Highlights from the 50th Concord Jazz Festival: A Legacy of Passion and Groove

Dave Koz and Friends perform at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

The Concord Jazz Festival, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary August 3 in Concord, California, is proof that, in the jazz world, ardent passions can lead to enduring legacies.

Founded in 1969 by Carl Jefferson, a local car dealer and devoted jazz record collector, the first Concord Jazz Festival took place in a city park. Humble origins, to be sure, but that didn’t stop nearly 17,000 people from turning up. Nor did it deter jazz celebrities such as Vince Guaraldi Don Ellis or Buddy Rich from filling the bill. In the years since, the festival has grown to become a premier summer destination for jazz artists and one of the most prominent forces in jazz on the West Coast. The label it helped launch — Concord Jazz — has drawn numerous jazz legends under its banner, including Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Bing Crosby and Marian McPartland. 

Audience members dance to the music at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

After a 15 year hiatus, the festival returned this summer with a renewed vigor and purpose, taking over the 12,500-seat Concord Pavilion for a day of concerts dedicated to highlighting the label’s brightest stars and most promising new talent. This year, those artists included vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, Latin jazz icon Poncho Sanchez, keyboard legend Chick Corea, bass wizard/jazz soothsayer Esperanza Spalding and contemporary sax phenom Dave Koz. 

The festival was the anchor of a month-long celebration of jazz in Concord, a city about 30 miles east of San Francisco that is rich in jazz history. That the Concord Jazz Festival itself has played a large part in that history was not lost on city officials, who decided to honor the fest and its legacy by declaring August 2019 the “Month of Jazz.” 

Today, Concord Music Group is one of the most ambitious labels in modern music, representing artists ranging from James Taylor to Kenny G and overseeing the catalogs of Stax Records, Fantasy Records, Prestige Records and other iconic musical archives. But it all started with one man’s vision for a festival 50 years ago. 

Here are the highlights from the latest edition:

Jazzmeia Horn

Jazzmeia Horn performs at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

Jazzmeia Horn’s voice is soft as silk yet strong as steel, recalling the distinctive timbre of Betty Carter. But the 28-year-old vocal phenom has a style all her own, and it was on full and powerful display at Concord. Appearing in a stunning turquoise-green headwrap, and with a dazzling Ankh pendant dangling off her wrist to match, she featured material from Love & Liberation, her upcoming disc from the label, due out on August 23. And while she made sure to cover a handful of classics (“Willow Weep for Me” was a particular highlight), it was her originals that received top billing. Horn is a skilled writer of both melody and lyrics, and her songs were clean and captivating, owing much to the socially-minded swing of Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln and Dinah Washington.

One notable example was “When I Say,” a stop-and-go swing number about Horn’s expectations for a romantic partner. It was a definitive bright spot, as much for its empowering lyrics as for its lithe sense of swing and musical athleticism. Like Carter, Horn is also a smooth and sophisticated improviser, with scatting chops on par with any top-tier instrumentalist. On “When I Say” and other tunes, including her uplifting original “Free Your Mind,” she unspooled ear-catching melodic improvised lines that goaded her band — with Keith Brown on Piano, Jeremy Clemons on drums, Ben Williams on bass and Irwin Hall on saxophone  — into an endorphin-elevating overdrive. 

Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band

Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band perform at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

Percussionist and vocalist Poncho Sanchez first signed to Concord Records in the early 1980s, on the recommendation of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He’s remained on the label ever since, releasing more than 30 albums as a leader. That makes Sanchez the longest-tenured Concord artist to date — his first performance at the Concord festival was in 1976 — and with a new album due out on the label on September 20, it’s clear the partnership is a fruitful one. Sanchez’s new album, Trane’s Delight,  is a tribute to John Coltrane, an artist that the Texas-born, California-based conguero became enamored with during his early years. “The first album I ever bought with my own money was Coltrane,” said Sanchez during a backstage interview. “There was a song on there called ‘Out of this World.’ At first, I didn’t know it was a standard. I thought Coltrane called it that because his playing was literally out of this world.” Sanchez did his idol justice by opening his set with the original “Trane’s Delight,” written by his musical director/trombonist, Francisco Torres, and following with percolating montuno version of “Blue Train,” from the saxophonist’s 1958 album of the same name. In both, the percussionist and his band managed to unearth hidden reservoirs of Caribbean groove from beneath Coltrane’s hard-swinging compositions.

On “Besame Mama” and other originals, Sanchez occasionally stepped away from the congas to sing and dance a gentle samba, encouraging the audience to follow in his footsteps. On “Salsa y Sabor,” which closed out the show, he took a cowbell solo that had the monotone percussion instrument engaged in a full-fledged conversation with the band. As it turned out, nearly four decades with Concord wasn’t the only thing the percussionist was commemorating that day. As his music director announced to the crowd, Sanchez was also celebrating 47 years of wedded bliss. Faithfulness, honesty and respect are central tenets of Sanchez’s artistic vision. Small wonder his music has brought so much joy for so long. 

The Count Basie Orchestra

Patti Austin with the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra performs at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

The Count Basie Orchestra lives on at Concord Records, where, under the direction of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, it has returned to form as one of the most popular big bands in jazz. Its previous album, 2018’s All About that Basie, was nominated for a Grammy award in 2019, and featured guest appearances by Stevie Wonder, Take 6, Joey DeFrancesco and Kurt Elling.

At Concord, the band spun through a parade of memorable hits, opening with “April in Paris” before turning toward a program celebrating Ella Fitzgerald, whose relationship with the Basie band was set in stone on such albums as One O’Clock Jump and Ella and Basie! To pay respects to the legendary vocalist, the Basie band invited several special guests to the stage, beginning with Patti Austin, who joined the group for “You’ll Have to Swing It.” Austin’s gentle inflection and cheeky delivery hewed close to Fitzgerald’s style, and throughout the set, she provided insight into Fitzgerald’s career. Before launching into her final song, she shared one memorable anecdote: “After each concert, Ella would get onto the band bus, where some of the musicians were engaging in not-so-legal activities,” she said. “It’s said that Ella used to put her coat over her head as a kind of ‘personal filtration system.’ Well, on one night, smoke may have penetrated through the coat, providing inspiration for this next tune.” She then launched into Fitzgerald’s surprisingly swinging version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

Midway through the set, Austin introduced vocalist Carmen Bradford, who was hired by Basie himself in 1982 and who has served on the vocal faculty at the nearby San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 2017. Her takes on “Daydream” and “Honeysuckle Rose” demonstrated clear command of the easy-swinging Basie style, combining ample musicianship with an unruffled, even-keeled attitude. The next and final vocalist to join the group was up-and-comer Jamison Ross, who first wowed the jazz world as a percussionist by winning the Thelonious Monk International Drum Competition in 2012. He appeared here on drums, beginning the tune “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” with a gentle Latin-funk shuffle. For his timekeeping alone, Ross could be a star, but as he opened his mouth to sing the first few words of his tune, it was clear from the audience’s reaction — heads literally snapped to attention — that he’s a vocalist of exceptional skill and authority. He closed out his portion of the show with a slow, rolling take on “Summertime” that featured an accompaniment of drums alone. 

The band, celebrating its 84th anniversary, is in high-demand, and as Barnhart explained from the stage, the group was departing at 6 a.m. the following morning for Europe. The Basie band has also been busy recording, and next month they will release an album recorded live at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. To close out the show, Barnhart and his crew previewed a track from that new album, offering a glimpse into the Basie band’s promising future.

Chick Corea and The Spanish Heart Band

Chick Corea and the Spanish Heart Band performs at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

Chick Corea’s new Concord release, Antidote, is a tribute to one of the pianist’s longest-running musical passions: flamenco. It was fitting, then, that Corea and his group — with Marcus Gilmore on drums, Steve Davis on trombone, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet and Carlitos Del Puerto on bass — flew in to Concord that morning from Spain. The Iberian sun still fresh on their skin, the group charged through a program of originals from the new album and hits from Corea’s past with a decidedly flamenco-esque emphasis on group interplay. “There are musical cues in flamenco music that musicians learn to pick up on after years of playing with each other,” said Corea in an interview backstage. Songs in Corea’s set extended into long exercises in musical conversation, beginning with the highly rhythmic opening number “Antidote” (which featured Corea showing off his vocal abilities) and ending with “Armando’s Rhumba,” a classic from Corea’s 1976 album My Spanish Heart, which marked an early chapter in the pianist’s ongoing exploration of Spanish music.

A riveting duologue between piano and bass was one of the set’s high-water marks, but far from the only one. One the final tune, as Corea’s bandmates soloed over the coolly modulating chord changes of “Armando’s Rhumba,” the keyboardist stood up from the piano bench to contribute to the groove via cowbell, banging out a clave rhythm with melodic flair.   

Esperanza Spalding 

Esperanza Spalding performs at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

The suis-generis bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding was one of the most anticipated sets of the night, and as she appeared with a pared-down ensemble of drums, saxophone and two background singers, she did not disappoint. (Nor did her choice of wardrobe: the entire band was decked out in closely coordinated jumpsuits, with Spalding’s emblazoned with the words “Life Force” across the chest.) The set began with a performance of material from Spalding’s weirdly beautiful new concept album 12 Little Spells. Released on Concord in October 2018, the album is a combination of poetry and song that takes its inspiration from various parts of the body (the Concord audience was lucky enough to be treated to “Thoracic Spine.”)

As otherworldly as Spalding’s music can be — sounding like the folk music of some far-off planet — it nonetheless never fails to connect with an audience, and at Concord, people were visibly captivated by Spalding’s vivid wordplay, lucid imagery and danceable — albeit unconventional — grooves. Pedaling back through time, she also performed material from her earlier collaborations with Herbie Hancock and from previous albums such as Exposure and Emily’s D+Evolution, both of which were released on Concord. For all of Spalding’s tongue-in-cheek onstage banter about developing telekinesis and other psychic abilities — delivered in varying levels of sarcasm — the music she created that night certainly connected with audiences, moving minds and bodies alike. 

Dave Koz & Friends: Summer Horns II

Gerald Albright, Dave Koz and Rick Braun at the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California on August 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Tuite)

Saxophonist Dave Koz’s latest album for Concord Records is Summer Horns II: From A to Z. The disc finds the contemporary jazz favorite returning to material from his first Summer Horns project, which explored the rich history of rock and pop horn sections (think Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Chicago and Kool & The Gang) through the lens of sleek smooth jazz. Much to the delight of the late-night Concord partygoers, Koz’s festival-capping performance drew from this fascinating period in pop-music history, highlighting classic horn-section songs such as KC & The Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way I Like It,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be,” the latter of which featured special guest Kenny Lattimore (famous for his 1997 smooth R&B hit “Four You”).

Recreating those iconic horn sections of decades past were Rick Braun on trumpet, Gerald Albright on saxophone and Aubrey Logan on trombone. The atmosphere was 100 percent festive, with Koz and crew bounding around the stage in swift, choreographed movements as the band time-traveled through a medley of hits including Hugh Masakela’s “Grazing in the Grass,” The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” and The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” By the time Koz and friends reached his final number, the crowd had gathered in the aisles and at the front of the stage to dance along with them.

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