By Barbare Sturua

It’s the time of year that jazz lovers eagerly await: when legendary jazz musicians take over the stages around New York City as the Blue Note Jazz Festival begins. Five iconic venues—Blue Note New York, Sony Hall, SummerStage in Central Park, The Town Hall, and Brooklyn Bowl—become the focal points for listeners, drawing jazz enthusiasts from all corners of the city and beyond.

The festival kicked off on May 30 with an electrifying performance by Soulive in Greenwich Village at Blue Note, setting a high bar for the month-long celebration of jazz. The festival will culminate on July 4, 2024, with a finale by the prodigious Joey Alexander. Throughout the festival, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to experience live performances from a stellar lineup of legendary jazz musicians, including Andra Day, Wynton Marsalis, Corinne Bailey Rae, Ezra Collective, Stanley Clarke, and many others.

One of the standout performances of the festival so far took place on May 27, when I had the privilege of seeing Gino Vannelli take over the stage at Sony Hall. The 72-year-old Canadian singer, who has been mesmerizing audiences since the 1970s, did not disappoint. His charisma and captivating stage presence kept the audience constantly engaged, eliciting reactions of clapping synchronously, whistling, whooping, applauding, and swaying to the soothing blue notes and syncopations. Vannelli’s stage movements made it impossible to look away, as he clapped on the beats, orchestrated his band with his hands, and got close to the instrument dominating the moment, visibly in a state of astral creativity as he crafted melodies.

The music was accompanied by a talented ensemble featuring trumpet, two saxophones, drums, bass, and keyboard. Together, they created a rich fusion of jazz, rock, pop, and R&B. The wide range of dynamics and harmonies in the background underscored Vannelli’s unique style. His expressive, powerful voice was philharmonic, sending waves of excitement through the audience as he hit high notes throughout the evening. When Gino Vannelli sang his Grammy-nominated hit “I Just Wanna Stop,” it felt like traveling through time, reliving the legendary years when funk and jazz reshaped modern arts in the ’80s.

Vannelli dedicated his performance to his recently passed wife, singing songs about love, grief, personal growth, and life’s battles. Between songs, he shared touching stories of how they met, their life in West Hollywood, and her MG convertible, describing her as “extraordinarily cool” in her youth. He reminisced about signing his first contract, writing his first hits, and the early years of his career. These personal anecdotes added depth to the performance, creating an intimate connection between Vannelli and his audience.

Sony Hall itself provided an ideal backdrop for Vannelli’s performance, with its intimate yet somewhat philharmonic atmosphere. The dim red and blue lights, little stars on the roof, and arches surrounding the hall created a gothic ambiance that made the experience feel like a fairy tale. But most importantly, it was Gino Vannelli who made the audience experience a feeling that will be remembered forever. Throughout the evening, he played songs ranging from his old albums recorded in the late ’70s to his recent one, which he said was recorded in his neighbor’s garage.

Vannelli’s career is marked by his experimentation with a broad range of genres. His album “Yonder Tree” (1995) explores rock/pop, while “Canto” (2002) delves into vocal/acoustic styles. During the performance, Vannelli brought all this universality into one cohesive show. It was a pleasure to see a living legend light up the stage and touch the hearts and souls of the audience with his music.

The Blue Note Jazz Festival continues to be a highlight of the year for jazz lovers, providing an opportunity to experience world-class performances in some of New York City’s most iconic venues. As Gino Vannelli’s unforgettable performance at Sony Hall demonstrated, this festival is a testament to the indescribable magical sensations that only jazz music can awaken in a listener.