This year’s Summer Fest lineup provides a wonderful chance to celebrate the varied story of R&B music. From the genre’s origins in blues, jazz and gospel to its contemporary interactions with hip-hop and electronic music, San Jose Jazz Summer Fest 2018 will be a perfect showcase for the legacy of rhythm and blues, one that exhibits the style’s continued influence on American culture.
Much like jazz, modern R&B may seem to have little resemblance to its roots, at first glance. However, as the acts below reveal, the style’s ability to morph by absorbing sounds of the time speak to the music’s lasting impact and legacy. This year at Summer Fest, take some time to enjoy classic R&B greats, phenoms currently carrying the torch for the music’s potency and relevance, and creative minds pushing R&B in ways that may signal where the sound is headed in the future.
Over a career that spans nearly 50 years, Kool & the Gang have navigated various sounds of the R&B spectrum—from funk tunes to slow-burn ballads—to immense success. In that sense, they’re a great group to sum up the commercial heyday of R&B in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their many crowd-pleasing hits make them the perfect choice to close out the Sobrato Organization Main Stage Sunday evening.
Fun fact: the group originally started as a jazz combo. Along with some friends from their neighborhood, Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell formed the Jazziacs in 1964 and, in the early days, even played alongside the likes of pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. A collective fascination with soul music led them away from their jazz roots, and toward the funk and R&B material that made them modern music legends.
With the addition of vocalist James “JT” Taylor in 1979, who could ably handle both funk tunes and ballads, the group experienced its peak commercial success. From late 1979 through the ‘80s, Kool & the Gang released lasting hits like “Ladies’ Night,” the ubiquitous anthem “Celebration,” and the ballad “Cherish,” which went on to become one of the biggest Adult Contemporary hits of the decade. Their hits are sure to keep every type of R&B fan on their feet.
After signing to Mercury Records in 1976, Con Funk Shun, originally from Vallejo, produced a slew of hits—and eleven chart-topping albums—in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. 1977 hit “Ffun” was the biggest of their career, a funk tune with catchy horns that surely kept dance floors packed during that era. Expect a similarly energetic performance when they warm up the Main Stage for Lalah Hathaway Friday night on the Main Stage.
Organist and band leader Booker T. Jones will spotlight the influential Stax Records catalog during his Summer Fest appearance. He knows the material well—his group Booker T. and the MG’s was the house band for the label during its early years, which in retrospect helped define the southern soul sound: a combination of blues, country and rock with a hearty gospel influence. Expect to hear notable tracks from Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes as well as Booker T.’s staple instrumental “Green Onions” when he plays the Sobrato Organization Main Stage Saturday afternoon.
She may have entered the music world as a descendant of soul music royalty (she’s the daughter of the late, great Donny Hathaway) but she’s since carved out her own space among the best in modern R&B.
Hathaway has been releasing music as a solo artist since the 1990s, but she’s actually just started to reach the critical apex of her career. In 2014, she won her first Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance for “Something,” a collaboration with contemporary jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy, a former Summer Fest artist. She’s been collecting Grammys annually through 2017, including a win in 2015 for Best Traditional R&B Performance with another Summer Fest alum, pianist Robert Glasper.
As songs like her recent hit “Angel” show, she’s a vocal powerhouse, equally able to belt out a chorus or whisper a refrain. Count on her vocals to soar throughout Plaza de Cesar Chavez Friday evening.
Hometown hero Goapele returns for another celebrated appearance at Summer Fest. In 2016, ushers opened the California Theatre balcony to accommodate an overflow crowd. This time, the Oakland native delivers her uplifting tunes on the Sobrato Organization Main Stage. From her modern classic “Closer” to her new Dreamseeker EP, she has continually found ways to ensure her potent lyricism and distinct vocals keep up with the changing sonics of more contemporary, hip-hop inflected R&B without losing the charisma that’s earned her lasting adoration from fans. Compared to fellow Bay Area natives Ghost and the City, Goapele’s music shows how, even locally, contemporary R&B can encompass many varying sounds and styles.
Aaron Abernathy’s gritty and sometimes staccato delivery recalls traces of influence from D’Angelo and Prince. His two solo releases, Monologue and Dialogue, reveal a musician working to incorporate the heavy drums of hip-hop with classic R&B and soul song structures. He’s also likely learned a thing or two by leading instrumental outfit Nat Turner, a tight and simmering live band that often supports Detroit rapper Black Milk. Abernathy is likely to be a sleeper hit, especially at the intimate Heritage Bank Cafe Stritch Stage.
Rose’s most recent release, 2016’s The Light Bearer, shows her firmly embedded within LA’s future soul scene, itself an unsung community that’s set the tone for forward-thinking hip-hop infused R&B for more than a decade. Distinguished names from this lineage over the years have largely come out of the catalog of LA independent label Stones Throw, among them producer Madlib, Light Bearer executive producer Georgia Anne Muldrow (she’s a vocalist), and singer/rapper hybrid Anderson .Paak, who worked with producer Knxwledge on the recent collaboration Yes Lawd! as the duo NxWorries.
On The Light Bearer, vocal affirmations are underscored by funky bass and hazy beats. She’s learned from the best: her list of collaborators over the years has included .Paak, production triumvirate Sa-Ra Creative Partners and SJZ Winter Fest alum Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Her set on the Box Stage between Main Stage sets Friday night should be a fascinating counterpoint to the more classic R&B you’ll hear elsewhere in Plaza de César Chávez.
Afropunk called Time, the latest EP from Oakland-based Ghost & the City, a “richly textured landscape buoyed by Kia Fay’s haunted hooks.” It’s also the latest testament to the strength of the Bay Area’s current future soul scene, which is finding thoughtful ways to adorn jazz musicianship with an introspective electronic sheen. The group stems from the same scene as the Seshen, who was a hit at the Cafe Stritch Stage at last year’s Summer Fest. Fans of that performance should mark their calendars to see Ghost & the City on the SJZ Boom Box Stage on Saturday afternoon.
Chicago vocalist Jessica Lá Rel will open the weekend’s music on the SJZ Boom Box Stage, which will feature emerging R&B voices throughout the weekend. In the case of Lá Rel, her output often places social action at the center of her musical perspective, as evidenced by songs like “#WeCantBreathe,” which carry such heartfelt calls for justice as “innocence and justice is what we fight for / to see a day when we believe black lives mean more.” Her song follows an R&B tradition of using music as a platform to call for social change—classic examples from Sam Cooke (“A Change is Gonna Come”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Goin On”), and Sly and the Family Stone (“Everyday People”) come to mind. Arrive early on Friday to see why Oprah Winfrey and Reverend Jesse Jackson are fans.