Hosted from Friday, July 29th through Sunday the 31st at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, CA, the inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley was nothing short of a groundbreaking event—an outdoor, multi-day, multi-stage extravaganza featuring virtuosos of the avant-garde, gold-standard, and pioneering varieties. Musicians from all over the world coalesced family reunion style, forming a joyous congregation that welcomed many of the finest in contemporary jazz, R&B, soul, and hip-hop, along with eclectic, tastemaker DJs/producers too.
This unprecedented assembly of heyday heroes, modern-day maestros, and future phenoms set about cross-pollinating geography, genre, and generation in a mellifluous blend that certainly satiated the masses at the festival’s grandiose opening year. A chill vibe was pervasive at Blue Note, as musicians seemed to swiftly make themselves comfortable, mixing in with the gen pop while their peers lit up the stages. A series of scorching unannounced sit-ins manifested repeated displays of mutual admiration. The turnout was strong and quite diverse, and the event seemed to draw a sizable swath of their target demographics.
The Blue Note Jazz Festival has been a major cog in New York City’s summer concert itinerary for over a decade, hosted in June across an assortment of venues. Inspired by the well established East Coast gathering, Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley was the first fest of its kind, delivering top-tier purveyors of Black American music to the picturesque environs of NorCal wine country. Initially planned as a weekend affair, the event producers added Friday due to popular demand, spilling into three thrilling days and disco nights.
The intention of the West Coast iteration stems from the inaugural artist-in-residence, decorated jazz pianist Robert Glasper. The whole festival concept was based on his vision, multi-faceted artistry, myriad musical collaborators, and unwavering inspiration. In addition to an all-star band, Glasper recruited his friend, comedian Dave Chappelle, to host the main Black Radio stage, offering wine- and ganja-fueled comic relief and banter between songs, sets, and changeovers. Chappelle also hosted an exclusive after-show where he taped an episode of his Midnight Miracle Podcast featuring yasiin bey and Talib Kweli. A Saturday night afterparty featured DJ sets from Jazzy Jeff and Kweli.
Glasper captained three nights of lengthy “superjams” that were infused with a who’s who of musical badasses, fronted by an eclectic array of artists like Snoop Dogg, Ledisi, D Smoke, Terrace Martin, and BJ the Chicago Kid. Sadly, Erykah Badu canceled due to Covid-19, but other standout main stage performances included Chaka Khan, Black Star, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Maxwell, Chris Dave & Drumhedz, and Flying Lotus, among others.
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The layout at the Charles Krug Winery was intimate, comparatively speaking, with three stages situated fairly close to one another. The schedule was set up so attendees could catch most of just about any set without having to sacrifice too much time at another. This worked well when the stages stayed on schedule, but when they didn’t, there were some difficult unexpected overlaps.
The festival instituted a no phone policy at the Black Radio stage, so fans had to seal them inside locked Yondr pouches. This made for much more of a Be Here Now energy. No one was waving phone screens at artists; instead they were beaming smiles and singing along. It seemed in the beginning this phone rule might be kind of a drag, but the system they implemented worked rather swimmingly, and the desired effect was achieved.
It being the event’s inaugural run, there were a few snafus and disappointments that hopefully will be addressed moving forward. First and foremost, all of the refreshment options were prohibitively expensive, food and drink. Sure, this is Napa Valley, but there needs to be a few more affordable options for those who are not quite as well-heeled as the locals.
There were far too few food vendors on site for the volume of festival-goers, creating seemingly endless lines that stretched into snarling traffic jams by the muralists. The regulations did not allow outside food; much time was wasted standing around trying to get fed, when one could/should have been enjoying the incredible music. Hopefully they revisit this policy moving forward. In addition, there were not enough clearly marked water stations for how many people were dancing in the stifling heat.
To the festival’s credit, there was a small “Garden Stage” located nearby the food stands featuring the likes of Marcus Strickland and Butcher Brown playing short sets throughout the afternoons. People could still take in some grooves while they baked in the sun waiting for a meal, a sweet silver lining to the clustergrub situation, for sure.
At the Black Radio stage, after pouching their phones upon entry, fans ran into issues with egress, as people entering/exiting the cramped GA area got bottlenecked by a large island bar. In addition, I heard numerous complaints about the lackluster VIP seating, the lack of clear walkways, and obstructed views, but nothing that cannot be remedied for next year.
Despite some logistical and infrastructural growing pains, the first-year fest delivered a phenomenal dose of first class musicianship and performances across the 30-plus hours of onstage programming. With a ton of music on offer, our wine glasses virtually runneth over. Here are some colorful reflections from each day at the inaugural Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa Valley.
Chaka Khan With Kamasi Washington – “I Feel For You” – Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa Valley – 7/29/22
Commandeering the stage with a royal flair that so very few wield, the legendary songstress Chaka Khan wowed the crowd on Friday night on the Black Radio stage. With a super tight band behind her lead by all-world guitarist Robert Bacon, Chaka left no doubt as to whether or not she’s still got it, hitting all the notes, shakin’ that thang, and reminding everyone in attendance just how a diva is supposed to move and groove. Highlights included nods to her OG band Rufus with powerful readings of timeless hits like “Sweet Thing” and “Tell Me Something Good”. The buoyant, empowering anthem “I’m Every Woman” had the entire crowd elated in a throaty singalong. Maybe the peak moment of Chaka Khan’s fantastic performance arrived late in the set: a surprise sit-in from saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who took a prismatic solo on her ’80s breakdance jam “I Feel For You”. A sizzlin’ encore of “Ain’t Nobody” with more superb axework from Mr. Bacon was the perfect cherry on top of a triumphant return for Ms. Chaka Khan.
Taking over the smaller Blue Note Napa stage early Friday afternoon, and the huge Black Radio stage on Saturday even earlier, were once-in-a-generation fusion-jazz wunderkinds DOMi & JD Beck. The 22-year old DOMi is a burgeoning star on keyboards. She radiated elegance in a Tony the Tiger dress while snapping synapses with her Fender Rhodes sorcery. Beck, the junior at merely 19, is an inhuman drumming prodigy who looks barely out of middle school, channeling the likes of Deantoni Parks and Jojo Mayer with a dash of his own post-millennial pizzaz.
DOMi & JD Beck – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/29/22
Numerous jam sessions and official collaborations with Anderson .Paak (they are signed to his Blue Note label imprint Apeshit) certainly helped put this dynamic duo on the map. (In fact, .Paak was initially booked to perform at the festival but pulled out shortly thereafter.) Somewhat of an anomaly on the schedule, DOMi & JD Beck made a gang of new fans across their two sets by revealing a few tracks from their recently released full-length LP NOT TiGHT and quite a bit more. The sets were chock full of breakneck jungle jams, intergalactic cyborg improv, and mind-boggling math-jazz galore, with nods to Wayne Shorter and Kurt Rosenwinkle. The prolific pair saw fit to unveil their wildly popular Madvillain medley, much to the delight of the many Madlib fans awaiting a rare DJ set from Mr. Jackson next up on the very same stage.
Madlib indeed took over the decks just a few minutes later, clad in an appropriately decorative shirt with wine glasses emblazoned all over. Otis Jackson Jr. is a world-class connoisseur of myriad musical genres, and his selectah’s touch took a sizable crowd on one helluva ride at the Blue Note stage. He began with some nuggets mined from the legendary Blue Note vaults. Madlib didn’t do a whole lot of turntable tricks or very many blends; he just cued up and dropped a bevy of bangers he knew we needed to hear at that very moment. There were the embryonic cells from Jeru the Damaja’s Brooklyn anthem “Come Clean” (Shelly Manne’s “Infinity”) in between blissed out Brazilian joints, a diamond in the rough from Hus Kingpin, some Madvillian, Latin and afrobeat dance party jams, and tributes to dearly departed emcees Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mac Miller. After a jubilant power hour, Madlib took the time to connect with every last fan who sought to make his acquaintance after the set.
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Back to back on the Black Radio Stage on Friday afternoon were Chris Dave & Drumhedz followed by the great Kamasi Washington. Dave assembled an absolutely ridiculous band that included guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, DJ Jahi Sundance, bassist Derrick Hodge, and keyboardist Daniel Crawford, along with guest vocals from Owen Benjamin and STOUT throughout. The man they call “Daddy” led his Drumhedz through a thorough a journey from afrobeat to hip-hop to neo soul and beyond. Highlights included a really dope segment with Amber Navran of Moonchild that began as chaunteuse lounge jazz before finding its way into KRS One’s classic “Step Into A World”. A lengthy romp through the groove from Slum Village’s “Conant Gardens” was blessed with an assist from Kamasi Washington.
Speaking of, Kamasi Washington soared on the Black Radio stage next, offering his “Truth” with a profound lesson in five harmonies. Kamasi unveiled a psychedelic, meditative, outer-spacial excursion as is his custom, maybe slightly hamstrung by the limits of a one-hour set. Keyboardist Brandon Coleman and upright bassist Miles Mosely frequently shared the spotlight with the bandleader, as these musicians have deep roots in the fertile soil of Los Angeles free jazz/indie electronic/underground hip-hop communities. “Fists of Fury” was another gem from Kamasi and company, delivering kaleidoscopic sound waves, melodies, and textures into a mystic brew that did well to sooth the midday sunbeams.
Chris Dave & The Drumhedz With Kamasi Washington – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/29/22
Artist-in-residence Robert Glasper hosted lengthy concerts for three consecutive nights, each hosted by comic Dave Chappelle. Robert affectionately dubbed Napa Valley “Nappy Valley” on the very first night, and the cheeky nickname pretty much stuck for the entire weekend. Glasper welcomed back members of his long-dormant Robert Glasper Experiment Chris Dave (drums) and Derrick Hodge (bass) and combined with Terrace Martin (keys, sax), Kamasi Washington (sax), and DJ Jahi Sundance to represent Glasper’s more recent superband, Dinner Party. For each set, Glasper invited singers, emcees, and instrumentalists to the stage, even bringing out idiosyncratic comedian Katt Williams at one point for reasons still unclear.
Joking with Chappelle, Glasper directed the crew through segments of Rakim and Junior Mafia classics before Dave and Martin drove the squad into Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”. Friday night was lit up by a surprise cameo from yasiin bey (f.k.a. Mos Def, of Black Star, who would headline on Saturday night). Bey took the stage and rocked the mic with vigor, spittin’ rhymes over the groove from Madvillain’s “Meatgrinder” while Xian “Chief Adjuah” Scott played his Adjuah horn (a reverse flugelhorn crafted by his own hand) atop Kendrick Lamar‘s “How Much A Dollar Cost”.
The rest of the set belonged to Snoop Dogg, who enjoyed himself with Glapser, Chappelle, and the Nappy Valley gangsta clique, smokin’ copious trees and making some jokes of his own. The Doggfather dove into his bag of hits with an all-star squad that featured—in Martin and Washington—a couple former members of his Snoopadelics band. Highlights included “Next Episode”, “Nothin’ But a G Thing”, “Gin and Juice”, “B**** Please”, “Beautiful”, and “What’s My Name?”, among other hilarious detours.
Snoop Dogg With Dave Chappelle – “Lodi Dodi” – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/29/22
Chappelle and Snoop could be found duetting on Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” and Isley Brothers‘ “Between the Sheets”, which gave way to a rousing “Big Poppa” by the Notorious B.I.G. There was a touching tribute to the late Nate Dogg and an awesome throwback to Snoop and Tupac Shakur’s 1996 classic “2 of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”. Snoop also shouted out local legend Shock G of Bay Area alternative hip-hop pioneers Digital Underground, who passed away last year, which further endeared him to the locals. My personal fave from the S-N-double-O-P was the Slick Rick rework “Lodi Dodi”; the band flipped it with Grover Washington Jr.‘s seminal funk workout “Mister Magic”, and then they broke it down the Long Beach way. The G-funk emcee could be heard remarking on a hot mic “I like this jazzy sh*t.” We do too, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and we love you.
In between the Blue Note and Black Radio stages was the cozy, shady, super mellow confines of the Garden Stage. Each day, this low-key hang offered three truncated sets for those passing through, getting fed, or seeking refuge from the sunshine. On Friday, Marcus Strickland Twi-Life was assisted by the great drummer Charles Haynes.
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Saturday and Sunday saw no less than six sets—with no repeated songs—from Richmond, VA bullies Butcher Brown. The quintet dropped smokin’ cuts from albums like #KingButch and Camden Sessions, as well as a few tracks from keyboardist DJ Harrison’s latest Stones Throw solo joint Tales From the Old Dominion. Madlib, The Roots‘ James Poyser, and actor Anthony Anderson could each be spotted enjoying these seasoned sons of the James River throughout their weekend residency at the Garden Stage.
The second festival day began with a sweet early set from one of the most talented guitarists on planet earth, Isaiah Sharkey. The Chicago-based phenom can be heard supporting the likes of John Mayer, D’Angelo, Cory Henry, and too many others to count. On this afternoon, he would lead his own band through gospel-infused jazzy-soul, indie-rock, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Earth, Wind & Fire, and more. Personal faves were interpolations of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. Vanguard bandmate and bold-font instrumentalist in his own right, trumpeter Keyon Harrold followed Sharkey on the Blue Note stage with a luminous hour of R&B-tinged jazz and love songs.
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Old homies and longtime L.A. co-conspirators Thundercat and Flying Lotus delivered back-to-back sets on the Black Radio stage that could be considered outliers juxtaposed with much of the other music presented over the weekend. Cat’s 60-minute set was particularly notable for his peerless six string wizardry, impeccable style, and unicorn steez. A vulnerable telling of the story behind “I Love Louis Cole” saw the bassist revisit the hard-partying night that inspired the tune, with acknowledgement of the irony that he is now three years sober from alcohol while performing at a winery.
In between bulbous bass work and versicolor tracks like “Dragonball Durag”, Thundercat acknowledged some seismic losses over the past couple of years. Namely, the celebrated jazz pianist Chick Corea, music educator Reggie Andrews, and dear friend Meghan Stabile, the latter an inspired force behind the scenes in contemporary jazz, who passed suddenly a few months ago. Stabile’s spirit loomed large throughout the weekend, as she touched a lot of lives both on stage and off. Thundercat’s obligatory “Them Changes”, something of a hit song for the multi-hued bandleader, closed out his performance with sheepish flair.
Shortly thereafter, Flying Lotus followed Thundercat on the big stage with somewhat of a curveball, detonating a relentless, pulsating four-on-the-floor housequake that throbbed with bubonic low end frequencies. FlyLo offered a welcome diversion from the gluttonous instrumental virtuosity on display all day and night, all the while getting scores of asses shaking properly while the sun laid a beatdown on anyone left neglected or unprotected.
Another phenomenal Saturday set belonged to New Orleans brass band Soul Rebels, no strangers to the hip-hop side of things. These Crescent City boys brought some hometown sizzle and sauce to the NorCal party, beginning with a pair of original numbers to warm up. The group hit ‘em with a panty-dropper in Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call”, and then the Nas/Lauryn Hill 1996 collab “If I Ruled the World”, before calling out Talib Kweli for some Big Easy by way of Brooklyn. A dope version of “The Blast”, an uptempo ride on “I Try” got the crowd appropriately amped before Talib passed the mic to a certified Staten Island assassin.
GZA With Soul Rebels – “Liquid Swords” – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/31/22
Wu-Tang elder statesman/chessmaster GZA grabbed the chrome microphone and stepped on stage into one of the biggest pops of the weekend. The Genius passed out a quick round of dap to the Soul Rebels before kicking a couple verses from the sinister “Duel of the Iron Mic” to the delight of the assembled Wu minions. Then came the iconic “Liquid Swords” from his 1995 solo album of the same name, which saw countless fans (including your humble narrator) making frenzied rap hands at the veteran emcee. Amid clouds of smoke and natural blends of weed, Kweli returned to join GZA in a heartfelt, raucous tribute to his late cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The duo linked with the Rebels to perform Dirt McGirt’s classic single “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, complete with the Genius’s uncanny second verse imitation of “the one and only Ason.”
Saturday night’s Glasper set was a bit more aimless than Friday or Sunday, partly due to no Erykah Badu, but mostly because of the imbibed ramblings of Chappelle and Glasper. We were, after all, spending long hours at a winery, in a rec-legal state for cannabis to boot, so there was a bit more silliness and garbage time for night two. Yet it wasn’t without numerous high-water moments as well. There were songs from Glasper’s critically acclaimed Black Radio records. A whirlwind segment traversed Robert’s interpretations of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, ultimately landing in Bob James‘ “Nautilus”. Vocalist STOUT scatted along with panache, and Sundance took that as a cue to lace up Ghostface Killah’s “Daytona 500”, which reconfigures the neck-snapping “Nautilus” groove. Eventually, they hit on Phil Collins‘ “In the Air”, complete with Ol’ Dirty Bastard quotes. Yep, it was that kinda party.
Between Glasper’s drunk freestyles and Katt and Dave’s antics came an appearance by Robert’s “mentor” James Poyser, keyboardist/producer of The Roots and Soulquarians fame. He hung around on Glasper’s multi-keyboard rig for the rest of the set. Thundercat, who performed earlier in the day, joined Derrick Hodge to have two world class bassists just a few feet apart, coalescing together in a tasteful bass duel. We were treated to a similar empyrean connection between trumpet maestro Keyon Harrold and the aforementioned Chief Adjuah. Spoken word poet/emcee J. Ivy delivered by far and away the most emotional part of the night with an emphatic reading of his fiery verse from “Never Let Me Down” that saw numerous folks well up and shed tears.
Vocalist BJ the Chicago Kid showed up and showed out, hitting on some Al Green before Chappelle asked the band for a little D’Angelo. Dave told a pretty funny story about the reclusive “R&B Jesus” from when they were neighbors in NYC two decades ago. Between Chris Dave, Keyon Harrold, and Isaiah Sharkey on guitar, there were multiple members of The Vanguard already in the cut. What transpired was a spirited audience belt-along to D’s biggest hit, “Untitled (How Does it Feel?)”, fronted by BJ the Chicago Kid. Hopefully, wherever he may be these days, Mr. Archer heard us praise his name from the foothills of NorCal. If D was still curious about how we were feeling, Glasper took us home by way of Dilla’s “Look of Love”, making our collective emotions crystal clear. Next year in Nappy Valley, D’Angelo!
Some fans, clearly fatigued from a day spent guzzling wine in the hot sun, likely compounded by Glasper’s disorganized, rambling set sans Badu, departed during the lengthy changeover before headliners Black Star. The dynamic hip-hop duo from Brooklyn rarely performs, but Talib Kweli and yasiin bey recently returned with their first album in 24 years, No Fear Of Time. Their debut LP, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, is a certified underground hip-hop classic that remains vital to most any head’s collection.
Black Star – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/30/22
The group finally stormed the stage at a quarter after nine, roughly 30 minutes later than billed. Any concerns whether or not this performance would take flight were immediately deaded once bey and Kweli began. With San Francisco’s KMEL DJ Big Von on the decks, the gifted pair of BK emcees uncorked a blistering set of Black Star classics and beloved solo joints. New cuts from No Fear of Time retained the focus and ferocity the duo is known for. From “Definition”, “Redefinition”, and “Astronomy (8th Light)”, many faves were delivered with a vibrant purpose not always present for their sporadic reunion concerts. There was a poignant nod to the late Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit”, the inspirational proto-rap poet providing the sample source for the hip-hop lover’s rock of “Brown Skin Lady”.
Kweli rappity-rapped like the good old days on his hit “Get By”, with Mos flexing on the remix to howls from heads in the know. The universal magnetic with flows that’s athletic, bey in particular was nothing short of amazing. The man they used to call the mighty Mos Def remains downright mesmerizing, whether he was spittin’ verses from his own “Fear Not of Man”, “Umi Says” or unleashing the uptempo dance jam “Casa Bey” off of 2006’s criminally underrated LP The Ecstatic. Also from that record, “Auditorium”—produced by Madlib—got dropped in all its cryptic, haunting glory. bey dapped up the venerable Beat Konducta who was sipping wine sidestage whilst taking in the lifted proceedings.
yasiin bey was just a revelation all weekend long—the superstar Nubian boogieman returning to center stage to both defy the odds and light up the sky. With the bass riding out like an ancient mating call deep into the Napa night, the set was already running well over curfew, yet Black Star came back for a brief, explosive encore. Of course, it was “Respiration”, the duo’s finest hour, saving the best for last. The set concluded with bey losing himself in a celebratory pirouette to the amaranthine Portuguese record Tudo Que Você Podia Ser by Milton Nascimento. Poetry in motion, with styles still fresh like baby’s breath.
Sunday was the most mellow of the three, and there were less urgent, lazy afternoon vibes to the festivities. The music began with French harmonica wiz Frédéric Yonnet, featuring Badu musical director Frank Moka on drums and the sturdy Mike Turner on bass. Yonnet’s voluminous talents and humble stage presence set the carefree tone for the final day of the festival, and he was on the receiving end of a sit-in from none other than Dave Chappelle, on a hilariously stilted rendition of Prince’s “1999”.
Derrick Hodge followed Yonnet with a transcendent hour that saw the virtuosic bassist lead an all-star troupe that included Chris Dave, DJ Jahi Sundance, Isaiah Sharkey, and Mike Aaberg on keys. It being the Lord’s Day, Hodge squared off with Sharkey for some funky Gospel duet blues. On the track “Color of Noize”, Hodge switched over to keys for a cinematic, emotional original that welcomed djembefola Weedie Braimah into the fold. This patient number was a luminescent journey that tugged at the heartstrings and featured the first-ever Dave/Braimah connection. Both men sworn to the drum, their cosmic convergence was a glorious exchange.
Derrick Hodge With Weedie Braimah – ” Color of Noize” – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/31/22
Xian Scott a.k.a. Chief Adjuah was positively inspirational during his set on the Blue Note stage late Sunday afternoon after blessing up two Glasper superjams earlier in the weekend. The Crescent City-bred prodigy turned Indian Chief (he is the grandson of the late Donald Harrison Sr, and the nephew of Donald Harrison Jr, themselves both renowned Big Chiefs for decades) enraptured a sea of stunned fans with his handmade Adjuah horns. He sang ancestral rallying cries and revealed his latest creation, the Adjuah Bow, a custom kamele n’goni gravi-hybrid. Chief Adjuah held every jazz fester’s gaze and wonder in the palm of his hands as he spun illuminating yarns of miles traveled, life lessons learned, and loyal friends made along the way. In his multicultural band, Chief featured Bay Area siblings Elena (flute) and Samora Pinderhughes (keyboards), and welcomed NOLA-based Ghanian djembefola Weedie Braimah, among other world-class instrumentalists. The group combined in divine symbiosis to interpret Scott’s original compositions including “Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning”, “West of the West” (which featured Frédéric Yonnet and Marcus Strickland), “Diaspora”, and captivating closer “The Last Chieftain”.
Chief Adjuah (F.K.A. Christian Scott) – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley – 7/31/22
A delay early in the day on the Black Radio stage set the programming back a bit, so I found myself mostly at the smaller Blue Note stage for the majority of Sunday afternoon. This caused me to miss out on main stage sets from the likes of D Smoke, Emily King, and Corrine Bailey Rae, who performed consecutively against Hodge, Chief Adjuah, and Th1Rt3EN, the latest endeavor from Pharoahe Monch.
Th1Rt3EN was yet another outlier, delivering pulverizing heavy metal mixed with horror-core rap, spiced with a gothic aesthetic and charismatic intellect. The brainchild of Pharoahe Monch, one half of nascent ’90s brainiac rappers Organized Konfusion, Th1Rt3EN boasts elements of Mos Def’s short-lived Black Jack Johnson, Ice-T’s notorious Body Count, and peerless hardcore icons Bad Brains, melded together with a uniquely Monchian twist. Guitarist Marcus Machado’s Tony Iommi-influenced sludge riffage and Zakk Wylde-esque pinch harmonics dazed and astounded, yet Pharaohe was clearly the star of the show. He is still among the most electrifying frontpersons and transcends the limitations of hip-hop. Monch inhabited a smattering of stimulated characters while fronting the trio of heavy hitters—Machado, Incredible Chad on keys, and drummer Smithsonian. It was amnesia, nostalgia, and fibromyalgia with the stated mission: kill, kill, kill. Late into Th1Rt3EN’s set, Monch flipped the switch and the squad dropped a titanic take on his generation-defining Rawkus Records thunderclap “Simon Says”. For about 200 maniacal seconds, the whole joint caught the most wreck of the entire weekend.
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Dave Chappelle returned, and Robert Glasper convened his all-universe band for a final evening. The duo offered a more focused, subdued performance, far less foul-mouthed and silly, but no less entertaining than either night before. Highlights of the third installment included a lengthy sojourn through “Afro Blue”, an appearance from D Smoke, and a surprise slide from Bay Area Neo-Soul empress Goapele, who sang her popular single “Closer”. yaasin bey returned for yet another inspired segment, including a gospelized reading of “Umi Says” per Chappelle’s request/direction. One of the baddest singers of her generation, Ledesi took the mic and fronted the band for a few of her own numbers before finishing up with Nina Simone’s iconic anthem “Four Women”.
However, the highest moment of the whole Glasper set, and maybe the entire weekend, was the spoken word performance of “We Must Win” by poet Amir Sulaiman, who’s featured on Glasper’s latest Black Radio III. Sulaiman dug deep, dredged the gut, and lit the fuse, all of it in one fiery, five-minute purge of preposterous proportions. When the wordsmith warrior finally stopped speaking and came up for a well-earned gasp of oxygen, every last person present leapt to their feet in a rousing, emphatic ovation. Tears fell in all directions. Like the hosts said in the moments that followed, we will all remember that we were there to hear Amir Sulaiman rock with Robert Glasper. Church tabernacle in Nappy Valley.
The festival booked Maxwell to shut down the whole scene on Sunday night. The classy crooner delivered the goods as advertised, bringing a super tight, uber polished band and note-perfect stage show. Maxwell eschewed the brand of seat-of-pants improvisation that defined most of the festival, providing a more streamlined, professional production with all the bells and whistles. Trust, nobody was complaining, as the sharply dressed R&B maven dropped jewels from his seminal Urban Hang Suite, plus Embrya, BLACKsummers’night, and more. The ladies screamed, swayed, and swooned ’til the clock struck ten bells. Then, despite the pleadings of the celebrity hosts, it was curtains for Maxwell, and the festival came to a somewhat anti-climatic close.
A heartfelt thank you to the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley staff, as well as the staff from Charles Krug Winery and the good folks of Nappy Valley. Hopefully, we are fortunate enough to reprise it once again next year, with a whole lot more of the same chill vibe and just a few minor infrastructural improvements. And—Jah willing—D’Angelo.