On the last weekend of July, driving up from the East Bay to wine country for the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa takes people across narrow, winding roads through sunbaked foothills, lending a certain escape from the city to the prelude journey. There are countless geometric asphalt pathways lined with tidy rows of grapevines stretching out towards the sky, antique olive trees, strawberry merchants, and a sweet silence permeating the space. A simple joy, and perfect precursor to the wonderful weekend to unfurl.
While there are positives to attending behemoth Bay Area festivals like Outside Lands, or Bottlerock, where you can see years’ worth of eclectic and varied artists in a single long, lost weekend, there’s something to be said for a niche, boutique, curated event geared towards the wide-eared, open-minded festival goer.
The Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 certainly offered the latter. I’d go as far as to call it the preeminent musical gathering of it’s kind, uniting cultures, geographies, generations of Black American Music, and capturing the spirit of creative collaboration like few, if any, other festivals with such a decided focus on foundational hip-hop.
It may have been prohibitively pricey, and the quasi-rural locale a bit different from the Bay Area’s urban metropolis, light-years from the hippie jam band festival scenes, and a far cry from techie Burner vibes. But if you’re obsessed with the musicology of contemporary jazz, soul, R&B, and especially classic hip-hop, and are inclined to spend big to take in some of the greatest virtuosos in music today, this festival’s lavish lineup and crucial collaborations are definitely worth the splurge.
The second annual gathering drew a beautiful, monied, grown ‘n’ sexy crowd, mature and motivated to enjoy the entirety of the experience. Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa took place July 28th–30th at the Silverado Resort in Napa, moving there after an inaugural run the same weekend a year prior at the nearby Charles Krug Winery. While it is an absolutely stunning region and property, a golf course/country club does not exactly lend itself to a transition into a festival venue all that easily. I can only imagine logistics were fairly challenging, evidenced by the placement of certain tents or services, and lack thereof elsewhere on the grounds.
Food and drink was predictably expensive, however without question a cut above the usual festival culinary fare. Libations were naturally on point. Dwayne Wade and Mary J. Blige were both on hand at their respective wine endeavors to lend some celebrity shine to the scene.
Despite having a whole year to improve the amenities from year one, it seemed that there were some oversights with regard to a comfortable consumer experience. Most notably, an extreme lack of shade options or shelter for those with general admission tickets, as well as a lack of water stations throughout the festival grounds. That said, people did their best with the oppressive heat and services, and most seemed to persevere through the sweltering afternoons the best they could, keeping things positive and looking out for their friends, family, and new festy neighbors.
Speaking of positive vibes, Grammy-winning Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa co-founder Robert Glasper was all smiles all weekend, beaming with pride at the assembly of creators and artisans he co-curated once again. The cross-generational, international intention that informed the inaugural year was again employed for round two. Glasper explained to Billboard about the prism through which he views this gathering, it “represents out-of-the-box things, influencers, trailblazers — people that don’t feel the need to succumb to normality of popular music.”
With 12 daily musical performances spread across three stages for three straight days and nights—plus late-night exclusive afterparties—naturally, it was impossible to take in all of the artists on offer at Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023. That said, our crew did our best to sample as much of the goods as our bodies and constitutions allowed us to in the relentlessly punishing summer sunshine. Unfortunately, in chasing around so many favorites, we were indeed forced to miss some fantastic stuff as well. What follows is a brief run through some daily highlights of the music at Blue Note Jazz Festival 2023; these are merely a few of our favorite things.
Friday, July 28th:
Day one began with scorching sun and even hotter jams. After J.Period‘s live mixtape set it off on the main stage, decorated bassist/bandleader Adam Blackstone hit on the Footprints Stage, named in tribute to dearly departed Wayne Shorter, saxophone shaman. Blackstone’s group served up classic covers like Bill Withers‘ “Just the Two of Us”, D’Angelo’s “Untitled”, and the late, great Bobby Caldwell’s “Do For Love”, the latter probably the most covered/referenced tune of the weekend, as I counted at least five references/teases across three days.
New Orleans bounce phenom Big Freedia took over the main Black Radio Stage for a bludgeoning set in the midday heat. Hollerin’ “ass everywhere” to both the delight and chagrin of those assembled, Ms. Freedia was backed by stalwart NOLA crew Khris Royal & Dark Matter, unleashing original bounce cuts spliced with re-works of smash hits from Michael Jackson and Juvenile. Meanwhile, after a very late start due to technical hiccups, all-world funk squadron Ghost-Note finally took the tiny Blue Note stage. Led by the virtuoso drummer Robert “Sput” Searight and Snarky Puppy percussionist Nate Werth, Ghost-Note squeezed ten-plus musicians on the cramped stage and properly set it ablaze with a fistful of joints from their forthcoming records.
While the supremely talented French harmonica whiz Frédéric Yonnet was hittin’ on the Blue Note Stage, I was seeking a particular brand of invasion. Luckily, once-elusive producer/DJ Madlib returned to Blue Note Napa for his second straight year, this time no less than three performances, one each afternoon. Friday, he invited drummer Daru Jones to join him on the Footprints Stage for minimalist, sampledelic hip-hop funk mined from dusty jazz excursions. This first set was further elevated by stream-of-consciousness freestyles by Niko Is, plus the vocal stylings of Stacy Epps, a former Madvillainy collaborator who’s begun managing Madlib in recent months.
On Saturday, Madlib would link with BK emcee Talib Kweli (who himself was once again all over the event) on the big Black Radio Stage for a wide-ranging collaboration that saw the pair touch on tracks from Liberation 2, their forthcoming sequel LP. The duo was backed by a band featuring bassist Brady Watt, as well as trumpet maestro Maurice MoBetta Brown, a longtime collaborator of Kweli. Madlib and Talib would offer tributes to J Dilla and MF DOOM and welcome Bilal to their jam session. Sunday on the Blue Note Stage, Madlib was again joined by Jones and Mobetta, plus Nicholas Payton and old-school Lootpack partner Wildchild, among others.
Madlib With Daru Jones – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 – 7/28/23
Meanwhile, Friday afternoon blazed on as songstress Ari Lennox talked her sh*t and worked her magic, casting spells on the Black Radio Stage. Down the hill at the Blue Note Stage, thundering funk-hop trio Soulive made its long-awaited return to NorCal, unveiling a masterful power hour of dreamy, scintillating soul jazz that influenced so many jazz-funk grommets in the decade to come. Brothers Neal and Alan Evans, manning keyboards and drums respectively, channeled their patented thump ‘n’ bump bombast, building the sturdiest of foundations. The dynamic duo set the table just right for guitarist Eric Krasno—with his whole family in the audience (wife, son, brother, nieces, etc)—to really bob and weave. In and out of the garden Kraz went, soaring atop the grooves with his trusty signature D’Angelico axe. Set highlight for this writer was a terrific take on “Tuesday Night Squad”, complete with a blazing breakdown that felt so fresh and so clean.
The famed Robert Glapser/Dave Chappelle superjam sets took place each day late in the afternoon. As Chappelle again played comedic host with giggles and levity, Glasper’s backing band was nothing short of a murderer’s row: Chris “Daddy” Dave on drums, Isaiah Sharkey on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, DJ Jahi Sundance on the turntables. Friday’s set kicked off with the great Andra Day surprising festivalgoers with a couple of songs. The highlight of the session was without question the appearance of the surviving two-thirds of pioneering NY rap group De La Soul.
Still mourning the 2022 passing of Trugoy the Dove, a.k.a. Plug Two a.k.a. Dave, De La Soul emcee Posdnous and deejay Maceo led the emotional throngs through several classics from their outstanding catalog, including “Rock KoKane Flow”, “Stakes is High” (with Talib Kweli spitting Dave’s ever-topical verse), “Oooh”, “Grind Date”, “Breakadawn”, and joyful golden-era throwbacks like the landmark Native Tongues posse cut “Buddy”. To close out, the “Not Just Knee Deep” jackin’ “Me, Myself, & I” was punctuated by an appearance from the P-Funk godfather himself, George Clinton.
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Immediately thereafter, Uncle George and his current, revitalized version of Parliament Funkadelic commandeered the Footprints Stage on their “farewell” tour. From the window to the wall, the swollen contingent unleashed a torrent of torrid grooves and filthy foundational jams, ably assisted by a gang of younger faces, as well as the guitar shred of P-Funk OG Micheal “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton. “Flashlight”, “Mothership Konnection”, “Knee Deep”, “Atomic Dog”, and “Get Up for the Downstroke” all got the proper Parliament treatment, as everyone from Ghost-Note to Big Freedia to Wildchild were spied getting hyphy sidestage.
The once-and-forever “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul”, Mary J. Blige headlined Friday night’s affair with an absolutely mesmerizing 75-minute tour de force, reaching into her songbook across 30 years, backed by a super tight band. From 1992’s “Real Love” to 2022’s “Good Morning Gorgeous”, nary a stone was left unturned as Mary churned out the hits, much to the delight of the screaming masses.
The concert was enhanced by the soul-stirring sound and vibration of thousands of women crooning their hearts out into the starry night as Mary unpacked the emotional warchest on “You Remind Me”, “Be Happy”, “Family Affair”, “Not Gon’ Cry”, and “Share My World” > “My Life”, among many others. Highlight for this writer came towards the end of her set: As Mary sashayed the stage and sang her buoyant “Just Fine”, her DJ saw fit to lace Chubb Rock’s 1991 anthem “Treat ‘Em Right” underneath. It was nothing short of euphoric to behold in the moment, and for a few minutes, all was right in the world.
Saturday, July 29th:
Saturday began with more heat, from both the sky and the stage. Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and Black American Music educator Nicholas Payton set it off on the Blue Note Stage, tapping electronic producer/looper Sasha Masakowski for a multifaceted, cross-generational amalgalm of contemporary soundscapes. An unfortunate scheduling conflict forced this writer to depart sooner than I’d have preferred.
On the Footprints Stage, Weedie Braimah & The Hands of Time were unspooling an intercontinental safari, piloted by the master djembefola and his brilliant cadre of instrumentalists. Mostly interpreting songs from their award-winning 2021 self-titled debut LP, Weedie Braimah & the Hands of Time blended traditional African rhythms and grooves from Ghana and Mali with improvisational jamming native to Black American Music, plus some subtle nods to hip-hop. Weedie, seated at the front of the stage with his djembe for the majority of the show, was absolutely glowing as he spoke from the heart with his hands and drum. Late in the hour-long set, Braimah poignantly dedicated a song to the late Daniel Jones (Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu), a decorated multi-instrumentalist and musical director who worked with many musicians present onsite for the fest.
Braimah welcomed his lovely wife Talise Campbell onstage as she led the crowd in a traditional African dance routine. Later on Saturday, Weedie Braimah & The Hands of Time congregated at the Backyard, near the Blue Note Stage, for a far more intimate performance, again enhanced by what amounted to an African dance class with Campbell at the fore.
Weedie Braimah & The Hands Of Time – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 – 7/29/23
Critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello led her band on the Black Radio Stage, offering meditative soul and serenity to combat the oppressive sun beating down on the main stage area. This was my first time catching her live since the inaugural Okayplayer Tour in 1999, and augmented by the contributions of collaborator Justin Hicks, Meshell offered a sweet, sublime departure of sorts.
Decorated saxophonist/keyboardist/producer Terrace Martin, who was popping up all weekend both onstage and off, welcomed trumpet whiz Keyon Harold (D’Angelo & the Vanguard) along with Robert “Sput” Searight, and his Ghost-Note horns to the Blue Note Stage and dug into his all-time favorite artist, Donny Hathaway. U.K.-based drummer wunderkind Yussef Dayes astounded fans with his mind-boggling trio that included bassist Rocco Palladino (son of Pino) and keyboardist Elijah Fox.
The Robert Glasper/Dave Chappelle Saturday superjam once again was bolstered by the esteemed house band. For the second iteration, Glasper and Chappelle continued their wine-soaked silliness for a little while before inviting supremely gifted vocalist Lala Hathaway to sing it loud and proud. The Roots‘ James Poyser joined Glasper on keyboards once again; Terrace Martin was showcased on a couple of Dinner Party numbers. Later ubertalented spoken word artist J-Ivy returned for the second consecutive year to kick some potent poignance, among other Saturday special guests who graced the Black Radio Stage.
Hailing from Brooklyn by way of Philadelphia, seminal trio Digable Planets always nestled quite comfortably in the smoked-out bosom between hip-hop, jazz, and funk. Their pioneering pair of early ’90s records—Reachin’ (A Refutation of Time and Space) (1993) and sophomore followup Blowout Comb (1994)—maintain monumental replay value to this day. At Blue Note Napa, the group was appropriately slotted on the mid-size Footprints Stage and drew a solid crowd.
Digable Planets – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 – 7/29/23
Digable Planets were bolstered by an incredibly thorough, full-size backing band boasting nuance and elastic dynamics, including guitarist Thaddeus Turner and drummer Kassa Overall. The three kinetic emcees—Ladybug Mecca, Doodlebug, and Butterfly—have always wielded an effortless chemistry when passing the mic, and the trio found its stride early and often as fans sang along to Digable’s earworm choruses. Highlights included the steezy opening banger “May 4th Movement”, which sets off Blowout Comb, plus numerous faves like “Jettin’”, “Nickel Bag of Funk”, and titanic smash “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” off the group’s debut release celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Headlining the Black Radio Stage on an uptown Saturday night was supreme Queensbridge emcee Nas, backed by the venerable DJ Green Lantern, hype man Jungle, and a minimalist three-piece band. Nasir Jones, son of jazz guitarist Olu Dara, is responsible for numerous of the most lauded lines in rap history. Clad in Nike sneakers, a casual tracksuit, and diamond-encrusted “Jesus piece,” the man who christened himself “God’s Son” took fans on a joyride through his three-decade career.
For this festival set, the rapper performed in front of projection-mapped imagery. He touched on just about every era of his musical journey, but generally avoided his current-day Hit-Boy chapter. Instead, Nas focused on yesteryear, from the perfection of Illmatic (“NY State of Mind”, “One Love”, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, “Memory Lane”) to various cuts from other efforts in his storied catalog. Additional highlights included “Street Dreams”, “Made You Look”, “The Message”, “Get Down”, “Hate Me Now”, “Nas is Like”, and “If I Ruled the World” with special guests The Soul Rebels. Nas also showed up at his boy J.Period’s set at the official afterparty, offering an impromptu performance for some very lucky fans.
Nas With The Soul Rebels – Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 – 7/29/23
Sunday, July 30th:
Sunday festivities again began with more unrelenting heat and unabated sunshine, but the gifted bassist Derrick Hodge did not allow it to prevent his electric quartet from dropping sublime, heady jazz on the Black Radio Stage. Immediately thereafter, Cory Henry’s six-piece ensemble offered heaping slabs of gospel-tinged soul, R&B, and funk, whipping the sweltering audience into somewhat of a muted frenzy. Mixing excitable church energy with Prince vibes and adding his own sizzling sauce, Henry rotated from synth to Hammond B3 organ to Wurlitzer electric piano, wowing the capacity crowd, as well as James Poyser, who was posted up sidestage transfixed.
Booked for a second consecutive year, hip-hop nerds/jazz prodigies DOMi & JD Beck delivered another astounding display of their duet mastery on the Black Radio Stage, paying tribute to MF DOOM, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Equally quirky and contagious was the multi-hued bass virtuoso MonoNeon, who worked with Prince at the end of his life. Performing primarily original compositions, MonoNeon piloted a funky-as-hell fusion ensemble made up of some capable cohorts from Mono’s time in Ghost-Note.
BJ the Chicago Kid was also back in Napa, this year getting his own set on Footprints, assisted by fellow Chi-town star Maurice ‘Mobetta’ Brown. Also on Footprints was soulful NOLA-bred crooner PJ Morton, who brought a tremendous band and revealed a stirring set. The performance was highlighted by Lauryn Hill‘s “Sweetest Thing”, the opening salvo quite possibly the best cover of the entire festival.
Down at the intimate Blue Note Stage, it was a family affair as Bobby and Taylor McFerrin teamed up with drummer Marcus Gilmore for a very eclectic set, blending father Bobby’s patented vocal stylings with son Taylor’s keyboard and production prowess. Soon they were joined by sister Madison McFerrin, as Taylor waxed nostalgic about Bobby’s debut album before the three flew away on Dad’s “Sightless Bird”. The group closed out a magnificent set with a slow’d n throw’d arrangement of Little Dragon’s “Twice”, which stunned just about everybody present.
If I had to pick a favorite or most rewarding set of Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023, without question it would be Sunday’s matinee power hour of the mighty Rakim, with DJ Jazzy Jeff backing him up on the Footprints Stage. This was a king among men, a true rap icon held down by another hip-hop hero in Philly’s turntablist extraordinaire. Both men came into the rap game around the same time, 1986/87, and the power of this tandem was felt by a sprawling capacity crowd, the largest and loudest at Footprints all weekend. In addition to a sea of heads assembled as far as the eye could see from our post on the rail, it seemed every artist, performer, and staff member was surrounding the stage and filling the photo pit for this special set.
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For a few minutes, Jazz scratched and blended an assortment of hip-hop classics to get the crowd appropriately hyped. Then, low-key clad in a maroon tee shirt, hat to block the sun, and rockin’ a chain with a throwback gold pendant, the man that’s universally known as the “God MC” strode onto the stage and proceeded to move the crowd. Rakim tore through nearly every last banger in his beyond-classic catalog, from opener “My Melody” (with a Mobb Deep “Burn” beat-switch that leveled things up considerably), to the seductive DJ Quik-produced Truth Hurts smash “Addictive”, the latter much to the delight of the West Coast crowd. Ra hit ’em with Marley Marl’s “Eric B is President”, DJ Premier’s “It’s Been A Long Time”, plus timeless chestnuts “Microphone Fiend” and “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em”. Requesting Jeff kill the sound for a second, The R took things “acapulco” (aka a cappella) with a chilling verse from “Follow the Leader”, and unveiled a select few deeper cuts too.
As grown men behaved like starstruck children (myself among them), mean muggin’ our friends, making copious rap hands into the sky, and doing the wop at this rapper’s request, Rakim set about uncorking a clinic in emceeing. His rhyme prowess was nothing short of incendiary for its time and holds up remarkably well to this day, as evidenced by the gaggle of slack-jawed emcees that had congregated sidestage to peep game from the master. After sturdy runs through the ever-bulletproof bangers “I Ain’t No Joke”, “I Know You Got Soul”, and the sheer jazz perfection of “Don’t Sweat the Technique”, Rakim and Jazzy Jeff welcomed NOLA’s badass hip-hop brass band The Soul Rebels to the stage for a crunkafied, Crescent City take on the quintessential “Paid in Full”. This final blow landed a cross-regional, intergenerational haymaker, an organic collab that crystallized the essence of hip-hop’s golden anniversary as well as the vision and potential of the festival.
This unforgettable hour in the wayback machine was chased by something decidedly Be Here Now: NxWorries‘ late afternoon sexscapades on the Black Radio Stage. Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge were wrapping up the latest leg of their world tour in Napa, and the ever-boisterous .Paak would bring his oversize personality, cool kid crooning, and occasionally lazy-tongued rhyme styles to the dancefloor-meets-bedroom beats.
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Despite some hokey hijinks early on, Glasper’s final superjam was by far and away the finest and most star-studded of the three. As things got goin, BJ the Chicago Kid made a brief appearance. Surprise guest singer Chanté Moore led the collective through an exquisite couple of numbers. Bilal wowed fronting a dream-band of Sharkey, Dave, Hodge, Poyser, DJ Jahi Sundance, and host Robert Glapser, the enigmatic vocalist showing and proving just why he’s so revered after all these years.
Then came a few plot twists, beginning with an appearance from Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Phillip Bailey, who joined Bilal and Lalah Hathaway for a phenomenal take on EWF’s timeless “Can’t Hide Love” with Terrace Martin doing his thing on soprano sax. This lengthy, emotional chestnut brought the crowd to their feet, roaring as Phillip Bailey strutted onstage and stunned per usual, with his ageless high register and unflappable verve. Bailey was stacking harmonies alongside Hathaway and Bilal as the band build the classic into a thrilling crescendo.
Later on in the Glasper/Chappelle finale, an all-time cipher broke out. Rakim proved yet again that the 18th letter is forever, taking a couple iconic verses at Chappelle’s goading, including “Know the Ledge”, the theme song from Juice, which the legend curiously omitted in his earlier set. Once again it was like class in session for the rest of the rappers in the mix, studying the God MC at the front of the Black Radio Stage. The cats contributing to the scene included De La Soul’s Maseo, Affion Crockett, Talib Kweli, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Anderson .Paak, harmonica wiz Frédéric Yonnet, and even comedian Hannibal Burress took a turn fronting the band, basking in the adulation of those lucky enough to be at the main stage at the time.
After Gary Clark Jr.‘s souful blues shut down the Footprints Stage Sunday evening, Chicago’s prodigal son Chance the Rapper brought his youthful energy and vulnerable rap songs to the Black Radio Stage to close out Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa 2023. Towards the very end of the inspired, cinematic performance, Chance and Glapser shocked the remaining souls as they welcomed Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) for a few moments of his landmark original “Umi Says”. It was a fitting conclusion to a triumphant weekend in Napa, enhanced only by the surprise Black Star set at the afterparty with DJ Pee Wee (Anderson .Paak’s alter-ego), a late-night rager that is already the stuff of legend.
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