seemed to appreciate Payton's intriguing set. (Note the empty VIP seats as Payton performs, above.) Sounding like a fresh update of Miles Davis' "Ife" from the 1972 album On the Corner with a pinch of Fulfillingness' First Finale thrown in as a sweetener, it was real back to the future stuff. Yet most of the meager audience greeted the experimental sound with insolent chatter or expressions of disgust. I loved it. Only the intrusion of a traditional New Orleans swing number late in the set disappointed me. It felt like a jarring repudiation of everything that had preceded it. Save that misstep, Payton's application of impeccable bop chops to gauzy outside jazz made for the day's most interesting music.
I'd been looking forward to hearing Queen Bey. (In light green, above.) She recently returned to Kansas City and I hadn't heard her in years. I wasn't sure I'd get the chance Saturday- the long-winded introduction by Howard Hesseman seemed like it would never end. Her all-star band consisted of saxophonist Gerald Dunn, trombonist Jason Goudeau, guitarist Will Matthews, bassist James Ward, drummer Ryan Lee and pianist Otis Hays. I don't know that I'd ever heard the latter musician. His bluesy but elegant playing floored me. (He's just one of several musicians mentioned in this review without any online presence.) In spite of this stellar support, Bey confessed that her appearance was plagued by "technical difficulties." Maybe next time.
The set by the so-called "Elderstatesmen of Jazz" was also a letdown. The music played by vocalist Patricia Lyons-Cox (above), flugelist Ronnie Reed, saxophonist Michael Herrera, pianist Donald Cox, bassist Joe Straws and drummer Sam Johnson was fine, but the average age of the band was a youthful 55 or so. I'd been hoping for the likes of Ben Kynard and Sellie Truitt. I guess it's just a sign of the times.
Blues-bangers Trampled Under Foot did their thing from the main stage for a small but enthusiastic audience. (Above.)
The refined piano-and-bass duo of Michael Pagan and Steve Rigazzi sounded splendid in the high-ceilinged atrium of the museum complex. Horace Washington's quaint set also succeeded in the same space. (Above.) I liked the veteran's joke about changing the name of Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple" to "Grapes On the Vine." Others preferred the Wes Blackman Trio's lounge-friendly versions of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" and Anita Baker's "Rapture." The "B-3 Party" in the atrium, however, represented an audiophile's nightmare.
Back in the Blue Room, Heat Index preserved the fusion-funk of the mid-70s. A straight-ahead jazz band led by Nebraska-based trumpeter Darryl White featured beautiful contributions on vibraphone from Greg Carroll.
Blues veteran Millage Gilbert's take on "Kansas City" was the first rendition of the song I heard Saturday. Alas, it wouldn't be the last one. I call for a moratorium on the tired standard. I have a few other quibbles about Saturday:
*Why were festival goers forced to show their ticket and/or hand stamp as they moved between the three stages? Unnecessary and annoying, the pointless process created logjams.The latter two issues forced me to bail on the festival before seeing Sugarfoot's Ohio Players. While I hope festival organizers take this constructive criticism to heart, they're to be commended for successfully reviving Rhythm & Ribs after a one-year hiatus.
*Before the grounds filled for Whalum's set, the sound on the outdoor stage echoed off the back wall of the museum complex. The resulting reverb was awful.
*The decision to conclude the music on the two indoor stages at 6 p.m. was baffling. The odd oversight was made even worse by the horrid boogie recordings heard between live acts on the main stage. Would it have killed the sound man to play Jill Scott or Teddy Pendergrass?
*The food offerings (above) were a disappointment. I've sworn off one prominent restaurant after purchasing its inedible fare Saturday.
Rhythm & Ribs in 2011? I'm already there.
(Original images by Plastic Sax.)