It’s easy to overlook the obvious but sometimes the truth is hiding in plain sight. As recognizable as Blue Note is worldwide, not many people know what a “blue note” is in the context of the music itself. Without getting lost in the weeds of music theory, academic Lindsey Valich defines blue notes as, “notes ‘between the cracks’ of conventional pitches.'” Foundational to both blues and jazz, blue notes stretch outside of the scale for expressive effect — they subvert expectations in pursuit of an honest sound. And this search, this insistence upon authenticity, is one of the connective threads of the artists who performed last weekend in Napa Valley at the inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival, which was co-hosted by Robert Glasper and Dave Chappelle.
Let’s be clear that all festivals — even the ones with the line-up of a lifetime — run on a certain formula to maximize profit. A bottle of water will run you $8 and VIP tickets will cost double, even if the difference between the tiers is minimal. Festivals are their own microcosms for America, fraught with the same power struggles, hierarchies and long, inefficient lines for food. I’m not interested in justifying the inaccessible price points or painting a glamorous picture of a much more nuanced reality. I am, however, interested in the music and the brilliant and complicated people who make it.
While at the Blue Note Jazz Festival this past weekend, we sat down with three standout artists on the bill: Jahi Sundance, Alex Isley, and Amber Navran to catch up, learn about their relationship to jazz, and get a sense of their first-hand experiences performing and attending the festival.
Multi-instrumentalist, producer, and DJ Jahi Sundance and I sat for an interview on a green sofa in the press lounge, finding momentary refuge from the insufferable afternoon Napa heat. As the son of Oliver Lake, a renowned jazz saxophonist, flutist, composer, poet, and visual artist, Jahi comes from a lineage of jazz that has informed and shaped his unique approach to DJing.
“Being at this Blue Note Jazz Festival and being able to perform at Blue Note in New York with Rob and Blue Note in China has been amazing. And part of that legacy is being able to bring a different approach to DJing. An approach that’s really inspired by jazz. That’s inspired by fitting into the music in an improvisational way that’s not predictable and is more emotionally responsive to the music that’s happening in the moment, within the confines of the tune, but still expressive and not necessarily just executing parts. There’s a lane that I’ve carved out that has to do with a level of musicianship that is inspired by jazz. And as a result, the musicians that I play with have allowed me to do that on their records.
What I’m really trying to do with DJing is be like a record, be like a circle around the entire band. So I’m trying to affect and respond to everybody’s playing in the entire band in subtle ways, not all at once, but still encircling the whole band. I’m trying to be a circle around everybody, no matter which shape they may be in, whether they’re a triangle or square or a circle themselves. I’m always trying to be a circle.”
Jahi Sundance has an album out called Love Isn’t Enough with Robert Glasper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chris Dave and more. Look out for his next project coming out in the Fall.
Alex Isley is rooted in a deep sense of family pride. While she’s most known for being the daughter of Ernie Isley of the prolific Isley Brothers, her familial and musical influences extend even further back.
One thing is for certain, soul and musical ability are Alex’s birthright and she has the tone and perfect pitch to prove it. In his autobiography Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet describes music as, “a feeling inside of [himself], a kind of memory that wants to sing itself.” I’ve always been curious about this strange dance between musicianship and memory, between technical skill and what Quincy Jones calls, “leaving space for God to walk through the room.”
This notion that music can dictate what it wants to say brings me to a related inquiry about the healing properties of sound. Can music heal?
Against the backdrop of a heritage oak tree, Alex stands poised in a cerulean pleated two-piece set, embodying the elegance and quiet strength of someone at peace and in their purpose.
“My maternal grandfather dabbled in jazz when he was younger. He was a dentist for many years because his parents wanted him to pick a practical job, but he had a passion for jazz drums. He was really the beginning of my jazz education. I learned who Oscar Peterson and Billie Holiday were and I came across Ella and Duke eventually but I didn’t really get into jazz until high school, when I heard the vocal jazz group singing “Lush Life.” I didn’t know what it was, but I was like, ‘whatever this is, I want to sing it!’ And that was the beginning. I sang jazz all through high school and then ended up studying it in college at UCLA. And so, at this point, it’s such a part of everything I do, how I perform on stage, how I interpret a song, how I write a song, how I interact with players on stage. It’s impacted everything and it’s such a huge part of my artistry.
Music absolutely heals. It definitely has healing properties. I have seen, even scientifically, it has been proven. So music is absolutely healing. It doesn’t matter the language or the instrument. If it strikes a chord, then that’s just the connection – that’s the heart connection. And so I think that’s something really special because music really has no boundaries to me.
Self care really began for me even more so once I became a mom. And I think I had always thought about parenthood as so sacrificial and you’re just giving up on yourself. And I just thought I was just always going to be just running behind my little one. But I learned ironically, that the most important thing about parenthood is taking care of yourself so that you’re in a position to take care of your child, your children, how you should. And so motherhood was the beginning of being even more purposeful towards my me-time and ways I can just pour into myself and better myself.”
Alex Isley has an album out with Jack Dine called “Marigold” featuring Robert Glasper on “Still Wonder”. She will be touring a city near you this month through September! Stay connected to her on all social platforms.
Artists are more likely to be asked questions about responsibility than politicians. Surely, this says something about how little politicians are held accountable or maybe it reveals more about who’s asking the questions. But perhaps, more importantly, it says something about how powerful artists are and how we look to them for cues on how to respond, reimagine and remember.
LA based singer, producer, and woodwind player, Amber Navran radiates a warmth and infectious joie de vivre both on-and-off stage. Amber kicked off the festival on Friday with pianist and producer Kiefer, the legendary Chris Dave on drums and Pera Krstajic on bass on the “Blue Note Napa Stage” right at the entrance of the Charles Krug Winery. Playing a mix of familiar hits, unreleased music and even a cover of Mario’s “You Should Let Me Love You” and Beyonce’s “Me, Myself & I,” Amber’s set embodied her range, skill and playful spirit.
Though Amber performed on Friday, she stayed through Sunday to enjoy the multi-day festival experience, catch up with friends and connect with other artists.
Not every artist is born into a musical family or finds and develops their passion for music early on in life. And while Amber joined the school band at a young age and went on to pursue jazz saxophone, she didn’t start singing until much later in her career. Amber shares hard-earned wisdom about being patient on the long, non-linear journey of honing one’s voice.
“I definitely think ‘responsibility’ is the right word for white musicians. I think all white people have a responsibility to combat white supremacy in whatever space they exist in. And I feel very aware of that responsibility being in Black music. I really want to just bring whatever I can to the table respectfully and in a way that feels good and helpful and not in the way. I think it’s something that we should all be doing. And I do see a lot of people doing it, which makes me happy. But yes, it’s definitely a responsibility that we all have.
I feel like I’ve grown so much in so many ways. When we first started Moonchild, I had just started singing. So I feel like the last ten years have been me really finding my voice and feeling comfortable in my voice and my body — especially in the past few years, especially with Starfruit. For me personally, I know where my voice sits anywhere that I want to go, which took a long time. I think it takes everyone a long time to get there. But I didn’t grow up singing, so I spent a lot of time early on feeling really self-conscious about learning while creating. But looking back, I really feel like at the end of the day, it’s about the songs and the lyrics and the feel of the song and the emotion that the song and the track is bringing. I feel like coming from the jazz world, especially playing saxophone, the easiest horn to play, you know, like all saxophone players have moments in their solos where they’re ripping because they can and it’s really killing and impressive and amazing. But coming as a vocalist with all of that background, I spent a long time feeling self conscious about it. And honestly, our career has taught me that that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s nice when it’s there and knowing your instrument is important. But yeah, I feel like now I have more confidence because I know myself better and my instrument better. It’s easy to feel like you have to be amazing at every single thing you do. And now I feel like I just want to come and be myself and make melodies and just be honest in the music and that’s the best I can do. And that’s okay with me.”
MOONCHILD has an album out called “Starfruit”. Amber is currently working on an album with Jacob Mann and Phil Beaudreau that will hopefully come out next year under the name Cat Pack. She is also working on an album with Kiefer alongside several other exciting collaborations. Stay connected to her on all social platforms.
Isa Nakazawa is an Oakland-based writer, organizer, educator, and radio host. No matter the medium, Isa leads with her curiosity, attention, and fundamental belief in the interconnected nature of the liberation of all people. Shake the syntax, shake the world.
Ashleigh Reddy is a photographer and content creator.
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