A lot of summer music festivals — and jazz festivals in particular — have a strong creative impetus, even if they're ultimately just trying to sell tickets. The better ones stretch the boundaries of genre by mixing canonical artists with their younger counterparts. The best ones privilege artistic content over fiduciary interests. Among those, Oakland's Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival stands alone. It's a festival with the sensibility of a jam session. It's free, it's interdisciplinary, and it tends to highlight local artists who all bear some connection to the sponsoring organization, EastSide Arts Alliance. Most importantly, it's set up to encourage collaboration. The point is not to have a tiered lineup of openers and headliners, but to mix people in an interesting way. What results is not so much a concert as a sonic commentary.
Saxophonist Billy Harper showed up in 2007 to jam with poet Amiri Baraka and an ever-evolving combo called the Freedom Now! Band. In 2008, R&B singer Goapele joined with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and keyboardist Michael Aaberg. Last year's lineup featured the Abraham Burton Trio and famed Berkeley tenor player David Murray, who now lives in France. Murray took the stage with a new iteration of the Freedom Now! Band led by saxophonist Howard Wiley and Living Legends emcee Bicasso. They incorporated musicians from all sectors of the jazz ecosystem, said Wiley, including four rappers, two singers, and an MPC player — all culled from Bicasso's Sunday night jam session, Bop Gun. Dancer Traci Bartlow also cameoed with a form of Brazilian footwork that's based on chants and beat cycles.
Freedom Now! had its genesis in 2006, when a group of EastSide artists decided to form a jazz combo that would look large, but still have the looseness of a trio. Wiley has led it for several years, usually in the company of trumpeter Geechi Taylor and a rotating rhythm section (Aaberg will play keys and Jaz Sawyer will hold down drum duties at this year's festival). Whereas last year the band employed a lot of weird instrumentation, this year they'll use a more traditional format, Wiley said, and make the set list more contemporary by throwing in some pop tunes, including an extra-jazzy version of Mary J. Blige's "Just Fine." Wiley assured that he's not a traditionalist per se, even though he's known for doing blues- and swing-based music. He can understand why audiences of his generation won't cotton to jazz unless it has modern elements. "You hear Fred Astaire singing 'Night and Day,'" he said. "You think, 'Damn, that's some corny shit.' Then you hear the way Miles did it."
We sometimes take it as an article of faith that tradition is a static, calcified thing, but to an artist like Howard Wiley, it could go in all sorts of directions. And given that this year's Malcolm X Jazz Fest places the Freedom Now! Band alongside Henry Clement's Gumbo Band and E.W. Wainwright's African Roots of Jazz, Mary J. Blige might be the tamest thing on the program. Maybe. Saturday, May 22, at San Antonio Park (18th Ave. and Foothill Blvd., Oakland). Also featuring Bay Area Blues Society Caravan of All-Stars and Rara Tou Limen Haitian Dance Company, along with a hip-hop stage, food court, and graffiti battle. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., free. 510-533-6629 or EastSideArtsAlliance.com