Maxwell performs at Blue Note Jazz Festival in St. Helena on Sunday, July 31, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez)
There are benefits to giant festivals like Coachella or Outside Lands, where you can see a year’s worth of performances in a single weekend. But there’s also something to be said for a more niche, curated experience.
The Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa Valley was certainly the latter. It may have been pricey, and the rural location quite a trek from the Bay Area’s urban centers. But if you’re really, really into jazz, soul and hip-hop—and are the type to nerd out about seeing the highest caliber of instrumentalists—this was an experience worth the splurge.
Over the July 29–31 weekend, Blue Note attracted a grown-and-sexy audience—mostly in their 30s, 40s, 50s and up, and significantly more diverse than Napa Valley's other festival, BottleRock—to a bucolic setting at the tree-lined Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena. Musical powerhouses with decades of hits, including Chaka Khan, Maxwell and Snoop Dogg, gave stellar performances.
The festival grounds were small, and the schedule was fairly sparse, making it possible to meander—rather than book it—from stage to stage. The no-phone policy at the main stage (audience members had to seal them inside locked Yondr pouches) created an in-the-moment atmosphere where you could be present. Still, there were a few hitches. During busy times, the few food vendors created long lines, and crowds entering the main stage often bottlenecked around a bar area. And the late addition of the Friday lineup frustrated some festival-goers who’d already spent money on travel and accommodations to attend Saturday and Sunday.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere at Blue Note was noticeably laid back, and the musicians seemed more relaxed too, popping up in surprise cameos during each other’s sets, riffing with each other in endearing displays of mutual admiration. Here are the highlights.—Nastia Voynovskaya
Chaka Khan’s High-Energy Hits Leave No Question She’s the Queen
Whether or not you grew up listening to Chaka Khan, her songs are a part of you, lodged in your subconscious and ready to awaken with the words “I’m Every Woman.” The queen of funk has perpetually reinvented herself since stepping out with her band Rufus in the early ’70s, and her tight, energetic set at Blue Note was packed with genre-defining hits of disco and R&B, inviting everyone to sing along.
Looking regal with her hip-length red hair and belly dancer skirt, Khan drew listeners in with her bubbly on-stage presence. And when she sang—phew. There’s a reason why she’s the blueprint for all the divas who’ve come after her. During hits like “Tell Me Something Good” and “Sweet Thing,” her band two-stepped in formation. Her guitarist was on fire; the three backing vocalists were powerhouses in their own rights; the percussionist wore a huge grin while keeping the party going. During “I Feel For You,” the hit that jumpstarted her ’80s revival, Kamasi Washington took the stage for a saxophone solo—the cherry on top of a truly excellent set.—N.V.
Snoop Dogg Grooves with a Jazz Band
The fantasy of a 17th-century French salon, where the most fascinating people came together to exchange ideas, came to life during Robert Glasper’s Dinner Party performances. On each night of Blue Note, as Napa wine flowed and Mendo weed smoke filled the air, the multi-hyphenate jazz pianist and producer invited his many collaborators to join him for free-spirited jam sessions.
Friday night’s Dinner Party began with a Herbie Hancock tribute, with Terrace Martin on keys and Kamasi Washington on tenor saxophone. Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli showed up to freestyle ahead of their Saturday Black Star performance; Dave Chappelle and Katt Williams joked around and passed joints. But the main event was Snoop Dogg, who arrived jovial (and high) as ever. Chappelle, who thankfully stayed away from discussing trans issues and other topics that have alienated LGBTQ+ audiences, called him a “miracle of culture” for his transition from genuine gangster to all-American, family friendly favorite. And Snoop’s jazzified rhymes underscored his incredible versatility and enormous impact.
Blue Note found him in top form as he performed “Next Episode,” “Gin and Juice” and “Beautiful,” bringing together his hardcore rap, G-funk and pop eras; the improvisatory jazz format allowed him to play around with the instrumentalists and break out of the typical Snoop Dogg live set. He looked like he was having a blast: “Look at all these people out here—different colors, shapes, sizes, ethnicities. No one judging each other,” he said. “This is the kind of shit I like being a part of. This shit is fly.” Us too, Snoop. Us too.—N.V.
Soul Rebels, GZA and Talib Kweli Play a Rare Intimate Set
Near the festival entrance, next to the people taking group photos and filling their water bottles, stood the small, two-foot-high Blue Note Stage. This intimate corner of the festival yielded some rare moments, like the opportunity to watch the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA perform “Duel of the Iron Mic” and “Liquid Swords” from just six feet away on Saturday. Backed by eight-piece New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels, GZA’s brooding rhymes took on a bouncier flavor, inspiring a giant dance party on the lawn.
Talib Kweli joined the stage for brass-band versions of “The Blast,” “I Try” and “Get By,” and then he and GZA paid tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard with an impromptu cover of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” that had the crowd rapturously singing along.
“It don’t get any greater than this,” GZA announced, gazing out at the mountains and trees with a wide smile. “This is some peaceful shit, right here.”—Gabe Meline
Thundercat Leaves Jaws on the Floor
A winery festival is a tough place for someone who’s quit drinking. “I used to be a raging alcoholic,” Thundercat told the crowd at one point, explaining with a chuckle that he’s now three years sober, “as we sit here, surrounded by Napa Valley wine.”
The quip led into “I Love Louis Cole,” a song about the morning’s hazy recollection of the night before, which itself led into one of many jaw-dropping six-string bass solos by the 37-year-old virtuoso. Backed by a drummer and a keyboardist, Thundercat put on a master class of technique, skill and speed; if any budding young bassists were in the crowd, they surely returned home with a newfound dedication to practice.
Dressed in a black kilt with a fur sporran, his yellow dreads held back by a Gucci hair clip, Thundercat alternated between wry jokes and personal obituaries for close associates like pianist Chick Corea, music educator Reggie Andrews and promoter Meghan Stabile. It’s been a rough time for a lot of us, he said. With another joke about looking forward to the day he won’t have to play “Them Changes” at every show, he obligingly closed his set with it, and within minutes the past two years of COVID and loss slipped further into the rear view.—G.M.
Black Star Give the People What They Want
An entire generation grew up with Black Star’s 1998 debut album, and in a nighttime set of songs like “Astonomy (8th Light),” “Definition” and “Brown Skin Lady,” Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli gave the people what they came for. Newer songs and solo tracks like “Umi Says” rounded out the curfew-breaking set. A Bay Area bonus? Their DJ was none other than Big Von, from KMEL.—G.M.
Robert Glasper Convenes an All-Star Saturday Night Dinner Party
At one point during Saturday night’s anything-goes jam session—sometime after Dave Chappelle rapped a verse of the J. Dilla / Slum Village song “The Look of Love”—I tried to count all the luminaries on stage. I got as far as Robert Glasper, BJ the Chicago Kid, Chappelle, Katt Williams, James Poyser, Terrace Martin, J. Ivy, Christian Scott, Thundercat, Derrick Hodge, Isaiah Sharkey, Keyon Harrold and D Smoke when I noticed that Madlib, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli were watching from the wings. (Sadly, Erykah Badu had to cancel her appearance due to COVID exposure.)
In other words, this truly was an all-star jam.
Chappelle requested a hard bop song to kick things off. A Christian Scott-led “What Is This Thing Called Love” followed, the first of many classics both new and old. Glasper played and sang Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” which led into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which led into Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
And so it went, the song choices aided by string theory: Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” Common’s “The Light,” Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love.” After James Poyser joined on keyboards, someone called for a D’Angelo song, and what followed was the evening’s highlight: a 12-minute version of “Untitled (How Does it Feel),” alternately sung by Chappelle, BJ the Chicago Kid, and the entire 5,000-strong crowd.
Glasper, the curator of the festival, red cup in hand, was clearly pleased with the proceedings. “This is history!” he declared. “All this talent on stage! History in the making!”—G.M.
Chief Adjuah Reminds Us Jazz is Spiritual
After gracing Robert Glasper’s Dinner Parties with iridescent trumpet solos on Friday and Saturday, Christian Scott, a.k.a. Chief Adjuah, wowed during his own set on the smaller Blue Note stage on Sunday afternoon. His all-star band—which included Bay Area sibling virtuosos Elena Pinderhughes on flute and Samora Pinderhughes on keys—coalesced with an entrancing synergy, coming together in propulsive grooves but also making room for each instrumentalist to dazzle us with their magic.
As the musical journey unfolded, Scott proved to be a sage storyteller. Between songs, he regaled us with tales of this musical tradition traveling from West Africa to the Mississippi Delta and his hometown of New Orleans. Scott is deeply embedded in this lineage: His grandfather, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., was a New Orleans Black Indian leader and community activist who fed the hungry; his uncle, Donald Harrison Jr., is a famed jazz saxophonist who continued the tradition and passed it down to Scott. Scott’s heartfelt performance as Chief Adjuah reminded us that jazz is bigger than the music—it’s truly spiritual.—N.V.
Maxwell Brings on the Romance
Maxwell knows countless children have been conceived to his R&B slow jams, which is why he dedicated his Sunday night headlining set to the ladies and the couples in the audience. Dressed in sequins that would make a disco ball jealous, Maxwell was earnest, inviting and also pretty funny. He seemed to cultivate a genuine heart connection with his audience, who swayed and belted along to “Pretty Wings” and “Stop the World” as Blue Note Napa Valley came to a sweet close.—N.V.
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