For most of its three-day run this weekend, the 23rd annual Houston International Jazz Festival was neither international nor, with a few exceptions, particularly jazzy. Aside from the superb headliners Jonathan Butler (South Africa) and Elon Trotman (Barbados)—more on them later—the featured groups were Houston stalwarts like the Texas Brass Band, Los Skarnales, and Yelba Heaton, who, although they put on entertaining shows, can hardly be said to have broadened anyone’s musical horizons. Heaton, a popular local Latin singer, even asked the audience to vote for her in the Houston Press music awards—not exactly the best way to emphasize your international credentials.
The festival kicked off Friday night at 51fifteen, a tony restaurant located on the second floor of Saks Fifth Avenue in the Galleria. There was only one hitch—nobody seemed to have told the restaurant about the festival. The first band of the evening was scheduled to perform at 9 p.m., but at 9:30 the restaurant was still filled with diners lingering over their meals. Finally, the restaurant began to empty and the festival attendees were allowed inside.
But anyone expecting great world jazz was soon disappointed when local chanteuse Sydney Jane took the stage (in a racy outfit that included a strange bike short–garter belt hybrid) and proceeded to belt out covers of Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Cee-Lo Green, and fun. Great artists all, but jazz? Not exactly. And while Jane had energy and charisma to burn, she tended to scream the songs rather than sing them, occasionally misplacing the key in the melee. Things improved considerably when the ten-member Texas Brass Band took the stage with a slow, dirgelike jam. Inspired by classic New Orleans jazz bands, the Texas Brass Band was celebrating its sixth anniversary, and cycled through a crowd-pleasing set of swing, funk, big band, blues, and even a little reggae.
But it wasn’t until Saturday night at the Bayou Music Center that the jazz festival brought out its big guns, singer and guitarist Butler and saxophonist Trotman, who were performing as the Summer of Soul. (The group originally included percussionist and former Prince protégé Sheila E., who was forced to drop out of the festival.) Supported by an outstanding backing band, Butler and Trotman put on a master class in sophisticated, worldly jazz, starting out with a fiery, up-tempo number that saw the two men trading solos as if they’d been playing since childhood. Trotman’s saxophone was smooth as silk, the perfect complement to Butler’s spare, almost Zen-like guitar playing. The highlight of their ninety-minute set was a powerful cover of Bob Marley’s heartbreaking “No Woman No Cry,” which segued imperceptibly into one of Butler’s recent gospel songs—Butler asked the audience to raise their hands in praise—then transitioned back to the Marley original before finally concluding in a storm of applause from the appreciative crowd.
Thanks to Butler and Trotman’s killer set, the jazz festival went out on a high note. (I skipped Sunday’s jazz brunch, hosted by the mayor and featuring the Summer Jazz Workshop All-Stars.) As in the past, all proceeds from the festival will go to support founder Bubbha Thomas’s Jazz Education Inc, which keeps low-income kids out of trouble by teaching them jazz. However good the cause, though, it’s a bit disingenuous to book one internationally famous act, add a couple of local groups, and call it an international jazz festival. That's like calling an airport with one flight to Mexico City an international airport—and yes, Austin, I'm looking at you. Houston deserves better, and so do the budding jazz musicians who rely on proceeds from the festival for their education. Here’s hoping that the 24th annual International Jazz Festival will be worthy of its name.