Snarky Puppy performing at the opening night of the GroundUP Music Festival at the North Beach Bandshell. Photo courtesy Ground Up Music.

The fourth annual edition of the GroundUP Music Festival, held at the North Beach Bandshell over the Valentine Day´s weekend, was a smartly curated showcase for creative music (borderlines between genres were simply ignored) playing out in a beautiful setting and a low-key atmosphere. It’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

Created and produced by Paul Lehr, CEO of GroundUP Music, Snarky Puppy’s artist-run label, and bassist, composer, and Snarky Puppy instigator Michael League, who is also the festival’s artistic director, the festival reflects some of the group’s musical curiosity and aesthetics and also suggests a collaborative spirit at work that feels at once ambitious and down-to-earth. (The event is presented in conjunction with the local Rhythm Foundation, which manages the Bandshell)

Obviously, the performances are the attraction and the anchor of the GroundUP Music Festival. But outdoor music events are cultural contraptions, as much musical feasts as they are social gatherings and businesses. They have many moving parts which, because of their different purposes, often do not fit right. Here, they do.

One of the distinct features of this event is that, because many of the artists stay through the weekend, there are both planned and impromptu collaborations. It is also a setting in which it is common to see artists taking in other artists’ performances or simply hanging out.

Michael League, left, in conversation with Hamilton de Holanda on the grounds of The GroundUP Music Festival, Sunday afternoon.

The festival occupies a space, just a few steps from the beach, that not only includes the Bandshell and its seating area but a small park where there’s a second, smaller stage which allows for continuous live music with no overlapping sets. A building that regularly houses a senior center serves as a place for talks, masterclasses, workshops, and VIP lounges. In the park, hammocks hang from the palm trees, and there are also several small stands selling clothing items and food.

Some personal favorite performances this year include sets by singer and songwriter Michael McDonald; drummer Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band; trumpeter Christian Scott aAtunde Adjuah; singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda.
On Friday, McDonald revisited old favorites backed by a band that included League and saxophonist Chris Potter, the festival’s artist-at-large. In McDonald’s case, his choice of material is almost secondary. He could probably sing the repair manual of a vacuum cleaner and make it sound like poetry. That said, his encore, a reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with just a discreet piano and organ accompaniment, brought a church-like hush to the Bandshell. It was mesmerizing.

Michael McDonald performing at the GroundUP Music Festival, Friday. Photo courtesy Ground Up Music.

Blade and The Fellowship Band — Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, saxophones; Jon Cowherd, piano and Doug Weiss, bass —offered a superb master class on musical storytelling and ensemble playing. This band’s music has the open, probing feel of the best jazz but is rooted in folk music, gospel, and blues and as it unfolds, seemingly always unhurriedly, it feels at once weightless like a cloud and deeply grounded.
Singer Cecile McLorin Salvant took the Bandshell stage after Blade’s band accompanied just by Sullivan Fortner on piano and, basically, performed an intimate club set in the afternoon on an open-air venue. That would be an invitation to trouble for most singers — but McLorin Salvant is not most singers. She exudes a casual, good-natured musical brilliance. She has dazzling musical chops and a sense of humor and at times, her whole performance suggests someone distractedly walking on a ledge while absorbed in telling a story. You enjoy the telling but you also worry, hold your breath,  marvel and by the end of the set, all in safe ground, you are joining on a singalong. Of course.

 Pianist Sullivan Fortner and singer Cecile McLorin Salvant performing Sunday afternoon. Photo by Fernando Gonzalez ©

It it is impossible to account for all performances over the weekend, but there weresome that also deserve mention. Trumpeter Christian Scott aAtunde Adjuah closed the program Saturday with an impressive blend of musical muscle and ideas, invention and tradition seemingly always close, a statement for “the second century of jazz,” as he put it. Mexican singer Lila Downs sounded curiously fascinated with cumbia and its variations, and Hamilton de Holanda dazzled playing with his quartet Friday and again the following evening when he sat in with Snarky Puppy. He could play mercury-slippery melodic ideas as fast as he can think’em — and he’s a very fast thinker. What is engaging in de Holanda’s playing is that he’s not a musical athelete but a very creative melodist with a superior technique.

Mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda at the GroundUP Music Festival, Friday. Photo courtesy Ground Up Music.

The soul/funk/jam band Lettuce, which seemingly managed to get the whole Bandshell grounds bobbing their heads in a groove, and the all-female mariachi group Flor de Toloache, in a delightful performance as a quartet, also had memorable sets.
As in previous editions of the festival, Snarky Puppy played host, performing at the Bandshell every day and closing the event on Sunday evening.

League and Snarky Puppy have made imaginative and probing music over the past few years. The GroundUP Music Festival might be their most impactful creation yet.


A short version of this story was posted in JAZZIZ Magazine’s