When the Jazz on the Lawn series kicks off at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center later this week, the bimonthly outdoor concerts will feature some new faces, new sounds and a new climate.
“Hopefully, it’ll be 10 degrees cooler than it has been in the past,” says Andrew Keenan, Callanwolde’s executive director, who curated the 2019 lineup with a nod to global warming. “We used to start the series in June, but we’ve pushed our start date back to August 23 when the days will be shorter and it’ll get darker sooner.”
Still, things are bound to heat up fast when Joe Gransden and his 16-piece orchestra share the stage with R&B vocalist Robin Lattimore.
“Opening the whole series with Robin will be a thrill for me,” says Gransden, a trumpet player whose singing voice has been compared to that of Chet Baker and Frank Sinatra. “She’s just a powerhouse, man. Her bluesy-jazzy voice is so strong, and her ability to phrase the Great American Songbook has always impressed me. She’s a great entertainer. She’s got jokes. And she looks great on stage.”
Breaking the fourth wall between audiences and entertainers has been a trademark of the Friday night series for 20 years. Callanwolde’s amphitheater, situated in a tiny clearing that’s carved into a hillside and surrounded by trees, is jewel-like and offers a mix of seating options from VIP to bring-your-own-blankets. And the acoustics are pristine.
According to Gransden, the natural reverberation when playing from the pit, and the slapback from the stage to the audience itself, ensures that there’s not a bad seat in the house. And if Lattimore’s assessment of Gransden’s Big Band sound as “so tight and delicious” is any indication, getting to experience it under the stars only heightens the experience.
“The highlight for me last year was when Joe and his tenor saxophonist John Sandfort came off the bandstand, walked into the crowd, and played back and forth on either side of the amphitheater,” says Keenan. “The sense of freedom . . . that anything could happen at any time was absolutely incredible, and the crowd went crazy.”
The improvisational power of call-and-response between musicians and their audiences is something Lattimore has understood since singing as a little girl for devotion at her mother’s revival services and in church. And she says that what applied in the sanctuary back then holds true for her today regardless of the venue or musical genre.
“I am fed by watching people enjoy what we do,” says Lattimore. “If there are 100 people at Callanwolde or 20 and they’re jumping around having a good time, that feeds my soul and pushes me to excel.”
Like Lattimore, Eddie Lopez and his Orquesta MaCuba (September 6) — featuring full brass, percussion and rhythm sections, as well as backup vocalists — will perform at Callanwolde for the first time this fall. But if his experience of headlining jazz festivals since 2003 has taught him anything, it’s that regardless of so-called language barriers, Latin jazz needs no translation when played right among music lovers.
“People come to enjoy the culture of the music, and we musicians can feel that,” says Lopez. “We’ll often start with that song that starts slow and builds to a crescendo . . . like ‘Chan Chan’ from the Buena Vista Social Club. Once folks hear the bass line, they know it immediately and by the end they’re out of their seats . . . standing and clapping to the beat.”
Bob Baldwin, the Atlanta-based contemporary jazz pianist, composer and producer who hosts a nationally syndicated weekly radio show, The NewUrbanJazz Lounge, will take the stage on September 20. And Jazz on the Lawn veteran, trumpeter Joey “Papa J” Sommerville, will make his comeback on October 4.
When it came to selecting an artist to close out the series on a high note, Gransden turned to Atlanta’s Queen B and Georgia Music Hall of Famer Francine Reed (October 11).
“Francine is one of my favorite entertainers in the whole world,” says Gransden. “It’s always a win-win when you have her with you because she can get the crowd in the palm of her hand just with her stage presence. So, anytime I get to perform with Francine, I’m down.”
All concerts will be held rain or shine. Guests are invited to bring their own food and drink, but there will be a cash bar on-site, as well as food for sale provided by Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. But good eats and drinks aside, the biggest draw for Lattimore will be the chance for a cross section of Atlantans to meet, experience an art form they all love together and swing.
“When people enjoy music together and we bring our personality and our energy to that audience, it’s not just a performance,” says Lattimore. “It’s a meshing of souls. When it hits and our souls meet, we just fly.”