Nearly 45,000 people swayed to the sounds of Mary J. Blige, Teena Marie and Robin Thicke on Saturday night, March 20; and to Boyz II Men, Cassandra Wilson and John Legend on Sunday, March 21.
This means that the city of Miami Gardens’ fifth annual Jazz in the Gardens music festival was another success.
The spring event has quickly become the place to be for music lovers seeking to bask in the gorgeous South Florida weather while enjoying up-and-coming artists as well as established musical veterans.
In addition to garnering a reputation for a consistently top-quality artist line-up, the two-day festival is also known for a very positive, celebratory vibe – evidenced by the patient banter of customers waiting in long lines to purchase food, and the spontaneous outbreaks of the “Electric Slide” that help pass the time between musical acts.
Hosted by radio personality and music lover Tom Joyner, Saturday’s lineup included the queen of Hip-Hop soul, Mary J. Blige, who delivered a solid, spirited and emotional performance filled with her now-standard endorsements of self-love and acceptance. With the exception of the final off-key note of “Just Fine,” which even brought a brief frown to Blige’s face, her show was exceptional.
The demure, stunningly beautiful singer who smiled coyly for photos in the media tent turned into an expressive, vocal and confident siren once she hit the stage. Dressed in a one-shouldered dark blue cat suit, Blige had an allure that was equal parts sensuality and swagger. She danced and posed, and sang her heart out.
Blige pours herself into her performances. She belted out the 2001 hit “No More Drama” as though she was singing it for the first time, crying and appearing emotionally drained at the song’s conclusion. When she sang “I Can See in Color,” written by Blige and Raphael Saadiq specifically for the movie Precious, you could feel her triumph and the pain that led to it.
Preceding Blige were “blue-eyed soul” singers Teena Marie and Robin Thicke. Marie complained that she packed a two-hour show into one, clearly preferring an unlimited opportunity to jam the night away. The woman got down, delivering an awesome show that was funky and nostalgic.
Marie’s love for the late Rick James, her former romantic and musical partner, is undying. When told that she had only 10 minutes left in her set, she shifted gears from her music to James’, thrilling the crowd with “Give it to Me” and “Super Freak,” as a montage of photos from back in the day of James and Marie flashed on the big screens. Time limit notwithstanding, Marie thankfully did not leave the stage without jamming her timeless hit, “Square Biz,” still in heavy rotation on many urban radio stations.
Thicke has established himself as a bona-fide sex symbol and member of R & B’s circle of favorites. His love affair with soul singing is paying dividends. A person listening to Thicke for the first time, eyes closed, might be stunned to discover that the genuinely soulful sounds they’re hearing were coming from a white man. Highlights from his highly enjoyable set were “Sweetest Love,” “Wanna Love Ya Girl,” and – of course – the Top-10 hit, “Lost Without You.”
Sunday’s line-up included jazz goddess Cassandra Wilson, whose 25-minute set included a beautifully restrained rendition of the Cyndi Lauper hit, “Time after Time.” Wilson’s graceful vocal expression, described as “more visual than audible,” confirmed why she’s managed to craft a more-than-two-decade jazz career in the struggling genre. It may also be that the Grammy winner’s style is difficult to pigeon-hole. Her musical manner is definitely jazz, but folk and blues also figure prominently.
Boyz II Men ended their set the same way they began, jamming to their infectious “Motownphilly,” from their 1991 debut album, “Cooleyhighharmony.” The trio (bass man Mike McCary is no longer a part of the group), channeled old-school groups like the Four Tops, slick choreography and all. Their set also included a very nice cover of the Bonnie Raitt hit, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Although Shawn Stockman’s individual performance was a tad pitchy in spots, lead singer Wanya Morris’ voice is amazing, and the group’s harmonizing is tight.
John Legend finished up the weekend with a lively, nearly 90-minute show that combined music from all three of his CDs. The multiple Grammy winner formerly known as John Stephens had the crowd on its feet for most of his set. One lucky woman was rendered momentarily speechless after being invited onto the stage to slow dance with the boyishly handsome Legend.
Not just a pretty face, Legend said, his assistance to Haiti was a “no brainer.” Legend joined Wyclef Jean and several others in the benefit performance to raise money for Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake.
His “Show Me Campaign” is seeking to eradicate poverty in Tanzania by implementing practical solutions that include providing clean water, improved health care and education, and higher- yielding agriculture and Internet connectivity.
“I don’t see how you can’t do something,” he said. “We have so much in excess…we have so much to give. There’s no need that people should suffer with things that are solvable.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Mary J. Blige