Perhaps it's counterproductive to talk trash about a free music festival, but what happened to the 32nd annual Jazz'SAlive? For decades, the fall concert has been a bastion for jazz of all kinds, a family-friendly weekend to introduce the artform to a huge audience and showcase San Antonio's deep pool of talent.
But, after a strong 2014 outing — featuring Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Arturo Sandoval, Fania hall-of-famer Eddie Palmieri and New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton — Jazz'SAlive's 2015 roster feels a bit dead.
The culprit is smooth jazz. A swear word among purists and old-schoolers, smooth jazz severs much of the artistic heart from the genre. Like a drug cut with too much laxative, smooth jazz doesn't bring that creative, pupil-dilating kick like the pure stuff does, leaving only an upset stomach and a desire for a substance with a little more edge. Slow tempos, synth rhythms, garrulous saxes with too-clean tones — it's predictable music stuck between the fun and outlandishness of pop and the artistic drive of jazz.
Like all the petty squabbles of music writing, my opinion on smooth jazz and the Weather Channel-ass Rippingtons (whose cultural rot takes over on Saturday at 9:45 p.m.) is only an opinion. At a jazz festival, the smooth cousins are fine in moderation. But, like at a boozy family reunion, I only want to see these cousins in the afternoon so I don't piss off my parents.
I'm not asking for a star-studded, Newport lineup of yore. As members of the Greatest Generation, the post-war heroes of jazz are sadly, inevitably moving from the arts section to the obit page. But artists like Nicholas Payton (2014) and Jason Marsalis (2012) are great booking choices, challenging and interpreting the legacy of the masters.
As for headliners, 2013 seemed like a perfect compromise. A year before Travis Park got its $500,000 renovation, pianist Ramsey Lewis tore up the closing set of the festival. With a soul-jazz strut and the Grammy-winning single "In Crowd," artists like Lewis are sterling choices for a jazz festival that demands popular appeal.
For 2015, if you're looking for the good stuff, look no further than the Jefferson Street stage, the festival's stronghold of local music. The Jefferson Stage hosts pianist Aaron Prado, leading a sextet on his deft compositions on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. At 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, trumpeter Karlos Elizondo fronts the Powerhouse Big Band in its assault on the orchestra charts.
Free, 11:30am-11pm Sat., September 19, noon-10pm Sun., September 20, Travis Park, 301 E. Travis St., (210) 212-8423, saparksfoundation.org
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