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Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 Highlighted Jazz’s many “Angles”

Written by on August 4, 2023

The festival, co-curated by Robert Glasper and Dave Chappelle offered three days of performances and experiences that played in the margins of jazz, and could singlehandedly serve as proof of concept for the newly-minted Alternative Jazz Grammy category.

Domi & JD Beck at Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa 2023 (courtesy Blue Note Jazz Festival)

It’s the last Sunday afternoon in July, 2023: Napa, California. Domi and JD Beck are on stage. The sun is blisteringly hot. JD asks the audience, “Who knows Wayne Shorter?” inspiring a tepid audience response. Domi, surprised by the lack of recognition exhibited towards the jazz icon chimes in, “This is a Blue Note festival!” Notably, the festival was organized by the Blue Note Entertainment Group (that runs the famed Blue Note Club in New York), not the famed record label (although both have important roles in the story of jazz).

If you’ve never seen Domi and JD Beck, they are young… precocious even, and that sort of on-stage bit definitely kills at a traditional Jazz Festival where the average audience member is an elder well steeped in the history of jazz. But this is not that.

Later on in their set they tried the bit again. JD ventured, “back on the name-dropping stuff… Who knows Herbie Hancock?”

This time the crowd reacted more knowingly. For much of his career, you could have called Herbie Hancock an Alternative Jazz artist, sonically speaking, due to his electronic experimentation, even as he maintained status as a household name. He also enjoyed multiple brushes with pop culture successes: think his voicebox-studded 1978 disco foray Sunlight, and the smash electro-jazz-breakbeat hit, “Rockit”, just for starters.

In fact, he might be one of the best examples of a historical proof of concept for the thread of music centered at the 3 day-long Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa.

Simply put, this is not your father’s Blue Note Jazz Festival. Well, maybe your father’s. But not your grandfather’s.

In June 2023, the Grammys unveiled a newly minted Alternative Jazz category, defined by the awarding academy as “a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres, including R&B, Hip-Hop, Classical, Contemporary Improvisation, Experimental, Pop, Rap, Electronic/Dance music, and/or Spoken Word. It may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres”.

Related: Meshell Ndegeocello: A Virgo’s Dreams Of Past, Present & Future

This festival encompasses the ethos of that category. The impact of jazz on a new generation keen to break out of the box of so-called-jazz music, and the generations that they look up to that consistently worked on the margins of jazz, while constantly nodding to the music (a’la Digable Planets and Madlib who both provided crowd rocking sets). Both Nas and Mary J. Blige both served as headliners, and though they are not generally considered jazz artists, their respective discographies are each deeply rooted in jazz samples, phrasing and sensibilities.

Mary J. Blige at Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa 2023 (courtesy Blue Note Jazz Festival)

I spoke with drummer/producer Kassa Overall, who took to the stage on Saturday afternoon, over the weekend, and he summed up his reaction to the festival’s curation thusly: “It’s like it’s Digable, then it’s Talib [Kweli], and then you got Rhapsody, and obviously you got Rob [Glasper] coming up, Yussef Dayes coming up. It’s all jazz connected… I guess that’s the beauty of quote-unquote-jazz is it has so many angles, right?”

When we discussed the impact of Digable Planets (who also hit the stage Saturday afternoon), I mentioned that though jazz had been sampled extensively by the time of the release of their 1992 debut “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”, their music put jazz in front, Kassa affirmed:

“Yeah, it was in the front. And it was the brand too. It was the brand. I grew up in a household where the living room was piano and drums and was born in the crib. And so, we were music kids. When we saw that on TV, we was like, ‘Oh, this is our time. We’re here now.’ My brother bought that CD and I bought Hip Hop Hooray. And that was our first CD purchases in life. That album formulated me a lot, man.”

Related: Kassa Overall on The Shifting of The Cool

Backstage on Saturday evening, I stood in a circle populated by Meshell Ndegeocello and Overall. Both were clad in all black, sporting wide legged slightly cropped pants.

Meshell complemented him on his pants.

The intentional intergenerational nature of the lineup carried over from last year’s inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa, as has the jazz-leaning, yet overall genre-agnostic programming ethos. Among others, Ari Lennox, Parliament Funkadelic featuring George Clinton, Talib Kweli and Madlib, PJ Morton, Smino, Rakim and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Cordae, and Gary Clark Jr. all took the stage over the course of the weekend.

The larger notion of Black music as a wide deep pool has been addressed by festival co-curator Robert Glasper since the festival’s inception last summer. He shared with Billboard that year that the festival “represents out-of-the-box things, influencers, trailblazers — people that don’t feel the need to succumb to normality of popular music. More and more of those kinds of people are popping up and finding the courage to be the artist that represents that.”

Robert Glasper at Blue Note Jazz Fest 2023, photo credit: Marc Fong

Yussef Dayes, who performed on Saturday afternoon a beautiful set rooted in material from his upcoming album Black Classical Music, and hails from Southeast London, offered perspective that reflected a Pan-African framework for understanding this music. He wore a lavender track suit with black and white cowrie shell print stripes. The outfit was of his own design, inspired by a formative trip to Senegal.

He shared with me on Saturday evening that “Spending time in Senegal 2015… I stayed with some Sabar drummers, and it was deep, man. It just opened me up to a new way of thinking about the drums, and they gave me a cowrie-shell chain. And since then, same with the Sabar drums I brought back from there is, [cowrie shells are] very special to me.”

After Domi and JD Beck, Rakim and DJ Jazzy Jeff hit the adjacent stage. Blue Note Napa is certainly a jazz festival, but hip hop’s legacy is an unspoken centering element as well, particularly the strain of hip hop with a backbone fashioned out of old loops culled from the Impulse, Blue Note and Prestige record labels. The second song on his set was “It’s Been a Long Time”, Rakim’s 1997 ‘comeback’ record, released post-Eric B., and I was zipped back in time. Midway through the set, Rakim asked Jeff if he “brought his whole bag of tricks”. Jeff affirmed.

“We about to go down memory lane,” Rakim called out.

Moments later Jeff dropped a classic sample of 1970s soul cut “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” by 24 Carat Black, followed by a great turntablist workout of “School Boy Crush” by Average White Band before rolling into the Eric B. and Rakim classic “Microphone Fiend” (a track that employs the AWB sample). It was magical.

By the time Anderson .Paak and Nxwledge hit the stage as NxWorries at 4pm on Sunday, the bubbling temperature had gone down slightly. The pair are in the midst of a tour, and Anderson greeted the crowd by saying they had “just touched down from Tokyo”. I saw NxWorries’s June 24 set at the Blue Note/BRIC show in Brooklyn, so I was curious how much the set had evolved since June. And honestly, how the West Coast centric sensibility of the duo would be received at home.

In Brooklyn, they played after dark. Their moody, sexy set did feel slightly out of place in the quasi-desert sun, but that said, the show was tight as a rubber band and the crowd loved every second of it.

The night included an epic cipher that saw Robert Glasper bring Talib Kweli, Rakim, Chanté Moore, Corey Henry, De La Soul’s Maseo, Terrace Martin, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Hannibal Burress and more on stage in a live orchestrated hip hop cypher, with the all star crew sharing classic hooks like we tend to share ghost stories around a camp fire. French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet contributed a blazing solo, repeating like a chant that he’d been waiting for a moment like this.

Vic Mensa at Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 (courtesy of Blue Note Jazz Festival)

The culminating set of the festival was delivered by Chicago’s own Chance The Rapper who gave a characteristically spiritual-and-energetic performance (backed by fellow Chicagoans including Nico Segal and Peter CottonTale), before singing the chorus of Mos Def’s 2000 hit “Umi Says”, and drawing special guest Mos up onto the stage in another magical intergenerational moment to remember, the sort that this festival proved to supply in spades.

Chance The Rapper at Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa 2023 (courtesy Blue Note Jazz Festival)

Written By Ayana Contreras