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Summer jazz series brings free music to Ah-Nab-Awen Park

The sixth performance of this summer's Jazz in the Park series featured the Steve Sandner Quintet. Two more free Monday night events round out the series yet this summer.

/Nicholas Garbaty

Three more free Jazz in the Park events this summer:

August 17: Steve Hilger Quintet & Jazz Fusion (6-8 p.m.)

August 24: Planet D Nonet (6-8 p.m.)

/Nicholas Garbaty

/Nicholas Garbaty

On a recent Monday night, a crowd of Grand Rapids neighbors listened to the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Van Morrison and more at Ah-Nab-Awen Park. The Steve Sandner Quintet performed their tunes for the 15th season of the West Michigan Jazz Society’s (WMJS) Jazz in the Park. The band, weather and setting made for a relaxing, serene experience that anyone could enjoy. It presented a truly free opportunity to take a load off, mingle with friends and simply veg out while listening to mellow music.

What struck me immediately as I stepped into the park was just how many people come out to attend these performances. Sure, the majority of the crowd was older white folks, but many individuals, families and couples of different ages and races brought their lawnchairs and blankets out as well. The weather also added a unique element to the experience. It was a sunny 90 degrees, but a light breeze made it feel rather comfortable and helped to create the relaxing atmosphere of the event.

The ensemble comprised eponymous frontman Steve Sander on keyboard, vocals and the flugelhorn, bassist Jack Dreyden, saxophonists Laurie Sears and Tom Lockwood and drummer Randy Marsh, named musician of the year by the WMJS in 2013. The band had a seamless collaboration, jamming together without ever overpowering each other- even with two saxophones in the ensemble. Everyone was very comfortable with improvisational performance as well, which sounded natural to the course of whichever song they played. All in all, they each seemed very involved in how the other members played and openly showed their happiness to be at the venue, a feeling which was reciprocated by an excited audience.

The group opened its set with a song introducing the members through several bouts of improv. Though they played well, a traditional song would have been a better opener instead of each performer taking a minute or more to do his or her own improvisation. Thankfully, the rest of the show solved that small gripe. They played the blues, salsa and funk songs and featured tunes by different artists, like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra.

There was plenty to do and see during the intermission. Ah-Nab-Awen Park is green and gorgeous at 7:30 p.m. on a summer night and the view of the river and downtown was a sight to behold. There were also a couple food vendors selling hot dogs, barbecue, candy and drinks.

The band capped off the show with an encore of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” While people came and went throughout the show, the majority stayed and listened until the very end.

No matter one’s taste in music, there’s an appeal to going out to listen to a live concert, especially one that’s free. Two more free Jazz in the Park events are planned this summer, and I recommend going with friends or family to make the whole experience complete. Spending a night on the town and chilling out with close ones at a jazz concert while the weather is still kind is a near perfect example of a “life is good” moment. Those moments tend to come few and far between, so take advantage of this one while there’s still time.

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