The Return of Jazz to the Uptown Amphitheater
On Saturday evening, jazz returned to the Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheater in a major way. The lineup of Mike Phillips with Karen Briggs, Will Downing, and Brian Culbertson was a great choice for the first Queen City Jazz Fest.
I was a little hesitant when I first saw the lineup. Four of the entertainers I had shot before, some very recently, so I was wondering how different their shows would be. In the past, after photographing an artist several times, I seemed to know the show as well as the band. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad performance. It just means they don’t work at keeping everything fresh.
In the case of opening act Mike Phillips, however, I wasn’t worried at all about his set. Saturday made the third time in two months that I’ve seen Mike. In back-to-back nights at the Art of Cool Festival in Durham, NC, Phillips went from leading an intimate quintet to taking the main stage by storm to open for Anthony Hamilton, delivering two widely different but deeply satisfying and high-quality shows. Phillips goes out at 100 miles per hour and never slows. At one point at the Queen City Jazz Fest, he was running through the packed crowd acting like it wasn’t 90 plus degrees.
Enter violinist Karen Briggs. I had photographed her in Charleston with the all-female group Jazz in Pink and remembered how mellow they were, but at the QC fest, her energy equalled Phillips’ and the two played off each other well. Briggs is fierce on the violin.
“Wouldn’t you like to see her perform with Ken Ford?!” a friend asked. Yes. That would be a bigger violin battle than when “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (Speaking of country music, I did have a Grand Ole Opry flashback when Briggs went from violinist to fiddler in mid song. You couldn’t have asked for a better opening.)
Will Downing was up next. This was going to be a first for me, the only one in the entire festival, and it became a treat to hear this true vocalist. An automatic crowd favorite from the opening note, you could tell from the screams who was there to see Will. Actually, you could tell when the women rushed the stage. Especially when they brought flowers. It was time for love. His interaction with the fans was genuine as he went through hit after hit. Fans felt like he was performing just for them; at least, that’s what the lady beside me was saying to her girlfriend during “A Million Ways.”
After Will Downing finished, I overheard a small group say they could go home. I politely leaned over and said, “You might want to rethink that.” After seeing Brian Culbertson last Labor Day weekend, I knew the passion in his performance – no slowing down, ever, with even the most mellow of his sets bringing energy – and would place him in the top two of shows I covered in 2014 (Trombone Shorty is the other topper). Saturday’s show didn’t disappoint. I had an idea it would be fantastic because, 45 minutes before, Culbertson and the band were still talking over the set list. Brian Culbertson and his band travel together, so there is an intimacy on the stage that makes for nice change-ups in the music and gives depth to a show within a show, which fascinates this photographer.
Ticket sales don’t always attest to an event’s solidity or strength, but in the case of the Queen City Jazz Fest, they speak truth. A packed house with fans on their feet on one of the hottest days of the year definitely gets the vote for success. My fingers are crossed that this is the start of a tradition in the QC for many years to come, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the #QCJF16. Maybe we will get that Karen Briggs/Ken Ford violin battle. With so many young acts that have jazz as a connection, there could be something similar to the AOC brewing right here in Charlotte.
Check out the entire gallery on our Jazz Shooter page.