I’m blessed. I just spent another weekend rubbing indirect elbows with some exotic and beautiful people. I am speaking of the 36th Annual Winter Park Jazz Festival. I saw every act and watched and listened closely. You might say my eyes were glued to the Jumbotron.
I used to be an avid concertgoer but I’ve definitely slowed down. Even though I have seen some mind melting shows, I had not seen any of the acts in this year’s festival lineup. It was a treat.
I’m spoiled. I have seen The Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Earth Wind & Fire, John Denver, Peter Gabriel, Erykah Badu, Tom Petty, John Prine, ELP, Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, Iggy Pop, Journey, Todd Rundgren, The Cars, Devo, REM, Count Basi, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dire Straits, Talking Heads, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Costello, The Eagles, Peter Frampton, The Tubes, Bo Diddley, Al Dimeola, King Crimson, and countless others mostly in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Last weekend’s Winter Park Jazz Festival presented an interesting mix of jazz, soul, jazz-soul and jazz-soul-R&B. The whole weekend felt like a celebration of life and spirit as practically every act took note of their spectacular fortune. They let the vistas and surroundings inspire their performances from the Rendezvous Event Center stage.
The audience favorite had to be Damien Escobar. He’s a jazz violist from New York. Escobar led his band through some originals and some R&B classics. Between songs you could hear the ladies screaming, “I love you, Damien!” which comes as no surprise. Escobar is a tall, dark and handsome African American modern icon who can really pepper a violin. I thought a performer had to sing to win over the ladies but Escobar broke down all the barriers, especially when he fiddled his way through the audience, leaving scores of dazed swooning and drooling women in his wake. I saw it all because I was right there, standing next to my man Escobar.
There were other surprises. Saxophonist Boney James was the festival’s jazz purist, putting on a set of smooth and snappy jazz, touching on the classics but hitting his own impressive material. James makes the kind of bebop mainstream jazz that fits right in with sax greats like Stan Getz and Tom Scott.
The audience was very receptive of all the styles of music at the festival. They had a blast the whole way through, even during breaks when a DJ got them all dancing and partying. Sheila E, now in her early sixties got the audience dancing bringing the purple vibe and proving that girls kick ass as good as the boys. She had three background singers who were not afraid to sing and dance full blast. E did encourage the audience to put down the cell phones and live in the moment while ripping through some powerful Prince grooves.
The youthful and ferocious Fantasia topped the Saturday lineup with a powerhouse, loose performance. She won the third season of “America’s Got Talent” in 2004. She has a very strange habit of trembling her lips and rolling her eyes between breaths. Thankfully she finally explained that she was doing that because she was completely lost in the music. I was starting to worry. Between the trembling and vigorous dancing, Fantasia showed off a voice that knew no bounds.
Sunday headliner Keith Sweat had a full living room set up onstage complete with couches, a well-stocked bar and high-energy dancing girls. The appropriately named Sweat is a sex symbol and soul singer who confessed at one point, “I don’t understand the music that’s coming out today,” while he kept asking the audience, “Can I go back?” hoping that they wouldn’t mind hearing tunes from his glory days. Sweat was considered one of the top acts playing a style of music referred to as “New Jack Swing,” which flourished in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Sweat spent a lot of time bringing the audience on and off stage for dancing and sitting on the couches. Things got a little awkward when he coached an 11-year-old boy on how to ask a 16-year-old girl out on a date. The whole talking and bringing people up and down was amusing if not long and some folks drifted out hoping to beat the rush.
There was a lot of talk of god coming off the stage. The audience of mostly African Americans was very receptive to hearing those words of thanks and praise. There were moments when you could forget that you were with thousands of others at a party and think you were instead attending some kind of spiritual revival. I didn’t really fit in but I certainly appreciate the sentiments of being thankful for one’s gifts and being encouraged to “never give up on your dreams.”
I have not been to big festival like this for a few years. This was a good show. No wonder it was sold out. I had to wear earplugs the whole time and my ears are still ringing as I write this. I am sensitive to bass and the new sound has lots and lots of earth shaking bass.
No one else seemed to mind.
Steve Skinner is thankful. Reach him at email@example.com.