Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival

“I think I’m starting to like Boston,” said Meshell Ndegeocello, singer/songwriter feature at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. The crowd applauded and rattled their tambourines. Her smooth lyrics and melodic voice lured festivalgoers to the Natixis Stage to relax after an afternoon of buoyant, interactive fun.

The Berklee Jazz Festival, also known as Boston’s largest block party, kicked off this past weekend with Berklee City Music All-Stars Big Band Jazz and Simon Moullier Quartet on the Natixis and Berklee stage respectively. The festival displayed a colorful array of artists, sounds, and techniques distinctly shown by the openers of the festival.

The All-Stars were comprised of rather young musicians who were all attending Berklee College of Music’s City Music after-school program and summer performance program. The program admitted kids in grades four through 8. They rang loud and proud throughout the field, performing covers of boisterous and snappy jazz songs. Their director counted them off with scats and snaps occasionally snuck into the song with a proud trumpet solo. The kids were obviously elated to be there, breaking into wide grins and giggles as their companions finished surprising solos. Their sound was graceful and focused, as though this festival was just another rehearsal for them.

Meanwhile, Simon Moullier, of the Simon Moullier Jazz Quartet, rang out on his vibraphone on the Berklee Stage at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Columbus Avenue. A vividly different sound than the All-Stars, the Simon Moullier Jazz Quartet created haunting tunes with the combination of the vibraphone, saxophone, upright bass, and drums. The bells added an unusual element to their overall voice as a quartet. Moullier would mouth indistinguishable sounds to himself as he played with four mallets and bounced on his feet, covered only in socks. The tempo was slow, driven primarily by the drummer, who seemed as though he was in his own world. Their last number was a cover of ‘Analyse’ by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who influenced Moullier’s music greatly. No singing was involved, unless you count the saxophonist’s elegant hums as lyrics.

As their short set ended, the audience was drawn to Columbus Avenue where Bloco Afrobrazil, a percussion ensemble, pounded away on their drums and invited others to join their parade down the street. The drum major, clad in a green and yellow afro wig, put on a show. Eventually, dozens of people joined their strut. Couples break into their own two-step dance routine while following the crowd, some children throw their streamers in the air with excitement. All ages were present in the drum line, from adolescents to elderly. It was a great way to jump in on the fun in between band performances.

Dozens of booths and tents lined Columbus Ave. Everything from handmade jewelry to community outreach programs were represented. Festival staff stationed themselves at intervals among the strip, passing out programs and free tambourines from cardboard boxes. Catering tents and barbeque booths hollered special deals at passersby while women sifted through silk scarves on sale for five dollars.

The family park took up the most room right next to the Natixis stage. It offered face-painting, temporary tattoos, and a bounce house, as well as an ‘instrument petting zoo’ and cotton candy machine. Young kids pranced around the jam tent with streamers in their hands and festival staff showed off their musical skills on guitars and drums. Just next door at the ‘petting zoo,’ kids could try out any instrument from woodwinds to cellos, with the assistance of parents and staff. As the kids danced away their excitement, the P-Funk Ensemble was setting up.

With at least a dozen people on stage, P-Funk was dressed to impress. Sequin-clad singers belted some powerful beats and encouraged audience members to get up and groove. Some even knew the lyrics to their funky songs. The ensemble offered a good time and it was well received by all. By the end, it felt like more of a concert than a small gig at a jazz festival. But P-Funk wanted to “give the funk, nothing but the funk,” and they did.

Meshell Ndegeocello followed the P-Funk Ensemble inside the family park area. She was more instruments than she was voice, but when she sang, everyone listened. Ndegeocello entered the stage with a very unassuming presence, and even her sound was minimalistic. But she was playful and smooth even as she sang of love and heartbreak. It was obvious that Ndegeocello was involved with her music. It wasn’t until 15 minutes into the performance that she mentioned her band was comprised of talented Berklee students who took the time to learn her music. One student even pumped out a fabulous guitar solo while Ndegeocello accompanied him on bass and vocals. She had a very centered appearance and depends heavily on her simple sound.

The festival was hopping, the music was timeless, and people of all ages enjoyed themselves. If there was just absolutely no time to hear this year’s amazing, young lineup, make it a priority to join the block party next year.

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