Smooth Jazz Concert Reviews
Our review of various smooth jazz concerts.
Big NY & the Smooth Jazz All Stars – Smooth Funky Christmas 2
Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club
Dec. 18, 2016, 7:30 pm
One thing about local bassist Christian “Big NY” De Mesones: Along with towering large as life, he is a dedicated showman and musician. He also manages to corral – as he did on this festive musical night at Bethesda, MD’s Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club –some of the finest names among the artists we have come to know well in this area for their spectacular talent – trumpeter Willie Bradley, saxmen Rob Maletick and Eddie Baccus Jr. (the latter of Pieces of a Dream fame), pianist David Bach, guitarist Drew Davidsen, keyboardist Elliot Levine, and special guests vocalist Lindsey Webster and young Minnesota saxman Danny Kusz.
These artists all came together to pour out their best in Christmas cheer and good vibes during this 2nd installment of the bassist’s Smooth Funky Christmas show. Admittedly, the sound system failed them more than once, taking away from what you just knew would have been a gigantic presentation. I understand that it improved after intermission. Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, I couldn’t stay to witness that resurrection. I do know that, if properly repaired, Big NY, Davidsen, Levine, et al blew the roof off the place. As it was, during the time I was in attendance, they did a great job of presenting classic holiday tunes in a most innovative manner while offering their own stirring originals. Tunes included Levine’s “Urban Groove,” Kusz’s “Eleva8tor Musik,” Davidsen’s “We Three Stringz,” the traditional “O Tannenbaum,” Webster’s “Open Up” and “Back to Your Heart,” and Big NY’s own classic “Latin Jive” and “Don Pedro.” The set, a very generous one, included many more crowd pleasers.
While our physical vantage point wasn’t the best as media go, considering the constant foot traffic around our location in the crowded venue, we were able feel the strong groove whenever and wherever possible.
Big NY’s commitment to this holiday event is to be highly commended, and I think that the support staff (soundmen, etc.) owe it to him and that commitment to present him and his cohorts in the best light possible. They deserve it, as they certainly showed in the first such show held a year ago. Would I attend again? You bet as I suspect those audio hiccups will be absent if I know Big NY’s commitment to excellence, Overall, a very gallant effort with a wonderful lineup. – Ronald Jackson
Brian Culbertson – The Funk!Tour
The Birchmere Music Hall
Wed., Nov. 2, 2016, 7:30 pm
Not living in an area prone to earthquakes, I’m not sure if one ever gets a real warning that such an event is on the way. Here in the DC/MD/VA area, quakes are pretty much nonexistent (except for the freakish one a few years back), but we were given ample warning of the musical earthquake that was about to shake The Birchmere Music Hall down to its foundation. Yes, the Brian Culbertson Funk! tour was rolling in. It arrived on November 2 and stayed through November 3, bringing with it a tidal wave of talent and F-U-N-K. Mere words cannot sufficiently describe the event, but here goes.
After the sold-out Birchmere had served its patrons selections from its delicious menu and the excited chatter was abuzz for about two hours after the doors opened, we were treated to a huge “boom” that jolted the audience to wide-eyed attention, focused on the stage where drummer Chris Miskel literally kicked it all off, his lighted drum kit forming a huge presence emerging from the darkened stage. Experience number one. That was followed by the booming announcement of Culbertson and the “quake” that would follow.
Parading out among crazed cheers from the wired-up, fired-up crowd, the band (consisting of the keys wiz himself – who also magnificently displayed his trombone skills, which have come so very far from his earlier days – drummer Miskel, the charismatic saxman/vocalist Marqueal Jordan, guitarist Tyrone Chase, keyboardist/vocalist Eddie Miller, bassist Mike Harrington, trumpeter Michael Sever, and two of the most renowned support musicians around – trumpeter Patches Stewart and keyboardist/vocalist/Candy Dulfer sidekick/all-around cool and funky guy Chance Howard) dove into the lead track “Get Ready” from Culbertson’s latest Funk! release. If you weren’t ready, that tune brought you there in a hurry!
This was the first set ever where I’d witnessed so many medleys and transitions interwoven throughout the show. From tracks like “Funkin Like My Father,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Morning Glory,” “Feelin’ It,”(from Culbertson’s XII release, featuring Chuck Brown), AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces,” Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” to more tracks from Culbertson’s latest and other releases, I have never seen a man get through several moments so quickly yet make it all last for two hours! Two hours of crazed funk! One had to ask oneself “Can I handle this??” Still, handle it the audience did…for the entire two-hour set.
There was simply too music to single out each tune here, but trust me when I say this was truly a shake-you-up, shake-you-down, shake-you-all-around kinda earthquake that may have left survivors but left no one sitting motionless unless totally paralyzed by the magnitude of this phenom.
I have been to many a Culbertson concert over the years, dating back to his very young years. Nothing, I repeat, nothing could have prepared me for this. Not only was the music off the rails, the audience was deafening and ecstatic in its appreciation and praise for this man and his cohorts, as well it should have been, considering that this group put on one helluva sweat-filled, funk-laden performance.
here were so many blinding highlights, it was like watching an intense, fast-paced, action-packed adventure movie — on steroids. There was Culbertson playing insane runs while standing on the other side of his keyboard with his back to the audience in that playing-backwards style I’ve only seen a couple of artists do; there was Harrington’s hot bass solo, the fiery riffs from guitarist Chase, and that oh-so-hot horn section, which, of course, included Culbertson. There were the soul-stirring vocals from Howard and Miller, and there was that overwhelming presence of plain dirty, nasty F-U-N-K, the real star of the show.
By the night’s end, if you chose not to stand, you saw nothing, despite hearing loud and spirited cheers all around you. No, you had to stand or be swallowed up by the enormity of it all. Me? I stood, simply not wanting to miss a single twitch of action onstage.
Culbertson had just kicked his set into another universe with this performance. If you can get to wherever he’s appearing, don’t even think twice about grabbing a ticket. You want to be a part of this funk history, believe me. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
The Hamilton Theater
Wed., Oct. 19, 2016, 8:00 pm
Another of this genre’s great creators of astounding imagery through music, guitar guru Russ Freeman delivers like clockwork every single time I’ve seen him and his magnificent band, The Rippingtons. As if glidingalong on invisible wings (or perhaps even riding in on flying dragon wings in some cases), Freeman et al (the et al being Brandon Fields on sax, Bill Heller on keys, Dave Karasony on drums, and Rico Belled on bass) soar higher and higher with each performance, and I’ll bet the perfectionist in the guitarist feels that there’s still room to reach the band’s apex, while the rest of us try to figure out how much higher can they go.
Tonight at DC’s Hamilton theater, the band’s first ever appearance here at this venue, they again mesmerized, energized, and held pleasantly captive another audience of simply happy, satisfied patrons.
Kicking things off with the driving “Wild Tales” from their latest release True Stories — their 22nd overall, the band also offered others from this fantastic album including the well-structured mid-tempo “Sundance,“ “Golden Child,” and “Kings Road” with Freeman tearing into his guitar with almost effortless craftsmanship.
Among the early standouts in the show was the wildly hot up-tempo classic “Native Sons of a Distant Land” from their much earlier Sahara release.
Swinging further into yesteryear, they then offered “Welcome to the St. James Club” from the album of the same name. This killer track has always impressed me with its wicked timing and cool jazz flavoring. Exciting is but a mere understatement!
Each tune was performed with stellar skill, synchronization, precision, and professionalism to the hilt. They offered tracks from many in the Ripps’ voluminous library, including tunes from Built to Last, Fountain of Youth, Modern Art, Life in the Tropics, and the 20th Anniversary album. The also dropped in a clever medley and a tribute to some of that good ol’ traditional jazz/blues just to demonstrate that the group is very much proficient in the roots of it all. The entire concert was such a grand exhibition of both spontaneity and controlled orchestration. Madly entertaining.
Saxman Fields was his usual magnificent self, reminding long-time fans of the Ripps of the wonderful period he originally spent with the band. Like good wine, this cat just gets better with time, even outdoing himself from that earlier time!
Drummer Karasony was truly outstanding as he was given some time to unleash a crazy drum solo, putting on a drum clinic like no other.
Later in the set, Belled placed his bass skills on display with some seriously powerful biting, talking runs.
The final complete tune was the ever popular “Tourist in Paradise” from the 1989 album of the same name (that album, by the way, featured the late great vocalist carl Anderson). The encore — brought about as the result of loudly appreciative fans — was truly electrifying as Freeman offered his usual tribute to the late legendary guitar king Jimi Hendrix, lighting up abbreviated versions of “Purple Haze” and “Fire,” always a moment I wait for during a Ripps performance. Freeman again demonstrated why he is among the best in delivering expressive and colorful riffs.
While not a lot of attention was paid to that period when Freeman was flaunting his Latin guitar skills and hot, exotic rhythms (how I so loved those couple of albums, despite critics claiming that he had stepped away from his roots in their attempt to pigeonhole him and his music. Albums like Wild Card and Life in the Tropics hold a special place in my heart…but then, so do Built to Last, Sahara, Côte d’ Azur, and on and on)
Not ever the show to miss, you can’t go wrong with a Ripps event. Freeman & Co. always stay true to form, and tonight was no different. Needless to say, when they’re in your neck of the woods, grab a ticket and get set for one helluva ride into jazz, Ripps-style. — Ronald Jackson
Birchmere Music Hall
Sunday, Oct. 16, 7:30 pm
When one first walked into the show area of the Birchmere last Sunday evening, where the incredible and lovely Japanese piano/keyboard virtuoso Keiko Matsui performed with her new Acoustic Band, heard on her new album Journey to the Heart, one may have paused at the
sight of an upright bass, a couple of acoustic guitars, a piano (no keyboard), and drums on stage. “Where’s the electric guitar, the sax, the electric bass, the Yamaha keyboard that the Japanese princess commands so easily? Are we in for a totally different experience?” you may have asked yourself. The answer: A clear yes…and no. The sound — so warm, natural, and fresh — differs a bit from the literally electric feel of her previous sets, but that sizzling vibe and groove are still very, very much intact. In fact, this new sound only further enhances and complements the pianist’s message and vision. It again only goes to prove how deeply she goes within herself to visualize and conceptualize the meaning of her musical creations and how easily she can express them in any manner she chooses.
A statue should be erected in the center of Tokyo in tribute to this phenomenon known as Keiko Matsui for all she has done worldwide in advancing the consciousness of all things jazz and World music. Never has there been a style and sound as unique as hers, and I doubt that there ever will be (in my lifetime, at least). The art of storytelling and picture painting through music has never seen the likes of her. Standing with as much beauty and elegance as that Asian nation itself, this petite legend’s music has always towered high above the masses who witness her performance, lifting her and her admirers to musical heights simply unimaginable.
Now, let me take a moment to talk about this new band of hers, and what a band it is! Each member exhibits competence and such a great gift of talent, perception, and depth. The bassist, Carlitos Del Puerto of Cuba, demonstrated on every tune his command of the upright bass in a fashion worthy of the utmost respect of bassists everywhere as his fingers danced along the fretless instrument with obvious confidence and joy. The guitarist, the familiar JP Mourao of Brazil, serenaded us sweetly with his Latin and Brazilian flair and nimble fingers. The drummer, Jimmy Branly, also of Cuba, was absolutely electrifying in such an acoustic set, completely owning the often intricate and sophisticated time signatures. Keiko could not have surrounded herself with a better group of true artists.
As for the set, the group opened with “Moving On,” the rousing lead track from Keiko’s latest release, followed by the exotic “Carnival” from the same album, followed by “The Edge of Twilight,” a sweet and melodic offering from the album, as well. It was this tune that particularly showed off Branly’s command of timing.
Many other delicacies followed, including those from previous albums like Moyo, Sapphire, Soul Quest, Full Moon & The Shrine (one of my all-time favorite albums), and others. Never once did the audience take its eyes off that stage as there was so much color and magic being illustrated there.
The comely artist played almost the entire new album (a treat not often offered by many artists). There was one track that was omitted, and I so wanted her to perform that — the absolutely beautiful and riveting title track, which is perhaps my favorite on the album. Still, what she did perform was so gripping and so Keiko that I was in musical heaven in spite of the omission.
As I said at the onset, when one first walks into a venue where this Japanese piano/keyboard virtuoso is performing with her new Acoustic Band, heard on her new album, one may pause at the sight of an upright bass, a couple of acoustic guitars, a piano (no keyboard), and drums on stage. One may have a quizzical look on his/her face, and there may be questions. Then, the band begins to play. Nuff said. – Ronald Jackson
The Hideaway Club
Streatham, South London, UK
Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, 7:00 pm
As a mark of the quality of a band, you can’t beat opening a set with a tune that’s at least 30 years old, and that’s exactly what UK acid jazz superstars Shakatak did last night (Oct. 1) at the Hideaway in London. They opened their set with “Invitation,” a tune from quite literally back in the day, 1982, to be exact, and it’s still popping! If you’re like me, you might not have heard this tune for years, but from the opening bars, you’ll remember it. Another classic, “Easier Said Than Done,” followed, and the trip down memory lane, for me at any rate, continued. The crazy thing is, with these tunes, you not only remember the words and the breaks but the dance steps you used to put on in nightclubs that haven’t stood the test of time in the way that this band has; side, side, slide, kick, turn, repeat! It was the release of “Easier Said Than Done” that gave the band the radio exposure needed for their first top-twenty hit which stayed on the UK Singles chart for 17 weeks.
Hearing these classics again is like looking through a photo album and finding pictures of friends that you haven’t seen for years.
The set continued with “Carry On,” one of the stand-out tracks (for me, anyway) from their excellent new album, Time and Places, and it fitted in just perfectly. It’s a tune that’s got that magical Shakatak touch, simple catchy melody and an evocative, good-times vocal hook that dares you to sit still.
The show was a perfect blend of the old and the new. “Dark Is the Night” came next and the groove was definitely sustained. There was a brief and tasty guitar solo before things went a little quiet, and Alan Wormald began a distinctly Latin-tinged solo introduction to the instrumental “Rio Nights,” another tune from the excellent Shakatak back catalogue! It’s when you watch a musician like Wormald that you realise what excellent musicians are in this band.
Hearing this band live, the sound is almost identical to listening to their recorded material. This in itself is a special thing, and much credit has to be given to the amazing vocals of Jill Seward and the backing singing of Jacqui Hicks and Alan Wormald. They were always right there, providing the unique vocal unison that is the Shakatak trademark.
Sometimes, there is a magic that happens when a group of people come together to create something. That’s what you get with Shakatak. A kind of smooth, soulful, funky magic. It emanates from the understated back beats so excellently produced by Roger Odell, hidden behind his array of cymbals and toms, and then embellished by that warm, fat bass of Mr. George Anderson. This sensual rhythmic mattress underpins the mercurial keyboard playing of Bill Sharpe whose style provides the springboard for Jill Seward’s distinctive vocal refrains. When you see them live, you can see why this band has had 12 entries in the Guinness book of hit singles. They are one of the UK’s musical treasures.
Anyway, back to the show, “On the Corner,” from the album of the same name, found Jill Seward at her percussion station doing the business and looking like a blonde reincarnation of Tito Puente as she leaned back, keeping the rhythm going, to reach the mic for the vocal shots.
Two more from the new album rounded out the first half, George Anderson’s “Head to the Sky,” a beautiful, samba-tinged melody with a thought-provoking vocal line, and the wistful title track Times and Places. Both numbers were delivered perfectly with the later tune being one of those musical moments that you wished could just go on and on. A couple of stunning new numbers.
Mr. Anderson (It’s the Matrix, I can’t resist! Sorry.) came out to start the second set. He made some reference to the others being all exhausted or some such and proceeded to entertain us with his bass. He began gently enough plucking and slapping before settling into a deep groove. Roger Odell slipped behind his kit and propelled Anderson forward, and the groove kicked up a notch or three. So, that was where the power and the funk for Shakatak came from.
As the rest of the band re-joined the rhythm section, they went into the opening track from the new album, a tune called “I Will Be There.” This is classic Shakatak. Catchy vocal hook and gentle undulating rhythms pinning it firmly to the two-step corner of the dance floor!
Another Latin-tinged instrumental followed with Wormald’s guitar again leading the way. He is the master of the catchy blues-drenched lick. His solos are logical audible extensions of those licks delivered through precisely fingered notes that are picked with a jeweller’s precision as he navigates his fretboard before returning to re-state the theme. Wonderful.
Then it was time for a roll through the back catalogue, “Day by Day,” “Steppin’,” and “Living in the UK.” All of these are great tunes, “Steppin’” is especially evocative of an era in UK nightlife. Full of the old stop-start rhythms and 2,3,4 pauses!
Then, it was time for “Night Birds”. This was Shakatak’s first single to reach the top ten, and the album of the same name gave the band their first gold album, entering at number four and remaining in the charts for twenty-eight weeks. Of all the songs from their back catalogue, this tune, more than any of the others, made me realise how much time had passed, how many friends had come and gone, and what good times I had had to the sound of this band’s music!
The encore was the anthem, “Down on the Street,” and, by now, the Hideaway, London’s number 1 jazz club, was properly rocking. A great finale to a really good evening’s entertainment.
In this crazy disposable age that we find ourselves living in, it’s refreshing to find there are still some lasting examples of class and quality around. Shakatak is definitely in that category. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
The George Anderson Band
The Hideaway Club
Streatham, South London, UK
Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, 9:00 pm
George Anderson has been the bassist for one of the most iconic and enduring jazz funk outfits of all time, the UK band Shakatak. This show at the awesome Hideaway Club, in Streatham, South London, was an opportunity to catch his other regular outfit, The George Anderson Band.
The set opened with the track “Herbie,” and the funk began. A lilting chugging track with the trademark jazz-funk, brit-funk starts and stops, melody complete with gentle four-note cascading key changes that defy you to sit still. The tune came together nicely after a slightly ragged opening, and, as the band coalesced, so the groove smoothed and an excellent piano solo from the talented Raffy Bushman floated across our bopping heads.
They followed that up with a new track, “Wonderful,” that will be featured on the forthcoming new Shakatak album Times and Places due in September. So, there’s something to look forward to, and, trust me, based on the strength of this track alone, you want to get your pre-orders in. It’s a gem. This track has got one of those perfect bass lines, one that reminds you of something but is totally fresh.
Anderson is a gifted composer who has written some absolute jazz-funk gems over the years, and this is just more proof of his talent. It’s a tune that’s got a real old-school bounce and vocal styling to it that fizzes and pops over a gorgeous 80s style soul groove that’s pure GA mixed with a splash of something sort of like Loose-Ends (if you’re old enough to remember them).
The band switched pace and rolled through “High and Mighty Love” before dropping an amazing version of the Jaco Pastorius number “Come On Come Over.” Well, after the restrained soulful stylings of “High and Mighty Love” with its beautiful, sensitive chorus, “Come On Come Over” was like being hit with the funky rhythm stick. The track, originally from Pastorious’ eponymous debut album, was delivered with punch, pace and passion. Anderson showed what an accomplished bass player he is with the speed and precision that he applied to this bass-led tune. Full credit to the horn section and John Fisher on drums for the admirable way they were right there. The horns especially had a challenge in keeping step with that bass line and the sax player, Richard Bessley, always seemed to look relieved when they reached the end of that section.
Anderson took his foot off the gas for the next tune and brought to the stage his long-time friend vocalist Junior Giscombe for a version of “Lay Your Hands On Me,” a track from Anderson’s first solo album Positivity. The interplay between Giscombe and vocalist Debby Bracknell brought this number to life! Giscombe, remembered for that classic track “Mama Used to Say,” is another of the amazing soulful voices that the UK has produced and then chosen to forget. Whether it’s deliberate or unintentional is open for debate, but it does seem incredible that there are so many talented artists that the UK has produced who have never been allowed to reach their true potential.
“Latin Love” followed, a gorgeous tune with echoes of George Duke sprinkled throughout. The groove played host to some searing trumpet lines from Sid Gauld and encapsulated a fantastic guitar solo from Dave Ital, then climaxed with a terrific, rhythmic drum solo from John Fisher, who had been stellar all evening.
“Back in the Day” came next, and that’s another of those signature Brit-funk tunes, and sweet vocal refrains over shifting, driving, stop-start rhythm lines that just take you back to the eighties while still sounding daisy-fresh in the new millennium. Especially like the Stevie Wonder horn line steal towards the end of this tune, you listen, you’ll hear it.
The second set was the chance for Anderson and the band to run through some old favourites, and this was, to an old soul boy like me, heaven! To watch a band drop faithful renditions of tracks like George Duke’s “Brazilian Love Affair,” Earth Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” (one of my personal all-time favourites!) and “September,” Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Not” and then finish with a Prince medley that included a version of “Purple Rain” that Bracknell owned. Fantastic!
The range of music these folks cover is amazing. They played tunes from the Shakatak canon, including “Day-By-Day,” which featured Giscombe and Bracknell. They also performed classic soul numbers like Jocelyn Brown’s Somebody Else’s Guy,” which vocalist Mary Pearce had more fun with than should be legal. The jazz-funk classics, wherever Anderson led them, were always on point. Tight, danceable, soulful, and fun!
This was a really good night of great music which featured so many standout moments. One that surprised me was when Giscombe let rip on their version of “Mama Used to Say.” His voice displayed a quality of depth and character that I hadn’t realized he possessed. Awesome.
The vocal pairing of Mary Pearce and Debby Bracknell was delicate, emotive, and powerful all the way through, and, as I said before, Bracknell on “Purple Rain” was phenomenal — but the true star of the show was Mr Anderson. Great composer, great musician, and a true British jazz-funk and soul legend!
The new tune, “Wonderful,” is absolutely that, wonderful. I can’t wait to get my hands on the upcoming Shakatak album, and yes, I have bought my tickets for the Shakatak show on October 1st at the Hideaway. Think I am going to miss that? You mad. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
Joe’s Pub (in the Public Theater)
New York, NY
Sat., Aug. 6, 7:00 pm
Most jazz concerts here in the States feature artists we smooth/c-jazz lovers regularly follow and get to see at least once or twice a year. Most are familiar and extraordinarily talented, exciting artists, providing us with those “damn, that was good” moments most every single time. Then, there are the phenomenal artists and groups whom we never get to see. One such group (actually a duo performing with outstanding support musicians as their band) is Count Basic — known to all who have religiously followed smooth jazz since its birth. In fact, smooth jazz radio maintained a pretty good love affair with this fiery, soulful acid jazz outfit until the unfortunate decline of terrestrial smooth jazz radio. The result of that decline was particularly hard to take for fans following such dynamic groups as Shakatak and Count Basic, who were not known for U.S. performances, though they continued to distribute their releases here.
Well, that changed last Saturday night in Manhattan as Count Basic brought their electric, soul-infused brand of jazz to perform for the very first time in the U.S. at Joe’s Pub located in the Public Theater there. Was it ever worth the wait!
From the excited buzz of anticipation in the audience prior to the band taking to the stage to the rousing finale, this was major fun personified.
The band came on stage with a slick-dressed horn section (suits and ties, no less! When was the last time you witnessed that old school R&B/jazz garb??) and the main attraction, the casually dressed and wired-for-sound founder/guitarist Peter Legat and the lovely and incredibly sultry vocalist Kellie Sae.
The sizzling night began with the smokin’ up-tempo “All Time High,” the band’s first big hit from their 1995 debut release Life Think It Over. That was quickly followed by “Joy, Peace and Happiness” from the same album. This tune featured — as many songs did that night — the tight, harmonious horn section comprised of Jay Webb on trumpet, Paul Arbogast on slide trombone, and Greg Riley on sax. Boy, were those guys on it! In addition to them, the Count Basic band that night included John Delley on keyboards, Dirk Erchinger on drums, Will Figueroa on percussion, and vocalists Kiki Hawkins and Josette Newsam-Marchak.
Sae’s vocals were infectious, coaxing, and effective throughout the night as she belted out tunes from the new album Sweet Spot (reviewed here on our Smooth Jazz CD Reviews page) and musical treats from earlier releases.
Needless to say, the audience was totally in Grooveland in the jam-packed venue from the very beginning.
As Sae took a short stage break, Legat took to the spotlight with a superior trio of instrumental tracks, thrilling all with his masterful handling of the blues on an original track called “Swamp,” found on their latest release. The track is so titled, he told me later, for the very essence of good blues: sweaty, hot, and going right to the soul. He followed that with the funky “Sir Karl” from their 2007 Love & Light release, and wrapped it all up with the band’s classic “M.L. in the Sunshine” from the debut release. Talk about taking one back to the early enticements of smooth jazz!
Upon her return to the stage, Sae knocked it out of the park with their stellar cover of legendary songbird Gladys Knight’s “Licence to Kill” from the James Bond movie soundtrack of the same name (found on their 2000 More Than the Best release as “License to Kill”). The horn section certainly had the license that night as that tight ensemble totally lit up the chorus.
The songstress went on to ignite the audience to a fever pitch with other electrifying tunes, ending with the rockin’ finale “End of the World” from the new release.
An exciting, very eventful event, for sure…full of fun, hot music, and a sense that we all had finally met old friends with whom we had been communicating for over 20 years but hadn’t yet seen. Let’s not make it so long to see each other again, guys! In fact, do feel free to make U.S. performances a habit now. — Ronald Jackson
Photos by Lisa Jay
Sweet Honey in the Rock
The Birchmere Music Hall
May 15, 2016, 7:30 pm
Sunday is the day of the week that many, if not most, attend church services and walk away feeling uplifted, cleansed, and encouraged. If you had attended the vibrant, embracing concert at Alexandria, VA’s famed Birchmere Music Hall last Sunday evening, the powerful vocal ambience of the world-renowned a cappella all-female vocal ensemble known as Sweet Honey in the Rock for over 40 years would have equally moved you to experience that same sense of cleansing, encouragement, and of being uplifted. It would have also filled you with social consciousness, a sense of proactive responsibility for the plight of our world, and just a warm-all-over caress of feel-good vibes.
With Louise Robinson, Carol Maillard, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel on vocals, Shirley Childress as the group’s ASL (American Sign Language Interpreter), and Romeir Mendez – on acoustic upright & electric bass (and he was the lone instrumentalist onstage, by the way), the night became instantly filled with richness and positivity through music from the moment the ensemble strode onto the stage in their beautiful black and rose tie dye wardrobe.
This audience, sensing what they were about to witness, was full of spiritual maturity and buzzing with excitement. It was obvious from long before we entered the theater that most were longing for some of that good ol’ soul-wrenching, foot-stomping, thought-provoking music that only these ambassadors of social conscience and spiritual devotion can deliver.
The ladies were met with wild and appreciative applause as they entered and stepped right into their welcome with “Sambumoya” then followed with their beautifully moving “We Are” from their Sacred Ground release back in the 90s.
One of my favorite tracks from the group’s latest #LoveinEvolution album is “Somebody Prayed For Me.” When they set into this one, it was all anyone could do to keep a dry eye as the powerful tune about pure joy and gratitude was delivered with unbound fervor. There was clapping, the stomping of feet, the swaying of bodies, as Carol Maillard, Nitanju Bolade Casel, and the rest of the group led the audience through what it feels like to have somebody look out for you in this loving way.
Then, the air became thick with even more meaning as the ladies launched into a telling civil rights medley which included such motivators as “Freedom,” “I’m On My Way,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It became not just a wonderful arrangement but certainly a “hmmm” moment as we were left to reflect on the content of the tunes.
Blues and gospel joined mighty forces on a stirring “Bedside” before intermission, and needless to say, by intermission, a round of “Amens” was clearly in order.
Returning after intermission to play and banter a bit with the audience in that down-to-earth, real person kind of way that so endears this group to people, the ladies launched into another movin’, swingin’, bass-walkin’ tune called “Zabadubey,” followed by a earthy, bluesy version of “Feeling Good” led by the spirited Aisha Kahlil. Speaking of spirited, Louise Robinson also outdid herself time and again as she strode around the stage during her lead vocals as if the Spirit were leading her every step, and I have no doubt it was. In fact, the Spirit was clearly moving each and every member of this obviously motivated group — and its audience — throughout that night.
The group offered an abundance of tracks from its latest release (including “Somebody Prayed For Me,” IDK, but I’m LOL!.” “Wholy Holy,” “Oh, Sankofa, and “Second Line Blues”), as well as tracks from earlier releases and a couple of covers.
Each song displayed the reflective, soul-deep intensity, vocal perfection, power, and God-given motivation of each member. Their vocal wholesomeness and muscular projection is second to none.
Examples of such excellence were on display all that night, and I’d like to highlight just a few here now.
“Second Line Blues” and the dramatic act of reading the names of police brutality and mass shootings victims from individual slips of paper, then tossing them down on the symbolic memorial cloth they presented was beyond powerful. Civil rights, the raising of social consciousness, and the emphasis on social responsibility and doing the right thing were all interwoven in that message and gesture. It was all so incredibly deep, and the ladies taking a moment to speak to us all about the urgency of reflection, introspection, and allowing good to prevail over evil were equally deep.
“Wholly Holy” made me think of all of the female vocal groups of the 60s and 70s when sweet harmony and strong beautiful leads were simply stupendous. Sweet Honey takes a back seat to none of them!
Their cover of “Midnight Special” took on a new brilliance as the ladies shone their light on us.
A rousing version of “Let There Be Peace” with an island flair offered a fresh appeal to the tune and was received most favorably in the packed house.
Offering deep, serious thought and coupling that with striking a celebratory chord by giving everyone happy feet, happy hands, and happy souls certainly balanced it all. The voices, the melodies, the messages were all so in perfect key, pitch, harmony, and spirit.
The night ended with an up-tempo and rousing version of “Operator” (everyone was trying to dial in to get Jesus on the line!).
Ladies of class, dignity, prolificacy, intellect, and grace – not to mention intensity and showmanship – clearly mark these ladies as a group far beyond mediocrity. This is what real testifying, enlightenment, and empowerment look like. If Sweet Honey in the Rock ever visit your neck of the woods, be there. Be there! – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Jackiem Joyner feat. Gerald Veasley
South Jazz Parlor
May 12, 2016, 7:00 pm
When I think back to all the times I have created jazz playlists, smooth jazz saxophonist Jackiem Joyner has always been on each one. From his first CD, Babysoul, which he released in 2007 to his latest album, Evolve, I have always been a huge fan.
Joyner has worked with artists such as Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Keiko Matsui, Rick Braun, and Paul Jackson Jr. He was also honored with the Smooth Jazz News Debut Artist of the Year Award in 2008. His music is nothing less than a spectacular mix of pop, funk and outstanding blasts of magic. That’s why, when I heard that he was performing just over the bridge at South Jazz Parlor & Restaurant in Philadelphia, I had to be there. This concert was like nothing any I had attended before.
Ranked as one of the 50 best jazz clubs in America, South (as we in the Philly area fondly refer to it) has an intimate parlor area off to the side of the restaurant, which is perfect for getting up close with the artists and really being in the middle of the music. The spot’s center stage is ideal for taking in a show while being able to enjoy the southern fare and gorgeous bourbon and whisky menu they are so well known for. The acoustics are just right in this space for a variety of music to stand out and be strongly felt. This night in particular was part of a series called Unscripted, which is put on by jazz bass guitarist Gerald Veasley. The 7pm show was the first of 2 that night, with another following at 9pm.
Joyner played a number of hits from his Evolve release, including two of my favorites — “Big Step” and “Breathe,” as well as tracks from his other work — like “Say Yes” from his Babysoul release. The most interesting part of this concert was that the whole evening was completely unscripted, just as the series boasts, and one just has to marvel at the spontaneity and fluidity with which he pulled this whole thing off.
The audience was grooving and moving to the music and really feeling what these guys were laying down. Veasley played alongside Joyner and backed him on every single track. His playing is nothing short of amazing, and it paired perfectly with the sax. People were simply enthralled with every note they played, and the room burst with mellow, sultry reverberations and downright funky sounds.
With each song, the place erupted in enthusiastic applause and cheers. It was clear that this audience didn’t want the night to end. The music took us into Joyner’s world and made us remember why we love this genre so much.
Joyner talked about his biggest inspirations being John Coltrane & Charlie Parker, both of whom obviously were pioneers of jazz music. Behind that sax is a man who loves what he does, and it shows in his songs and colorful performances.
The duo finished out the night by covering “For You,” a Kenny Lattimore tune, and then chose Joyner’s romantic and sexy “Say Yes” as the finale, a refreshingly interesting choice, since so many artists end with an up-tempo jam.
After the show, Joyner stayed for a meet-and-greet and CD signing with all the guests and took time to chat with everyone. This stands out these days when artists are somewhat quick to retreat backstage and simply disappear, apparently wanting to have some downtime to themselves. Nothing wrong with downtime, but spending a few minutes with those who support the music goes a long, long way.
A true artist and talent, I will say yes to any show where Jackiem Joyner will be performing. I was excited to hear from him that he will have a new CD coming next year, which means more shows and more chances for everyone to get out and hear this master of the groove sax. – Danielle Barnabei-Bright
The Tavern at Fire Station 1
Silver Spring, Maryland
January 16, 2016, 7:00 PM
The alarms at The Tavern at Fire Station were abuzz when The 2016 Kevin Howard Tour touched down in Silver Spring, Maryland, this night. The pianist/keyboardist, flanked by bassist Kenzy Piersaint, saxophonist Steve Garrison, drummer Greg Morris Jr, and fellow keyboardist Eddie Botts, brought his style of dynamic contemporary jazz to bear full force on us jazzers. Settle back and enjoy this account of a really Smooth Jazz Ride steered by the vibrant musician as he showcased several tracks from his latest release Travels.
The venue was packed to capacity for this evening as Howard took center stage, covering one my favorite tunes “Always There.” The jam certainly captured everyone’s attention as Piersaint open the cut with some serious funky bass riffs. Next, we jammed out to “Tahoe” from Howard’s new release. Garrison’s sax play was brilliant, and a superb complement to Howard’s piano solo on the groove. The chemistry of the band was even more evident on cuts such as the CD title track, as well “Sedona” and a cut from the Special Edition CD titled “Night Moods.” These cats knew how to bring the heat.
“Random Groove” featured Piersaint on the bass, and I was in a state of awe when this cat started the cut with lighting precision on the strings. Howard and the band joined in, making the up-tempo jam a most colorful treat. If there was room for a dance floor here tonight, it would have been packed. The audience was undoubtedly exuberant when Howard stepped to the other side of the keyboard to play the synthesizer virtually upside down. Incredible.
I have a special place in my soul for great timpanists, and Morris Jr cannot be left off the list of some of the best I have ever appreciated in concert. He and Howard seem to have that kind rhythm and timing that flows extra smooth when playing jams like their cover of The Stylistics classic “People Make the World Go Round.” The collaboration continued after the 15-minute break, and the exhausted fans still craved more. Our expectations were met as the grooves kept coming.
The band’s energy was seemingly taken to another level when Morris Jr .showed his stuff during his fascinating drum solo here on title track, I must say the audience appreciated that score just as much as I did by rendering a standing ovation – Morris Jr, your grand–uncle, the late Billy Strayhorn, was surely smiling down from the heavens at you, my friend.
I can’t miss mentioning the funky smooth jazz fusion groove of “Deep Thoughts,” or the encore cover songs like Tom Brown’s “Jamaica Funk,” and Grover Washington’s’ “Mr. Magic.” Whew! Did Howard and the band have us rocking out for rest of the evening!
Howard then took his Keytar into the audience, displaying that fabulous creativity on the keys as stopped by table after table. Piersaint came back with some crisp bass, and Morris Jr. hit us with a lively drum solo. Botts brought his talents on the keyboards after holding down the luscious melodies all night. It was really hot by now, but even though the show came to a close shortly thereafter, you could tell that many could have gone much longer into this night.
I recommend you place a date somewhere in your 2016 calendar to see this show, especially if you are a fan of Howard like me. For me, all of the compositions were of the utmost authenticity and represented the contemporary jazz genre well. No doubt many in attendance were in agreement. – Mike Sutton
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Big NY & The Smooth Jazz All-Stars
A Smooth & Funky Christmas
Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club
Dec, 20, 2015, 7:30 pm
The Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Bethesda, MD, had probably never envisioned a funkier, smooth jazz-laced event like that put on by Big NY & The Smooth Jazz All-stars on Sunday, Dec. 20. In addition to the event drawing – to my knowledge – a record crowd, the “All-stars” were truly a collection of some of the genre’s great indie musicians, including guitarist Drew Davidsen, Pieces of a Dream saxman
Eddie Baccus Jr., rising star trumpeter Willie Bradley, keyboardist Elliot (“The Beast) Levine, saxman Rob Maletick, drummer Jay Jones, multi-instrumentalist Craig Austin, percussionist Curtis McCain, Groove Skool founder/bassist (and leader of this pack of groovesters) Christian “Big NY” De Mesones and his longtime Groove Skool cohort saxman Keith Anderson.
Now, if you are not quite familiar with some or any of the names listed above, let me assure you, you have been severely underserved, my friend. This fired-up concert would have been quite enough to convince you to do some serious research on each and every member of this ensemble. This was smooth jazz with a funky holiday twist, but, first and foremost, it was a massive display of class, dedication, and an obvious love of music that served as the glue here.
After a wonderful intro by the always-charming, witty, and lovely Trish Hennessey, the band rolled out a rousing opener, a cover of the British acid jazz group Down to the Bone’s “Staten Island Groove” that truly got this party rockin’. Following that, the always personable guitarist Drew Davidsen hit his “Sweet Spot” from his True Drew release, a tune sparkling with crisp jazzy chords and riffs — and lots of drive.
You could sense that the audience was so in the mood for this concert as, looking around, I could see so much head-bopping, foot-tapping, and all eyes were riveted on the dancing stage.
Rolling out some Christmas spirit, drummer Jay Jones ushered in “Little Drummer Boy,” and Bradley, Big NY, Levine, and all of the extremely well-arranged horns took it from there, lifting the hearts and spirits of everyone there, I’m sure.
Saxman Maletick then charmed all with his strong funk-driven “Give It Back” (one of my faves of the evening) from his Back Home release. Big NY and Anderson then followed with the exotically enticing Groove Skool jam “Latin Jive” (another of my faves) from their only full CD release Limited Edition. A sense that this was going to be one powerful night to remember was quite evident by now.
Returning to the Christmas theme, lest the spirit get lost in all of this funk, Davidsen offered up his “Carol of the Bells” from his We 3 Stringz album, a seasonal collaborative effort with fellow guitarists Chuck Loeb and Paul Jackson Jr. Ah yes, it was certainly beginning to sound a lot like Xmas!
Big NY’s bass then stepped up to make a profound statement with “Don Pedro,” a tune dedicated to the towering bassman’s departed dad, for whom he obviously had and still holds much love as was evident in his struggle to fight back overwhelming emotion while introducing the piece. To say he honored his dad well would be a gross understatement, and the audience was in total agreement as cheers and applause rained down on the bassist at the conclusion of the tune.
Next up, Levine (“The Beast”) kept the audience fully engaged with his spectacular cover of the wonderful all-time classic “Linus and Lucy.” This electric guy never ceases to amaze me with his energy and the broad smile on his face as he delves into the music, obviously having his own party internally.
Following Levine, the moving tribute to our men and women in uniform via the Groove Skool track “Give Thanks” featuring Anderson and the entire horn section, was just that…soundly moving.
Back to the Xmas spirit we returned as the band cut loose on a medley of classics featuring Bradley, Big NY, Davidsen, and Baccus. A magnificent display of depth and warmth.
There were so many other crowd-pleasing numbers performed that night that I’d end up writing a book here if I were to take you on each selection’s journey. I will say that huge tunes of note included Bradley’s cover of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love,” an excellent rendition which can be found on his Another Day & Time release, Big NY’s funky/bluesy “Good Old Days,” a tune so reminiscent of the Sly & The Family Stone era, and the monstrously funky Groove Skool giant “The Train.”
In addition to all of this, including Bradley literally bringing the call of his melodic trumpet out into the audience to woo and wow, the air was as thick as pea soup with love and holiday joy. Fun times for all in attendance. If you didn’t attend, you might want to keep your ears and eyes peeled for news of this smooth & funky show and gathering of most competent musicians in the future. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Jessy J and the Grainger Brothers
Nov. 12, 2015
Jessy J and the Grainger Brothers sounds like some kind of Wild West cowboy outfit that is probably responsible for all manner of heinous crimes. However, this particular “gang” was in town and up to some pretty cool musical “mischief,” if you will, setting light to a top London smooth Jazz venue with some explosive rhythms and smouldering beats.
Their accomplice in this affair, keyboardist Jay Rowe, tried to be a little more inconspicuous, but he was fully complicit in stoking the flames.
The main protagonist, Jessy J, is a lady saxophonist of disarming charm and dextrous ability. She resides mainly in the middle to upper registers of her instrument where she weaves patterns of grace and elegance over the Grainger Brothers’ smooth and confident rhythms.
The set opener, “I’m Every Woman,” was taken at a fair pace as everyone settled down to the job at hand.
We were all aware of this group’s reputation; so, there was giddy anticipation all around as Jessy announced after that jam that “This next song was inspired by my trip to Africa, “Back to the Basics.” Though inspired by an African trip, this number seemed to have more of a Latin feel to it. The main theme is a sort of gentle samba that lopes around in that warm, chestnutty tone that Jessy has on the lower end of the saxophone. GG, or Greg, the younger of the infamous Graingers, was encouraged to throw around a few fireworks with his drums, so he set to it, egged on by his older brother on bass. Keyboardist Rowe waited patiently and then pitched in with a few sparklers from behind that piano of his. Then, it was back to Jessy to apply the finishing touches — which she did with aplomb.
The lovely saxtress switched to flute for the next tune, “Magical Paradise,” another tune that was inspired by her travels. This one captured that feeling of Cuba perfectly. A slow mambo that, again, provided a playground for the impeccable Graingers to go mess about with. Jessy’s flute playing was clean, clear, and precise. The theme beautifully invoked the heat and feel that you associate with Cuba. The interplay mid-way between Greg on drums and Gary on bass was great fun, and Jessy’s flute playing captured and kept the audience riveted in awe.
This impression of Cuba was followed by the track “Cuba” that Jessy told us she had written before she had visited the isle. This track goes straight back to the c-jazz stable. It is a gentle, rolling piece of music that is more Miami than Cuba. I so love her sax playing. She has a muscularity to her style that never loses the warmth of tone or gentleness of shape. She buzzes around in the lower registers, but always just briefly, like a bee sensing something sweet, and then she soars away, never screeching or shrieking but soaring off up into the safety of the blue upper register.
With the exception of the opener, all of the tunes thusfar had been from Jessy’s new album My One and Only One. The other Grainger brother, Gary, was given a moment to do some badness, and he took the opportunity to step forward and deliver a grooving, delicate bass solo for a few bars before the theme returned and a sort of “white-suited-Miami” groove settled in. The sinuous horn line led the ensemble away towards the sunset.
“Sin Ti” was next, a soft, sexy vamp taken from her earlier album, Tequila Moon. Jay Rowe played a bristling solo on the electric piano and, as had been the case all night, Jessy was enchanting out front. Her sax playing truly has a warmth and gentleness that I haven’t heard in a long while. The construction of her playing puts one in mind of the late Grover Washington Jr. She adopts a similar approach to her compositions.
Watching the expressions of the Graingers is fun in itself! Bassist Gary seems to have a permanent smile on his face as he dropped and popped along behind Jessy, bouncing effortlessly between Rowe’s tender comping and brother Greg’s sensitive timekeeping.
“Mas Que Nada” was introduced next, and we were encouraged to participate. After all, we knew the words, apparently. The tune broke down to another showcase for the Graingers to entertain us with their rhythmic shenanigans. Both guys play in a very understated fashion. Bass Grainger is all about the funk, however gently he drops it, while Drum Grainger is genius at extracting colour from his kit. The range of tonality they produced was awesome.
Next, it was time for “Tequila Moon,” and Jessy was off on walkabout, getting all up close and personal with this firm favourite, while still keeping the licks and splashes of this number falling like petals amongst the tables.
Jessy paid a great tribute to her late manager Stewart Coxsone who sadly passed earlier in the year. She thanked him for the guidance and care he took of her during her career to date and said that he would be sadly missed. She also said that he was responsible for suggesting some of the material she played such as the next number, “Strawberry Letter 23.” They nailed it. The Shuggie Otis tune fairly bounced off the stage and danced among us.
Feeling magnanimous still, Jessy gave the stage up for the band, which launched into a version of “Fragile,” a tune written by Sting that came to my attention through a version by Isaac Hayes, but this rendition knocked me out! From a beautiful, delicate piano solo through a thoughtful bass exploration of the theme to another display of exciting but never overpowering drum skills, the band turned the somewhat mournful theme into a classic smooth c-jazz masterwork. I later learned that the Graingers had covered this on their first album, Phase 1, way back in 1996!
The evening finished with some more tunes from Jessy’s back catalogue including “Hot Sauce,” from the 2011 album of the same name and the Latin classic “Oye Como Va,” which dissolved into a man vs. woman singalong that was adjudged to have been a draw! Although how they could tell was beyond me. You’ve got to love the British reserve. Nothing sings quite as timidly as a room full of Brits!
Jessy J is being hailed rightly as a sax sensation in the c-jazz world. It’s not something that one could argue with. Her musicianship is first class, her approach to the music engaging. Her technique beyond reproach, but for me, it’s the delicacy of her playing that sets her apart.
The way she can hold those lower notes, waiting for the exact moment to pop up a bit, then with that honeyed tone, she’ll ascend on a lyrical journey that always leaves you wanting more.
The Graingers, either as a stand-alone duo or as part of the renowned c-jazz group Acoustic Alchemy, are more than worthy to stand alongside the most entertaining and competent in the business, and they do it in such a fairly modest and unassuming yet solid fashion. Their approach seems to state unselfishly that it’s all about the music, not them.
In summary, Jessy J and The Grainger Brothers, with their sidekick Jay Rowe, blew through town and left the place in bits. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
December 6, 2015
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to many of Euge Groove’s records over the years, but it is always a special treat to catch him live. This night at London’s Pizza Express was no different from any other time I’ve caught him – he’s always both smooth and intense, and he never disappoints. Here is certainly an artist with an apt name.
Euge’s background includes stints with the Tower of Power horn section, top 40 hits with Exposé, and backing Tina Turner; so, really, it was no surprise that this set started on the good foot.
The band was on stage and laying down the funk when the sax began. It’s owner was nowhere in sight. Then, from the back of the room, Euge appeared and proceeded to make his way toward the stage, blowing the funk over that awesome fatback, wending his way through the packed tables. Yeah, if you’re going make an entrance, dude, that’s the way to go!
Finally, on stage, he invited us into the House of Funk. Man, I was exhausted from work but just forgot all that as I took him up on that offer and went happily into that house.
Euge has a raspy, yet clean tenor tone on that saxophone of his. One that defies you to sit still. Dares you even. Yes, Euge grooves. His insistent and repeated licks carry an urgency that is hard to ignore. He’s like a mischievous kid on stage. He plays with a joy and excitement that is absolutely infectious. His horn leads you on, you know where his tunes are going, what he’s going to play, and it’s delicious.
Very much the boss, he invited guitarist Mark Jaimes forward for a brief solo, and Jaimes switched up that clean rhythm tone that had been locking the funk groove in for a dirty fat rock sound that was totally on the money, as was his playing. Euge stepped away and left Jaimes to it for a bit, then the horn was back. The guitarist traded licks with the boss, and then melted back down again.
Euge’s attraction is that sensual groove that just carries you along. His tunes are deep pools of luxuriant rhythm into which you find yourself falling to be bathed by their essence. He’s not really about the long complicated extravagant solo; he’s about the caress.
He pulled something out of his back catalogue, “Livin’ Large,” as guest keyboardist Oli Silk switched to an organ sound for this one, a tune that is already a smooth jazz classic. That rasping horn again imploring that you at least nod your head.
The thing with Euge is that, no matter how familiar you are with his repertoire, he still manages to deliver these tunes with such pleasure and enthusiasm that it really is impossible to sit still. And everything, no matter how smooth and mellow, has an undercurrent of funk to it. It’s there in the ensemble, or maybe in the clipped phrasing that Euge uses to bend the tune just ever so slightly away from where you expect it to go. There are those trademark top-end swirls and delicate skitter-scatter runs as he navigates through the rhythm flowing around him to land back on the isle of groove.
He switched to his new soprano for a rendition of “Miss Bane” from the excellent new album Got 2 Be Groovin’. His tone was crystal clear on this horn, that raspy tone replaced by a diamond bright, delicate, sensual sound. Maybe like the pouring of champagne. The interplay between him and Silk on keyboards was awesome. His solo on this was exquisite. He was slipping in triplets and trills where they had no right to be, but he got away with them every time. Like someone opening that bottle of champagne, there was that pop of the cork, and then Euge’s fingers were tumbling along that horn, gently, delicately, swiftly, eliciting baubles of sound that came tumbling forth, like bubbles flowing into that glass. Now, this really is music to share with someone special.
That mischievousness came out again as Euge went walkabout on the Motown classic “Just my Imagination,” seeking out the couples in the audience and just being Euge!
For me, the high point of the evening came with his duet with guitarist Mark Jaimes on “Amazing Grace.” He was back on the tenor saxophone and showing just what a true master of that instrument he is. His tone was softer, more gentle, his embellishments beautifully placed. He played with a surprising gracefulness and sensitivity that lit this tune from start to finish. He took it harder from the mid-point, and that rasp and familiar shrill brilliance came back as he worked his way back home.
It wouldn’t be the holiday season without some Christmas tunes, and the way these guys took tunes as well-worn as “Merry Christmas” and spun them out into something new so masterfully was a real pleasure to behold.
Big respect goes out to the backing musicians. The talent in the UK is really something! Oli Silk seems to play with just about all the great visiting smooth jazz artists. He’s just putting the finishing touches to a new album due for release in 2016; so, that’s definitely something to look forward to in the new year.
The rest of the backing band are esteemed musicians in their own right. They may not have the fame that Euge has, but they are not to be ignored. Mark Jaimes on guitar was with Simply Red. Drummer Andrew Small is the musical director and drummer on Il Divo, the multinational classical crossover group, as well as having played with saxophonist Gerald Albright and Kylie Minogue. Bassist Orefo Orakwue is the current musical director for Anastacia, and has previously worked with the Sugababes and Des’ree.
I spoke briefly to Orakwue and asked how these guys always manage to sound like they had been playing together for years. He just laughed and said, “Playing with Euge is such a pleasure, it’s like playing at home. I have all these albums, and I’ve been playing along in my bedroom. So, this just feels the same.” Even so, the tightness that he and drummer Small produced was fantastic.
Euge’s playing above that rhythm section is always just so…electric yet sometimes intentionally restrained. Quite how he does it is beyond me. Even when he’s in full flow on an old school groove, and you really expect him to cut loose and just fly, he somehow manages to hold back without ever losing the groove. “It’s all about the context,” he told me after, when I asked him how he contained himself.
Of course, I am going to be first in line for Euge’s next visit. I felt kinda robbed when the evening ended. The fun and happiness that this group exuded certainly lifted my spirits, and I had completely forgotten the stresses from earlier in my day. This was pure party time from start to finish.
Thanks, Euge and promoter Jimmy King, for a wonderful night’s music. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
Ken Navarro, Bob Baldwin, & Art Sherrod
The Gordon Center for Performing Arts
Owings Mills, MD
Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, 7:30 pm
Nestled neatly away in the Owings Mills, MD, community is a venue of which, until recently, I was admittedly totally unaware – The Gordon Center for Performing Arts. It was at this polished, smartly designed, and attractive venue that I was treated to one of the best concerts I’ve experienced in a very long time. Not only was the lineup spectacular – Ken Navarro, Bob Baldwin, and Art Sherrod – but the cause for which the show was presented, Melanie’s Memories, was heartwarming and noble.
Melanie’s Memories was conceived by Kevin Opher, the Maryland State Trooper/music promotion partner of Melanie Shockley, in honor of Melanie who, at the age of 49, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and later passed away at age 55. After a decade together, Melanie had to leave Kevin to carry the torch for smooth jazz in the Baltimore, MD, area…and it’s evident by this concert, he succeeded, much to Melanie’s delight, I’m sure. A portion of the concert proceeds were donated to the American Alzheimer’s Foundation, and I understand that the plan is to make this wonderful effort an annual event — to the pleasure of all who attended, I might add.
Joining Navarro, Baldwin, and Sherrod onstage were drummer Tony Lewis, bassist Dave Anderson, keyboardist Dan LaMaestra, and Brazilian percussionist Café de Silva. Words cannot describe the caliber of artistry displayed by this supporting cast. Each was truly phenomenal.
Saxman Art Sherrod, in addition to being one of the night’s performers, also served as a very engaging MC. He kicked things off in high gear right out of the gate, first introducing the cool yet intensely charismatic renowned guitarist Ken Navarro who immediately lit the flame that would burn all night. With his spirited “In My Wildest Dreams,” from the album by the same name, he placed the audience in a place from where no one would stray for the entire three-hour musical adventure. Following that with the smooth mid-tempo track “Skating on the C&O Canal,” from his 1993 I Can’t Complain release, he convinced the appreciative audience to settle back and truly delight in his silky trademark style.
In dedication to his son Eric, Navarro penned a tune in 2007 called “Eric’s Dream” which appears on his Brighter Days release. This night, he included in the dedication his daughter Melissa (excellent name choice, especially since I named my daughter the same – but I digress) who would celebrate her birthday the next day. Eric wasn’t present, but Melissa was there in the audience and, I’m sure, incredibly proud of her prolific and artistic dad.
There were two tunes from Navarro that especially and absolutely floored me. The first was his mind-blowing guitar work using what is known as a Boomerang, a type of device that captures specific parts of one’s playing and plays them back while the artist moves into another chord or riff. The result is absolutely stunning. Using this device on his “Kings and Queens” track, found on his Ruby Lane release, he was able to create twelve — count ‘em – twelve separate parts in perfect synch with each other! We were now witnessing a one-man show that left me speechless.
The other tune was Navarro’s finale, a hotter-than-hot intense blues number like you haven’t heard since Hendrix (well, maybe Joe Bonamassa now) called simply “The Blues in G.” By the time his set was finished, the audience was in a frenzy, showering the guitarist in much-deserved applause and cheers.
Up next would come the prolific and cool keyboardist Bob Baldwin, joined by quality saxman Sherrod. Together, they took the Gordon Center into the stratosphere with such tunes as “The Way She Looked (At Me)” from Baldwin’s Standing Tall release, the crazy-hot funk jam “Funky Onion” from Baldwin’s Twenty release, a monster of a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” which can also be found on Baldwin’s Twenty release, and Sherrod’s “Smooth Groove” from his Seasons release – a high-steppin’ and funky tiger of a track which he considers his “ode to Washington, DC.”
Sherrod’s transition from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” to Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” was truly something to behold as he demonstrated the nuances of great sax at work. He then took a stroll into the audience to wow the women and totally impress the men with both charisma and clear skill.
After a knockout of Baldwin’s Brazilian-flavored “Cafezinho” from his Brazil Chill release and showcasing the stellar conga work of percussionist de Silva, the trio of exceptional talent all joined in to mesmerize with most everybody’s favorite Seals & Crofts classic “Summer Breeze.”
All in all, this was the party of the week and should surely claim the distinction as one of the finest exhibitions of what true jazz artists always strive to do best – reach the soul of the listener. With the promise of returning again next year, same place, same time, the Washington, DC metro area will be buzzing with anticipation. Mark your calendars, watch for announcements on the web, listen to Charm City Jazz Radio in Baltimore, check Facebook & Twitter…whatever you do to access news of smooth jazz happenings and, if you can, plan to be in the area for this exciting and refreshing demonstration that smooth/contemporary jazz is long from dead. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Aira Olave
Nicholas Cole & Lin Rountree featuring Jazmin Ghent
The Tavern at Fire Station 1
Silver Spring, MD
Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, 8:00 pm
I think it’s safe to say that the Tavern at Fire Station 1 in Silver Spring, MD, was set ablaze on Saturday night when the young musical genius of keyboardist/producer Nicholas Cole, the young and personable new sax sensation Jazmin Ghent, and the emotional, passionate trumpet of one of the soul-jazz pioneers Lin Rountree took to the stage. Complementing the three were keyboardist Nate Mitchell, drummer Brandon Taylor, and bassist Alvin Spratley. An excellent choice of support musicians indeed. The music was exciting, full, and oh-so-searing. This was one concert, presented by Talking Smooth Jazz Entertainment, that was totally electric from the moment the very first note was played.
That first note belonged to “Let’s Groove” a collaborative piece that truly set the tone for the audience-pleasing 2 ½ hour set and really turned the funk lights on. Where you might find most artists introducing the supporting cast of musicians backing them, this trio wasted no time jumping into this by allowing each member of the band the opportunity to showcase his/her proficient talents on this opening jam.
The atmosphere was so thick with that funky jazz flavor that you could almost taste it in the very food you may have ordered! The desire to get up and just dance the night away had to be felt by all in attendance.
All three artists possessed an abundance of stage presence and personality, from Cole’s entertaining, witty, and funny chatter with the audience (such a refreshingly “old soul” is this young man), to Ghent’s foot-lifting and light stomping as she belted out those marvelous notes (oh, you just knew she was feeling the groove in a big way), and the engaging Rountree’s playing to the ladies in the audience as he strode through, serenading and flirting with his calling trumpet.
One of the so-called sidemen—keyboardist Nate Mitchell– was truly as entertaining as the main acts, from his incredible talent on keys (mind-boggling, quick, and so solid). I was in a position to witness in detail his work, and it was simply mesmerizing in its perfection. He too later ventured out and wooed the ladies with his vocoder to the point where they were speechless and blushing.
Watching Mitchell and Cole effortlessly play with and off each other was truly a thing of beauty. Rhythm chords vs. lead chops were so professionally and profoundly displayed.
Dropping by to offer a powerful and soulful sax voice was Philip “Doc” Martin. His presence added yet another brilliant aura to the stage.
Of the songs played that impacted me the most, Ghent’s down and dirty, soul-wrenching version of “Compared to What” and a tune Cole absolutely smashed, “Mary Ann,” a hot jam with elements of fusion peeking out between the notes, and Rountree’s slick groove “Everyday.” Cole’s “Radiohead” was another crazy-funky mid-tempo jam featuring a great bass solo from Spratley.
Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the trio’s full set couldn’t be performed, and there were some “smokers” that I truly looked forward to hearing. That’s what happens when everybody—artists and audience alike—are consumed by the magical, melodic spirit of good jazz. Still, what I heard was enough to convince me that I had not only witnessed a high-quality show but the future of smooth or contemporary jazz unfolding live before me. I must say that I, ever the optimist, am even more hopeful that the baton will be passed on without pause.
If ever you get the chance to experience this trio collectively or individually, do not pass on it. There will be much evidence of superior playing, showmanship, and character. I’m genuinely pleased to have been part of it all on this night. – Ronald Jackson
Due to camera malfunctions, the photos shown here are not from this particular show, and we wish to thank the following for the use of the shown photos:
London SW16 2 BF
Nov. 12, 2014
Back in the late sixties to mid-seventies, jazz went through one of its many little transformations. It was Miles Davis’ fault. His and that Hendrix guy. They started experimenting with sound and electricity. Sure, Les Paul had done stuff with tapes and microphones and amplifiers, but this was different. This wasusing sound as an instrument, if you like, and through albums like In a ilent Way and Bitches Brew, Miles and his cohorts created something different.
The members of those bands from that glorious experiment went on to take the torch a little further. The album In a Silent Way was like the nursery for jazz fusion. This album gave birth to Weather Report, Tony Williams Civilization, the Head Hunters, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Think about that for a moment. All of those seminal jazz fusion bands can be traced straight back to Miles Davis and the line-up on this one album.
Why am I discussing this? Because here in the UK, forty plus years later, that flame that burned so brightly and died so swiftly in the States, morphing as it did into the smooth jazz of today, has caught fire once again.
To “get” Resolution 88, you have to get where they are coming from. This is a band that takes its lead from that period in jazz history. And they got it good.
On this night at London’s Hideaway, the set opener Tugging the Pug started from a tight three note funk motif on keys and bass that resolved into a hypnotic sax-led refrain before breaking down into a flowing middle eight where keyboardist Tom O’Grady shone on his Rhodes.
You can hear the inspiration behind their writing. Fluid funk-filled phat bass and drum-driven riffs that defy you to sit still, decorated with cowbell one-twos on the off beats. In the middle, warm ethereal synth pads above open piano chords, and, on top, stuttering sax lines weave simple elegant phrases and wind-blown tone clouds in a melody sky.
Resolution 88 is good at this. These guys can lay down a rolling funk theme that takes you into the change where they’ll stretch out, relax, and jam — all the while keeping the groove flowing.
For music like this to work, you need a good bassist and in Tiago Coimbra, they sure have got one. His solid driving bass lines, often in sync with O’Gradys synth, is where the bounce in this outfit stems from. Coimbra is unflashy, but metronomic with a phat, warm inviting feel to his playing.
Saxophonist Alex Hitchcock shone on “Unravelling,” a delicious chunk of jazz funk with a bright synth lead. Again, Coimbra’s bass is holding the swing in this. Plopping us from one beat to the next with surety, the keys are there, but it’s the bass that’s got this one. Then, suddenly, drummer Rick Elsworth changed things up, and Coimbra is right alongside, driving this on. Hitchcock stepped up and began a long, intricate solo from the simplest of beginnings. It was like he was finding his way through the ferocious pace the rhythm section was setting. Once he got on track, the guy flew!
They slowed things down a touch for the next one, “Sejuicing My Squeeze.” A slow-paced beautiful, synth and keys ballad with a fluffy sax topping.
Coimbra was centre stage for the next number, “Fat Bold Funk,” and he delivered a stop-start solo which teased and toyed with the beats that Felix Higginbotham on percussion was laying down.
“Homin’ In” closed the first set. A beautiful ballad that built up into a gorgeous welter of pads, bass, and drums. O’Grady’s keyboard playing stood out again on this, his solo, like all the playing that night, building from a really simple beginning into a delicate crescendo.
After a short break, they were back and started playing heavier than before. Resolution 88 has this knack of setting up short eight- or twelve-note refrains that are unbelievably funky, then knocking them down into the smoothest flowing passages of jazz funk you ever heard. But don’t get too comfortable because — bam! — they’re off again.
Mid-way through the second set, things got super interesting. “Live Wire,” a beautiful constantly changing theme featured a great keyboard solo from O’Grady. They followed this up with a new tune called “Changing Times,” which, they claimed, was inspired by Hip-Hop. Well, it might have been, but it was a great piece of jazz funk that seemed to owe more to their jazz roots than the b-boy blues.
The heavier, broken-beat feel to the second half continued with the menacing “Phantom of the Oberheim.” Vein-meltingly familiar, this piece stalked the stage. A real dirty, funky piece of music that morphed into some beautiful, melodic playing, as always.
No matter how hard this band tries, it can’t lose the quality of its compositions. Whether starting from the most raucous of openings or meandering through a sparse drum and bass-filled space, Resolution 88 always return with a melody. Their themes are familiar in make-up but totally fresh in execution.
“Broken Beats,” for example, insists that it’s going to be an out-and-out pile-driver. It tries to be, I swear, then, that Rhodes just drops, the bass complies, and there you are — back in the land of melody. Flowing keyboards are full on left-hand voicings providing space for familiar right-hand motifs that echo the styles of the masters of the fusion age. All the while, that driving bass is underneath with those ever-tight drums urging it all forward…until, as one, they stop!
Resolution 88 has to be one of the better jazz fusion bands around at the moment. Their brand of hard-driving funk and virtuoso soloing owes much to what’s gone before, but there’s nothing wrong with that! Their compositions are tightly woven, driving, funky nods to the past decorated with a fresh coat of attitude. It’s jazz fusion for the modern age. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
Nov. 7, 2015, 10:30 pm
This was unexpected. A really intimate evening with a legendary figure from the c-jazz world. Peter White is an engaging and interesting performer. At this late show, he shared details of his journey through music that had led us to this moment. Well, he did that once the band had calmed down after exploding on stage with a fiery opener “Are You Lying?” This was a bright, tight backbeat driven piece of smooth jazz that featured White’s trademark virtuosity interwoven with some slick sax embellishments over the top of a warm, grooving harmonic sea that swayed the two leads like fronds in the ocean. You couldn’t help but be moved.
The volume descended towards the end of the number as White told us there were words to the tune. “Just three, “ he said, “Are you lying?” He invited us to sing along, and you could hear where the phrase fit perfectly. This was a British audience, mind you, so that old reserve kicked in, and the sing-a-long was somewhat muted, but that band!
The next number, a request for a friend in the audience, “In Rainbows,” a cut from his current album, Smile, was delivered with aplomb. Again there was an amazing interplay between White’s delicate, thoughtful guitar playing and Carl Stanley’s searing saxophone. This piece conjured images of blue skies, sun, and warmth.
The mood changed with the next tune, the fast, hard, Latin/Rock-tinged “Ramon’s Revenge” from the Good Day album. It’s a song about lost love regained, as White would have us believe, through the assistance of a talking horse!
As most –if not all — of you know, White is immensely likeable. He’s like watching your favourite uncle telling you his tales before he treats you to his guitar playing.
He elicits a warm inviting tone from his instrument. He plays with deceptively simple phrases that are interspersed with fat open chords that provide options for his next plucked excursion. He never seems hurried, though, even at tempo. There’s a languidness to his playing that invites you to follow his lead. Then, just as you do so, something happens, and he seems to just blend back into the arms of his ensemble. Guest keyboardist Oli Silk’s keyboards engulfed gentle lyricism in a soft harmonic embrace, even at tempos as ferocious as “Ramon’s Revenge.”
Drummer Mark Parnell just had to get involved. Patiently waiting as he sat laying down the quickest of grooves, he finally broke free and roared around his kit, from snare to tom and back again. Furious paradiddles, rolls, and presses delivered across the kit in blurring brilliance. All the while, he kept that hi-hat stalking the beat, never leaving us adrift amidst the brilliance of his solo.
We changed pace again with a delicate slow groove version of “Who’s That Lady,” the old Isley Brothers classic that featured Stanley on tenor sax. White told us how he learned to play guitar by listening to the radio. He elaborated on how he had played in a band in Cornwall, doing cover versions, when he heard this tune on the radio and knew that was the music he wanted to be playing.
Stanley is a good sax player and the perfect foil for White’s laid back brilliance. These two listen to each other. There was a playfulness in their interactions. White would drop a phrase, and Stanley would pick it up, echo it, change it, add the frills, push it up a notch, and hand it back to the boss. The song morphed perfectly into the Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling stone” with just that signature three-chord intro being dropped onto the groove by White. You knew where this was going as soon as you heard it. Great stuff! Then back to the main theme, everybody on point.
“Perfect Moment” followed. It’s funny how a guy from a typical British suburban town can conjure such warmth and beauty with his compositions. White’s music is just so sun-drenched. It’s poignant and sometimes even mournful, while still keeping you grooving, however gently. The hook on “Perfect Moment” is sheer bliss. That pizzicato refrain so delicate, so sad, so — perfect. Credit must be given to Frankie Felix — you just don’t know he’s there. But you do if you get me. He must be the most unobtrusive bass player I have never heard.
The highlight of the night, though, for me was White’s solo moment. He took the old Buddy Holly song “Every Day” and turned it into a beautiful ballad. The way he opened out the chords, not changing the theme but augmenting it, then taking it down a notch was astonishing. The result was heart-achingly beautiful. Infused with that characteristic White melancholia that always has a hidden smile everyday shone. You could feel Buddy saying proudly, “Yeah, I wrote that!.” It says a lot about a musician that he can add so much beauty to such a well-known song.
White was on a roll now. “How Deep is Your Love” was blended into the mix before a brief interlude while he recalled his encounters with Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles before a brief version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” led us into a funked-out version of “Walk on By.”
Again, Stanley shone, and Silk was sublime. White was imperiously perfect, and then that invisible bassist stepped forward to deliver the quietest bass solo imaginable. He’s a big guy, Frankie Felix, but he’s a gentle giant. He caressed that bass with his left hand sliding gently along the fret board, easing smooth smears of sound that nudged into the beat with soft pops of rhythm that weren’t quite notes. Then, he started rolling that left hand around the fretboard, his fingers dancing on the strings and the pace increasing, and the volume staying low. The tempo increased, and the fingers moved quicker and then bang! He full slapped you with that bass. Just once. Then back to quiet thrumming. Masterful.
The set moved to another number from Smile, “Head over Heels,” a joyful tune with the by now familiar sax and guitar interplay riding over Silk’s lush backdrops, all propelled by the powerful Parnell and the invisible bassist.
White asked what the time was as he had to finish at midnight, so he informed us. “It’s only 11,” a voice called, but sadly it wasn’t. There were two minutes left. Where the time had gone was a mystery. It felt like no time had passed at all, certainly not 90 minutes! That’s the thing about good company, time with them is special. You enjoy it so much, it’s always over too soon.
White said he usually opened with this last tune, but he was going to close with it tonight (it was written in a taxi, he stated), and then came Promenade. One more from the White archives. It was a great upbeat closer. Everyone stretched out and just swung this one to the finish.
Always a master of both the studio and the stage, Peter White further cemented his legacy in c-jazz with this tremendous performance. – Steve Giachardi
Photos by Steve Giachardi
Paula Atherton with David Bach
Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club
October 14, 2015, 8:00 PM
I had been silent in the Jazz world for a few months but found my way to the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club for the musical delicacy of the lovely saxophonist Paula Atherton sharing the stage with keyboardist/composer/producer David Bach. Am I glad to be back! This was one great show of hip smooth jazz.
Atherton and Bach took the stage with musicians David Forman on guitar, bassist Lorenzo Sands, and drummer Wes Crawford. The opening jam “Pocket Full of Funk,” from Atherton’s latest Ear Candy album, proved to be the delight I was in search of on this smooth jazz ride.
The audience was also treated to and thoroughly embraced Atherton’s soulful voice on such tunes as “There Ain’t Nothin,” and “Send Down An Angel” from her Groove With Me album, and “If I Hold You in My Arms” from her first CD titled Let Me Inside Your Love. Sweeeet.
In addition to superb sax, the comely saxtress demonstrated her skills on flute as she delivered a sweet performance on “Herbie” from her Enjoy the Ride release – to take us jazzers back to the up-tempo jazz rhythms of the ‘60’s, Herbie Mann style.
Bach added a delightful keyboard touch to the evening on “Sweet Spot” from his Otherworld album and “On and On” from his Consort (Live) project. Bach brings an eloquent jazz fusion style that merged elegance and sophistication to this set tonight. Wes Crawford’s’ drum solo was a superb infusion to enhance that particular track.
Atherton’s performance on Ear Candy’s “Remember When” is another example of her ability to rock out. The up-tempo version played here tonight featured a masterful solo by guitarist Forman. I think co-writer guitarist Nick Colionne would offer two thumbs up.
I am a huge admirer of flair on a funky jazz track. The Atherton/Bach collaboration on the funky groove “Rite or Wrong”– also from Bach’s Otherworld release–, set the stage on fire. Sands’ bass play was totally remarkable to me, obviously as well as to others in the audience. Their version of Bach’s “All In,” also from his Otherworld album, Atherton’s “Whenever You Come Around, from her Groove With Me release, and Bach’s “Seventh Sun” from his Five Thousand Words CD are other memorable tracks.
I urge jazz aficionados to take the opportunity to appreciate this duo whenever they are together because they complement each other’s their talents as though they have a rich history together onstage when, in fact, this was their very first time playing together! True professionals grooving off each other’s vibe.
Each artist closed with a wonderful finale. “JB,” a rousing tribute to the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown from Atherton’s Groove With Me album, and Bach’s most impressive cover of rock group U2’s “With or Without You” are reasons enough for me to witness this performance again should we be so fortunate to be given that opportunity again. Both artists were compelling, entertaining, and wired to go right from the start – just the “it” factor most jazzers look for in a live performance. – Mike Sutton
Photos by Dwynn Barr
The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman
Birchmere Music Hall
Monday, June 29, 2015, 7:30 pm
Many people, if not most, attend concerts to groove to the live set and marvel at the showmanship and artistic abilities of the artist(s). However, there’s oftentimes other elements that people like me consider: Legacy, reputation, and longevity. The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman are an immovable cornerstone for contemporary jazz, having served as the gateway through which so many of our heralded C-jazz stars today have passed. The group has had as members such luminaries as Kenny G, David Benoit, Brandon Fields, Paul Taylor, Jeff Kashiwa, Eric Marienthal, Gregg Karukas, and too many more to name. Always with the mega-talented guitarist/composer/producer Russ Freeman at the helm, the group has soared through 3 decades with a sound distinctly all its own, and experiencing them live is just that – an experience.
Taking to the Birchmere stage last Monday night with the accomplished bandleader and guitarist were saxman Brandon Fields, keyboardist Bill Heller, bassist Rico Belled, and drummer Dave Karasony (you can often catch the last two with piano virtuoso Keiko Matsui, as well).
Wasting no time tapping into that original Ripps sound and style, the group performed “Native Sons of a Distant Land” from its Sahara release, sharp, crisp, and oh-so-reminiscent, followed by the title track from the Welcome to the St. James Club.
To me, one of the most intriguing tracks ever recorded and/or performed by Freeman and Co. is from the latest album Fountain of Youth. It’s a tune called “Spice Route,” written in unique time, and it captures so much of the band’s expertise and innovative character.
After a marvelous medley of powerful tracks from various albums, the band then cut loose on one of my favorites, the title track from the Built to Last album.
So many moments in so much music. Undoubtedly, I would have to include among my favorite moments “North Shore” from the latest album, drummer Dave Karasony’s blistering display of chops, and a crazy-good finale with a pair of Jimi Hendrix tunes in medley form (“Purple Haze” and “Fire”).
Not to complain at all, but, because I am so absolutely blown away with Freeman’s Latin music touch and style, I found myself craving it all night. There were hints of it, but nothing like I needed to satisfy my itch. His incredible grasp of the style and his infusion of his own interpretations and insight have made this a real staple for me. I have heard that he had been the focus of music critics who have felt that he doesn’t represent contemporary jazz when he goes Latin. In fact, there had been murmurings that his style is not conducive to contemporary jazz at all but, rather, pop. I strongly beg to differ. I have to wonder to whom these critics have been listening! Not only has he always enhanced the genre with his unique flavorings, but the size of his C-jazz fan base should speak volumes on this topic.
While, for nostalgic reasons, I really miss bassist Kim Stone, Rico Belled has proven himself to be a powerful replacement, which leads me to my next point: Freeman has a remarkable eye and ear for talent. When one giant of a musician exits, he manages to reel in another. For that reason, this band will always pack jazz houses everywhere with the same type of enthusiastic fans I witnessed that night in late June.
I anxiously await the band’s next studio project. I do hope Freeman incorporates more of his exotic Latin work in future performances and projects. Whether he does or not, treat yourself to this unique band whenever it comes to your neck of the woods. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Pieces of a Dream
Birchmere Music Hall
December 20, 2014, 7:30 pm
Along with founding members (master keyboardist/producer/composer James Lloyd and drummer/composer/vocalist Curtis Harmon), guitarist Rohn Lawrence, keyboardist/saxman Tony Watson Jr, and Maryland’s own native son, bassist David Dyson also joined the party.
When I say that they brought their “A game,” you had better believe they spared no talent. While showcasing their newest release In The Moment, these Philly cats took us jazz lovers through a melodious set of jams dating back to their early years, featuring incredible solos to die for. Ride with me as I recapture that night.
From the outset, Lloyd asked us if we were ready and, receiving a resounding affirmative response, got right into the groove with “TTYL (I’m Driving),” an up-tempo groove from the latest release, setting a harmonious aura for the evening. I was especially surprised by the arrangement of that track to highlight Lloyd and Harmon’s solo performances– clever interplay, to say the least.
Taking us back with familiar jams like “Night Vision” from their Acquainted with the Night and “Mt Airy Groove” from the 1982 We Are One album (a dance track played on the Washington DC R&B radio stations and popular with club DJs in the DC/MD/VA area with the sound of turntable vinyl scratching. Lawrence was featured here with a spectacular guitar solo followed by a super tight stroking of the keyboards by Lloyd to the crazy delight of fans. Among the most memorable moments for me (and there were many!) was Dyson’s bass solo at center stage. I think everyone in the venue was in amazement as he lit up the stage during that solo with lightning smooth licks. Harmon certainly got his share of that party with a mesmerizing drum solo polishing the track with amazing flavor. Stay with me as I delve further into that groove-filled night.
The band clearly has always had the clever instinct to put together a set list that both excites and captivates. An example would be the track “For Real,” also from In The Moment, which is a song written by Dyson and performed magnificently. It was followed by “For You” from the 1996 The Best of Pieces of a Dream project. The song is a beautiful and moving dedication to the late icons keyboardists/composers/producers Joe Sample and George Duke. Both of these jazz giants had a powerful impact over the years on the band, and Lloyd expressed sincere gratitude by tickling the ivories reminiscent of these legends. I think they both looked from above with sure delight and appreciation.
With the audience clearly mesmerized and in the palms of the band’s hands by now, it was time to crank things up again with Harmon singing “Fo Fi Fo” from the 1983 Imagine This album. The audience sang along and grooved as Lawrence and saxman Watson began a duel of sorts. Watching these two jam out to the groove certainly was worth the price of admission.
Watson’s sax performance on “Anywhere You Are” from the 2009 Soul Intent CD, a track written and dedicated to his wife, was quite convincing. I could see couples holding each other close as I scanned the room. For effect, he even blended some of the late Barry White’s “Sho You Right” into the slow jam, and the audience enthusiastically sang the chorus.
Watson continued to tease us with his performance until we pleaded for him to take the sax to its limits. In answer to the overwhelming request, he belted out the final notes of the tune to the heavens, and the jazzers responded with rousing applause.
“Club Jazz” also from 1996’s The Best of Pieces of a Dream is not only a classy dance cut but featured Lloyd playing the keyboard backwards and blindfolded, never missing a note. Musicianship and talent at their finest!
Speaking of memorable experiences and something being worth the price of admission, Lloyd then took his keytar for a meet-and- greet playing session into the audience, playing the Beatles “Come Together” and Prince’s “Purple Rain.” simulating soul-wrenching solid rock guitar just as well as some actual rock guitarists could have done. As finales go, this was truly a show-stopper!
After exiting the stage, the band returned for their encore performance with Grover Washington Jr’s “Mister Magic,” and there is no doubt that they hit their mark with the tune.
I have been a fan of Pieces of a Dream for many years now, and they continue to delight beyond words. They are the real deal, and I can say that the smooth jazz genre stands on the shoulders of dedicated musicians like these cats – Bravo, Pieces. Bravo! – Mike Sutton
Photos by Dwynn Barr
A Peter White Christmas
Birchmere Music Hall
Dec. 8, 7:30 pm
Always able to sprinkle the charm of the Christmas heart through delightful jazz and seasonal music, the annual Peter White Xmas show rode into town and set up at the renowned Birchmere Music Hall before a – what else? – sold-out audience.
The English gent with the distinctive guitar voice brought along his esteemed partners in melody, saxtress/vocalist Mindi Abair and the charismatic trumpeter/vocalist Rick Braun, as well as bassist Nate Phillips, keyboardist Ron Reinhardt, and drummer/vocalist Stevo Theard. There. That should dispel any remote question about whether the show was anything less than spectacular.
Hopping right into the spirit of things, the group led off with a bouncy, jazz-filled version of “Sleighride” with the horn duo also contributing their vocals. That proved to be not only exciting but a great lead up to Mindi’s own soulful, lazy, and sexy “I Can’t Wait for Xmas.”
These artists always interact quite generously with the Birchmere crowd, and this night was no different. Such interaction has consistently added to their appeal. After all, love begets love.
The group offered up everything, including a medley of Christmas goodies like “Winter Wonderland,” “Home For the Holidays,” “O Tannebaum,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree,” and one super cool version of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph” with lead vocals from drummer Stevo. Hot and merry. There were also memorable moments when they held the audience in awe of their super-tight a cappella vocals. Wow. You just wanted to wrap these guys up in Christmas paper and take them home as a gift to loved ones! For sure, year after year, they prove that jazz just ain’t all they do well.
Signaling a break from the holiday jams and carols for a bit, Rick bolted through with his always hot “Notorious,” which was followed by each of the three principals strutting their respective 2014 projects – namely Rick’s Can You Feel It release, Mindi’s Wild Heart album, and Peter’s Smile CD.
There were so very many stand-out moments in this performance. Examples include Mindi’s simply flawless and mesmerizing version of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” also found on the 2007 Peter White Christmas album; her scintillating version of “Santa Baby;” Peter’s notorious Elvis impression complete with Elvis garb as he croons through “Blue Christmas;” the group’s captivating a cappella rendering of The Drifters’ version of “White Christmas” (Clyde McPhatter & Co. must have certainly nodded in approval?; a solidly swinging cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and original classic mindblowers from each of the three (Rick’s “Cadillac Slim,” Peter’s “Bueno Funk,” Mindi’s “Lucy’s,” and Rick’s classic collaborative effort with saxman Boney James on a cover of “Grazin’ in the Grass.” The finale was an atypical encore in that it wasn’t a rumpshakin’, foot stompin’ rousing number. Rather, it was a tender goodnight with Christmas love as they performed “Happy Xmas” and “O Holy Night.”
The performance had everything you could possibly expect from these stellar artists. Everything. If you haven’t witnessed this seasonal treat yet, you have truly missed an experience. There’s a special feel to a concert like A Peter White Christmas, and words will never be able to convey that feel, that warmth, that substance. If the show is coming to your area, make it a point to be there. Happy Holidays and many blessings! – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
The Birchmere Music Hall
Fri., Oct. 31, 7:30 pm
As the classic Johnny Gill tune declares: My, My, My! What a great way to spend a night full of musical treats – no tricks. Halloween night was anything but scary, my friends, as the classy renowned saxman Gerald Albright graced the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA to bestow upon us an evening of soulful grooves consisting of old classics and tracks from his hot new release Slam Dunk. Let me tell you: There wasn’t a dry forehead, shirt, or blouse in the house by the time the set was finished.
Before a sold-out audience of eager and groove-ready jazz fans, the mega-talented saxman worked his magic from the opening notes of “Fiesta Interlude” (from his latest release) to the suave finale. Not one soul from the sold-out crowd dared leave until all were sure he was done. He was wired, the band (Mark Walker on bass, Jerohn Garnett on drums, and the popular writer/producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis on keys) was wired, and the audience was wired. Thank goodness that the place didn’t go up in flames within minutes after the show began!
With all of the buoyancy that always accompanies the sax giant wherever he appears, he paused between tunes long enough to break the audience up in laughter and created moment after moment for enthusiastic applause as he invited us all for a stroll down Memory Lane with tunes like the previously mentioned “My, My, My” from his Dream Come True release, “George On My Mind” from his New Beginnings release, “G & Lee” from his Smooth CD, “So Amazing” from his Just Between Us album, and the title track from his Bermuda Nights release. Add to that a track from his collaborative effort with guitar dynamo Norman Brown (“Champagne Life” from their 24/7 release and the tune played as the encore performance at the end of the night), great covers including Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Winelight,” “Anniversary” by Tony! Toni! Toné!, a totally souled-up version of the Bacharach/Davis classic “Close to You,” the show’s finale (before the encore) “Before I Let Go” from Frankie Beverly & Maze, and a generous offering of tracks from his latest Slam Dunk release, including the title track and moving tributes to James Brown (“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”) and George Duke (“The Duke), and you had the consummate night of live music.
Bass, keys, and drum solos from Walker, Davis, and Garnett, respectively, were absolutely riveting. Since the new release trumpets Albright’s focus on bringing background instruments to the forefront (“… what we wanted to do on this record was to take those instruments that are normally in the background — bass, flute and horns – and bring them up front… A lot of people don’t know that I play bass, flute, and some other instruments…so we decided to make it – no pun intended – a slam dunk project, and bring all of those elements to the forefront.”), what I had also hoped to see was the actual playing out of the CD’s making with Albright displaying his bass-playing skill (though I must admit to having seen it once before a couple of years ago). However, we did witness his fantastic flute action.
In addition to a magnificently entertaining performance, Albright’s stage presence – to which I briefly alluded earlier – is so refreshing. The way in which he engaged the audience, which, of course responded enthusiastically to his calls for birthdays, anniversaries, etc. and the most convincing feel that he was thoroughly enjoying himself places him head and shoulders above so many, in my opinion. Being as personable as he is talented is truly a blessing for which he is most thankful, I’m sure. He has been dubbed the “Musicians’ Musician,” but he is also one of the most humble, kind, and genuine “Mr. Guy Next Door” kind of person. Having met him aboard The Smooth jazz Cruise on a couple of occasions, I couldn’t help but marvel at how grounded and pleasantly down-to-earth he is. Traits that must now be cherished by those who have them.
Hearing Gerald Albright on record is a most satisfying musical experience. Seeing him perform and interact with his fans in person is beyond satisfying. It restores faith in one that there are genuine people who not only truly enjoy what they do but those they meet along the way, as well. If you haven’t experienced him in person yet, add that to your bucket list. You’ll not be disappointed. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Monday, Oct. 6, 10:00 pm
As I entered into one of the best-known yet almost physically hidden venues in the U.S., the renowned Blues Alley in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, I quickly sensed that something was happening here and what it was turned out to be perfectly clear.
For those who are not yet familiar with her, allow me to introduce classically trained violinist Chelsey Green who, accompanied by her band Green Project (drummer Brian “Spider” Whetley, keyboardist Lorenzo Johnson, bassist Kevin Powell Jr., and pianist Nate Perry Jr.) charmed the audience into a night of intoxicating grooves. Jazz for today’s contemporary grown-up.
Celebrating the release of her sophomore CD The Green Room, Green quickly began to show us better than she could verbally tell us why this CD hit the Billboard charts at # 24 in the first week.
Performing some cover tracks with her own appealing delivery, she entangled us in her web of seduction.
Taking on a Beyonce track with her electric violin and eventually shredding bow (talk about intensity!), as well as a huge bounce in her step, this most exciting violinist attacked the song with an abundance of vigor, not missing a note or step. Like only Beyonce can strut her stuff, Green too was perfectly in command of her stuff!
The magic of “Cheryl Ann,” a very melodic song penned by her dad and dedicated to her mom, was quite simply breath-taking.
Following “Cheryl Ann,” Green revved up her engines and began the “Road Trip,” an up-tempo track thick with piano melody and drums and Green’s own wonderful violin vibrato. She then jumped into a wonderful cover of The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” with robust audience participation and the pianist creatively working the vocoder, as did Green. A very innovative approach indeed.
Slowing down the pace, the violinist then offered her very competent vocals on “Autumn Leaves,” followed by a riveting cover of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much.” Can you imagine hearing the late great one’s music on violin? If so, you can take that image and multiply it by 10 to get an accurate description of this violinist’s rendition.
“1 a.m. — Sexy Song,” a dreamy track which was brought to life with the assistance of another violinist introduced by Green, Monique Roberts. The duo totally mesmerized the audience with their interplay.
Midnight was approaching fast, and Green was soon closing out the show with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “My Favorite Things.” By this time, the audience was on its feet in appreciation.
To say that the vivacious Chelsey Green is a master of her instrument is an understatement. In addition, her stage presence and performance are absolutely full of energy and fire.
Chelsey Green — an act to behold and a tantalizing way to convey all that’s jazz. – Aira Olave
We regret that, due to the venue’s restriction on live photos, none could be taken during this performance.
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club
Sunday, Oct. 5, 7:30 pm
A highly charged evening of some of the best jazz fusion that you can ever hope to hear was on display at the cozy and audience –friendly Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Bethesda, MD as keys giant and producer Jeff Lorber brought a version of his Jeff Lorber Fusion to town. While not comprised of the gents who record the JLF albums of late, the accompanying musicians were of top quality and included top-tier jazz saxman Everette Harp who actually recorded another project, Jazz Funk Soul, with Lorber and renowned guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Loeb recently.
Others joining Lorber were Ron “Buttercup” Jenkins on bass and Lionel Cordell on drums. The four of them created such a tight sound and bold authoritative vibes that they held the audience riveted to every note.
Often, you may hear the whispered conversation and buzzing about within the audience during performances. Here, you could truly hear a pin drop, so focused on the mastery of these artists was this listening group.
Of course, at the center of it all were the always extremely impressive compositions of Lorber who offered gems dating back to the very first self-titled debut JLF recording (e.g., “Chinese Medicinal Herbs”) and bringing it all current with tunes like the title track from his latest JLF album Hacienda.
Also included in this hot and furious fusion set was the funky “Speed of Light” from the new Jazz Funk Soul release I mentioned above. This featured a wonderfully intense sax crescendo by Harp that set the place ablaze.
Tracks like the hard punching bebop-ish/funk “Horace (Dedicated to Horace Silver)” found on his JLF Galaxy release and “Rain Dance” and “Tune 88” from the JLF Water Sign release told a crisp, succinct yet full story of Lorber’s travels through the world of fusion, and it’s really refreshing to hear through his music how he made that sound and style all his very own signature.
An evening with the Jeff Lorber of today – and yesteryear (before the transition to the more R&B-laced contemporary sounds and back again) is truly an enjoyable one, although I certainly cannot say that I would mind hearing a few more of the contemporary tracks like the ones he laid down on albums like State of Grace and Midnight some years back. In either vein, the man is a true artist whose mastery of this fine art is most evident. Just ask any of his fans or those artists he’s helped break through onto the jazz music scene over the years. His brand is solidly established, his groove is undeniably indelible, and his ability to perceive and conceive musical excellence is simply uncanny. This concert at BBJ made it perfectly clear that Jeff Lorber – in whatever “packaging” he chooses (solo or as JLF) – will be received as jazz music royalty for years to come. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Birchmere Music Hall
Saturday, Oct. 4, 7:30 PM
The one word that I don’t think I’ve ever used in describing the petite and lovely Japanese princess of World and contemporary jazz, pianist/keyboardist virtuoso Keiko Matsui, is genius. In fact, it may be one of the most definitive descriptions of her compositions, her feel for the arrangements and images she creates, and the stories she conveys through her rivetingly beautiful and sophisticated music.
This was all on display as this dynamic artist took to the Birchmere Music Hall last Saturday night in Alexandria, VA, a venue she graces with her presence often to the great pleasure of the venue’s patrons and her fans.
Never failing to fill the venue to capacity, Matsui displayed the genius of which I just spoke by taking material that we’ve heard before and presenting it all in a totally revamped manner, delighting the fans with a new perspective on already familiar material. Offering very cool and somewhat different (certainly exquisite) renditions of tracks from her latest Soul Quest album, this could have been perceived as a concert of new material, visions, and exotic expressionism.
Included in this cornucopia of exquisite music were such hypnotic tracks as seven from her current album Soul Quest (“Dream Seeker,” “Black Lion,” the title track, “Proof,” “A Night With Cha Cha,” “Stingo,” (a wonderful audience sing-along accompanied this piece each time the chorus called for the title of the track, dedicated to rock icon Sting, to be uttered), and the moving “Antarctica: A Call to Action”), the always vivid “Kappa” from her No Borders release, the lovely daughter-inspired “Forever Forever” from her Full Moon and The Shrine release, the light and airy “Bridge Over the Stars” from the Dream Walk CD (always a bouncy, happy track), “Caracias” from her Moyo release, and an extraordinarily riveting and sophisticated experience in time signature with “Nguea Wonja” from her The Road… album).
Joining the mega-talented artist were saxman Elan Trotman, two Rippingtons members (Rico Belled on bass and Dave Karasony on drums and percussions), and guitarist JP Mourao, each of whom appeared to be having the time of his life during the performance. Needless to say, the audience was beyond the time of its life as everyone snapped fingers, bopped heads, and even faded off into dreamlike states as Matsui’s serenade found its mark with each tune.
The finale, the renowned and always anticipated “Safari” from her Sapphire release, featured Matsui’s keytar and brought forth cheers, applause, and hoots of recognition of the famous track.
It should be noted that we had no intention of reviewing this concert initially, since we have reviewed her on a couple of previous occasions. Our intent was to simply enjoy another of this marvelous artist’s performances. However, when it became apparent that she would again amaze beyond words, create new ways to express familiar tunes, deeply touch the hearts and souls of all in attendance, the idea of providing a review became as irresistible as her music.
You have heard or read many a reviewer calling to you to witness this artist or that in concert because of the energy, stage presence, etc., etc. I will be no different here except to beseech those of you who have never before witnessed the Keiko Matsui experience to do so the moment you hear of her coming to your town or, if you can get there, any town. Worth it? Words will never truly suffice to tell you how much. What you hear on a Keiko Matsui CD is intensified in person. The imagery, the absolute beauty of her creations, and the aura speak volumes. Truly incomparable and one of a kind, Keiko Matsui gives a new meaning to music artistry each time she graces a stage. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Potomac Jazz & Seafood Festival
St. Clements Island
Colton’s Point, MD
July 12, 2014, 3:00 pm
Nestled deep in the rustic setting of southern Maryland, south of Waldorf in Colton’s Point, home of the St. Clements Island and Museum, that little ol’ jazz festival venue we know as the Potomac Jazz & Seafood Festival proved itself again to be far larger in stature and energy than its 800-person capacity as it put on yet another muscular and electrifying show.
Usually featuring just three artists (and, occasionally, a local guest opening act), PJ&SF always makes certain that the talent is not only huge but capable of exciting the audience to a fever pitch. This year was no different as the lineup included British keyboardist Oli Silk, saxman Elan Trotman, and Chicago’s own cool windy cat and always nattily dressed guitarist Nick Colionne. If you were there, you know that no other act was needed.
With the weather cooperating brilliantly (hot day with a delicious, continuously caressing breeze from the Potomac River), the show opened with Silk pouncing onto the stage and leaping into his “Chill or Be Chilled” track from his Limit’s The Sky release. Quite the apropos tune to complement the breeze. Accompanied by the well-known Wawa Legrand on guitar, Kevin Jackson on bass, and Carl Anderson on drums, the Brit was in full steam mode. He glided from “At Your Service” from his most recent release Razor Sharp Brit through several covers of tunes by those who have influenced him over time (e.g., Ronnie Laws, Lenny White, and George Duke). In fact, he closed with a very rousing cover of Michael Jackson’s “Working’ Day and Night,” encouraging audience participation, which definitely wasn’t hard to achieve. The blaze had begun.
As the smell of enticing barbequed ribs, crab cakes, and smoked catfish and bratwurst filled the air, Barbados native Elan Trotman strode upon the stage to deliver an exotic blend of calypso, reggae, jazz, & R&B. Tunes like “Funk Calypso” and “2000 Miles Away” from an upcoming release, a cover of Sonny Rollins’ “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” and “Tradewinds” from his Tropicality release extracted some marvelous talent from the saxman and his band, which consisted of Tyrone Chase on guitar, Mark Copeland on keys, Zack Rochester on bass, Anthony Steele on drums, and Kareem Thompson on steel pans.
What stood out as the highlight of Trotman’s set (along with his excellent cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” was the “mashup” of covers (including Michael Jackson, Grover Washington, and Stevie Wonder, as well as newer artists like Rihanna) that excited the audience to a frenzy. It proved to be a very engaging set as the saxman made his way through the accepting masses and drove many ladies at the front of the stage to dance their hearts out.
The festival was now as hot as the day and, by the time the headliner, guitarist extraordinaire Nick Colionne entered the stage, the sun may as well have been propped on the stage with him. Decked out in a cool summery off-white outfit (complete with hat, of course), the dapper artist entered to a most appropriate tune, blues rockers ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” much to the crazy delight of the fans, and proceeded to lay waste to his hollow body guitar‘s fretboard with tracks like his classic “High Flyin’” from his Keepin’ It Cool release, “Melting Into You” from his No Limits CD, and others.
Colionne should consider also working part-time as a comedian. He would be quite formidable as demonstrated that evening in Maryland. Keeping the audience in stiches with one-liners and a tongue-in-cheek cover of “Secret Garden” where he implored the audience to buy “a CD or two,” he was truly in rare form and a total delight to hear and watch.
For his finale, Colionne elected to roll into his “What About You” track (from his Influences release) with a huge dose of the frenzied James Brown style, substance, and lyrics. As Colionne shouted out, “Can you feel It?” and “Somebody scream!,” he boogied, sang, and gyrated through the audience, sans guitar (which he’d handed off to his musical engineer, Chris Jones, who proved to be pretty competent, as well), giving women palpitations with kisses and hugs and calls to “get up” and “what about you.” All of this, and with the band (keyboardists Tim Gant and Nate Mitchell; bassist Garrett Body, and drummer Jason Grant) wired into the next universe, one had to wonder when the paramedics might arrive. This went on for quite a while and, by the end of the set, the sweat-drenched and deliriously happy audience had gotten its fill of a super-momentous day of jazz, food, and fun.
A bundle of thanks to all of the outstanding talent, the grooves they brought, and to the staff of PJ&SF for giving the DC/MD/VA area one of the coolest experiences imaginable all in one summer day. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Fifth Annual Lake Arbor Jazz Festival
July 12, 2014, 12:00 PM
Music talent was in full bloom at the Fifth Annual Lake Arbor Jazz Festival in Prince Georges County, MD — “Where Music meets Community” — with a sensational lineup of jazz artists. The three-day community event, running from July 10-12, brought more than 5000 attendees (all three days combined) through the gates for great family fun, music, and food. Thanks to the volunteer staff, fantastic weather, and some 65 venders, attendees were served lots of delicious entertainment throughout the afternoon and evening of July 12, the day I attended. Let’s take a smooth jazz ride through some of the hottest modern fusion, R&B, funk, and contemporary jazz.
First up was Maryland’s own Tribe Inc. a local band whose members grew up in Prince Georges County, MD, Washington, DC, and Baltimore. The band — saxophonist Brian Forehand, drummer Brandon Strayhorn, and founder and bassist Reginald Payne — set the pace for the afternoon with slick melodies, displaying creativity with their original mid-tempo tracks “Chill, Lieye, and Great Beyond” and the super-funky “High Rise,” both from their current release Road to Destiny. The title track also boasts a modern fusion sound that reminded me of the jazz/funk of the 80s. Their cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” further expressed their versatility in the genre.
Afro Bop Alliance stepped to the stage next. The Grammy-nominated Latin jazz septet hailing from Annapolis, MD, thrilled the audience with Caribbean sounds and harmony. I was certainly captivated with this band. On stage was bandleader and percussionist Joe McCarthy, pianist Harry Appelman, saxophonist Luis Hernandez, Tim Stanley on trumpet & flugelhorn, bassist Tom Baldwin, Victor Provost on the steel pan, and saxophonist Vince Norman. They opened the set with a track called “Golpe de Cumaco” from their project of a year ago, UNA MAS.
Showcasing their newest CD Angel Eyes, they jammed their Latin swinging cuts “Ziggy The Crooner,” “Three for Juju,” and “Minor Details,” each tune featuring impressive and distinctive solos from McCarthy and Provost. Classily complementing the tunes were the sensational performances of Hernandez, Stanley, and Norman. They were all truly a pleasure and a delight for our ready ears.
Bassist Antone “Chooky” Caldwell followed this exciting group with a riveting set I would describe as electric energized funk. Flanking him on stage was The Truth Band, consisting of Corey Wallace on trombone, Grif Rikkley on sax, Devonte McCoy on trumpet, Jarel Abraham also on bass, and Lester Wallace on drums.
Next was a riveting funky track called “Good Lord” from Caldwell’s last CD Basically Chook with Caldwell delivering smooth, fluid bass riffs we jazzers definitely appreciated.
Caldwell then exhibited his soul and gospel creativity with a pair of covers, namely the classic “Always On My Mind” (written by Brenda Lee and made famous by Willie Nelson) and an up-tempo jam with the dueling bass with Abraham on the performance of the Stylistics’ classic “People Make the World Go Round.”
The funk continued when Marcus Young took the stage playing his self-proclaimed “Groove Jazz,” and I must say that description fits perfectly.
His band opened with a smoking cover of Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” featuring Josh Vietti on violin and Marcus Mitchell on sax. Young then offered an original mid-tempo funky track, “Moments in Time,” featuring his marvelous performance on the ivories.
The grooves just kept coming as he then covered Ledesi’s ”I Blame You,” highlighted by the artist jamming into a vocoder. The audience readily participated, dancing anywhere they could on the lawn.
More energy and boogeying continued on the hip hop instrumental “Black and Yellow.” The party was then thrown into full effect when Young rocked the dance club favorite “The Wobble.” Fans came from everywhere to the lawn, creating a sea of line dancers. Even the band joined dozens of fans doing the dance. Precisely in line with the festival theme, “Where Music Meets Community!”
The sweat-soaked and excitedly cheerful audience received a hefty serving of the next act, Plunky & Oneness. Saxophonist J. Plunky Branch served up a wonderful set of funk grooves while showcasing his Never Too Late project. Present on stage was a host of wonderful musicians including David Chivers on drums, Jose Barvier on guitar, Jayell Harris on keyboards, Sir Fire and Abdu on percussion, bassist and co-producer Muzi Branch, and vocalists Chandra Davis and Charlene Green.
Jazzers clapped to the hot rhythm of the opening up-tempo “Live Gig Clip” that can be heard on the Plunky on Fire CD, and right into a cover of Frankie Beverly & Maze’s “We Are One.”
Plunky then sang “Make Things Change” to share the significance of that track, an inspirational reggae tune that speaks to speaks to social and environmental awareness. The title track to his Never Too Late release – a Go-Go swing jam (music born and familiar to fans in the DC/MD/VA area) – kept the party in full swing.
A mellow duet with backup singer Charlene Green, entitled “New Fantasy,” was very effective, and another medley featuring a cover of John Legend’s “Best You Ever Had,” to a go-go tempo, and right into the rhythmic jam titled “Drop.” Fans were on the lawn “hand-dancing” to this one.
Even with the weather being as warm as it was, the concert continued to heat up with the songstress Avery Sunshine and some of the best vocals I have ever heard. Gracing the stage perched behind a keyboard and flanked by acoustic guitarist Dana, she engaged the audience on the soulful track “I Got Sunshine.” from her 2010 self-titled album. After several covers including D’Angelo’s’ “Lady” and Jill Scott’s “He Loves Me” I knew I was hooked on the singer’s compositions as well as sweet voice.
She then sang “PININ” and “See You When I Get There” from her latest album Sunroom with so much power, spirit, and elegance. The love song “Call My Name” also from Sunroom, and featured on radio, was just as sensational as a live performance as the recorded version.
Closing the set with “All in My Head,” I found myself absorbed in every note she crooned and, judging from the enthusiastic audience applause, I am sure I was not alone in how that song affected me.
The exciting young prodigy, saxophonist/flautist Marcus Anderson, was the final artist of the day to take the stage along with band members Chris Ellis on bass, Bertron Curtis on the keyboards, Showcase Taylor on guitars, and Meat on drums. Displaying incredible energy, Anderson showcased songs from his latest project Style Meets Substance, opening the set with the up-tempo Motown-like title track, smoothly changing to the CD bonus tune titled “I’m Back,” and flowing right into jamming “Paisley Red.” The audience was on its feet as Anderson moved with the swagger of James Brown.
Next, the entire band took individual solos on a Michael Jackson medley from his Off The Wall release followed by the soulful jam “You Made My Day.” The smooth jazz track only set the stage for what I considered the highlight of the set.
The saxman then slowed the tempo with a sensual song, “Your Wish Is My Command,” and came down to mingle with the audience with several roses attached to his sax. He stopped to serenade several ladies, distributing a rose at every stop. Classy move, I thought.
For the finale, Anderson played an R&B medley of hits, including party favorites “Joy and Pain” by Frankie Beverley and Maze, and “Can’t Be Friends” from the artist Trey Songs. I stood in amazement as Anderson maintained the attention of the audience. Seems no one left early. Through the darkness on the lawn, we all danced into the night as the festival bade us goodnight. The truly exhausted audience offered an extensive standing ovation for the pleasures of the day. Now, that was Style Meeting Substance.
The volunteer committee deserves mega kudos for their competent and fantastic coordination of the event — from the delectable food to the magnificent talent. This was truly a class A+ event in my book. I eagerly look forward to the festival again next year – Mike Sutton
The Love & Soul Tour
The Birchmere Music Hall
June 26, 2014, 7:30 pm
Talk about summer jazz at The Birchmere! The sold-out Love and Soul Tour rolled through the venue like a crazy summertime storm, bringing everything including the kitchen sink to deliver its solid groove-filled message of, yes, love and soul.
Accompanying the chief artists, guitarists extraordinaire Norman Brown and Jonathan Butler (the latter was sporting a new very cool beard – at least, new to me) and the suave Swiss keyboardist Alex Bugnon were the wonderful keyboardist and Norman Brown musical director Gail Jhonson, smooth, super-competent bassist Dan Lutz, and Washington, DC’s own Jay Williams (whose ferocious drumming style seems to always be in demand by almost all of the heavyweight jazz artists who pass through this area), and the lovely canary-voiced daughters of the featured guitarists, Jodie Butler and Rochella Brown. Can you see what a treat we were all in for?? Let me further help you envision this tour de force of sound and groove.
After getting things hopped off with the classic “On Broadway,” performed by all of the artists (with Brown and Butler trading off on scats and blistering runs), Butler lit into his “Lies” single from his 1990 self-titled release. The energy and fire he evoked from not only himself but from the audience on this tune was, in a word, stupendous. He then offered the title track from his wonderfully polished and autobiographically sketched celebratory new release Living My Dream, another wired performance full of inspiration and soul-reaching depth.
Settling in down a bit, Bugnon charmed the ladies in the audience with his deeply soulful “Night Groove” from his 2001 release Soul Purpose. The track is always a mood-setter for romantics. You could sense the love gently descending upon the venue at this point.
Stormin’ Norman Brown entered the stage, expertly working his hollow body guitar in a blaze of heat (can you say turn up the A/C??) with his classic and frenetic “Lydian” from his 1994 After the Storm release — followed by the classic title track from that album.” Was the audience beside itself by now? You know it. To keep that energy at a fever pitch, he then turned on the charm with his classic cover of The Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You.” Of course, a most superior rendering.
Feeling the love and needing to let his soul go where it would, ignoring the set list for a bit, Butler lunged into a top-tier quality offering of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” with only Bugnon as accompaniment. The man’s vocals are always as steady and soulful as his guitar work.
As if that wasn’t enough to stoke the fire already blazing away on stage, the South African marvel gave us the gospel-laced “Falling in Love With Jesus.” With the spirited response he received, you would have found yourself just waiting for some inspired soul to shout out “Let the church say ‘Amen!’” Oh, there was inspired shouting, to be sure. Yes, Mr. (or maybe I should say “Rev.”) Butler can do that to you…easily.
Leaping back into his new release, he then offered the stirring “Heart and Soul.”
So much excitement, so much electrical charge, and so much love penetrated the Birchmere that, by the time Bugnon offered the title track from his 1991 release “107ᵒ Degrees in the Shade,” it may have been already 120ᵒ in there.
So it went – with colorful and interpretive covers like “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Keep That Same Old Feeling,” “What’s Goin’ On” and, for the stompin’ closer, Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” If there was a dry forehead in the place after that set, I missed the opportunity to interview that person to discover his or her secret for staying cool and collected.
Each of the guys in that trio could have easily and independently pulled off the event with major impact. Together, that impact had the effect of a 10.0 earthquake. Needless to say, be sure to witness this tour when it comes to your town…and prepare to sizzle. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club
June 4, 2014; 7:30 pm
The BB&J Supper Club was alive with excitement and energy on this wonderful late Spring evening in the Washington, DC, metro area as the smooth but funky Philly-based jazz band Zoe took to the stage to provide a very generous couple of hours of musical sparks and soul-deep grooves.
Consisting of Reginald Harris (saxophone), Cleveland Belin (keyboards), David Ferebee (drums), and H. Maurice Fonville (bass), this band brought all of the oomph you’d expect from one hailing from such a musically rich city as Philly, providing gems from their latest release, Unstoppable, in addition to a few select covers that were well interpreted and presented and one from their Let’s Fly release.
Opening with the solid jazz-drenched “Keepin’ It Real” from the latest release, lots of classy sax and great keys clearly drew the audience into the moment and locked down that mood for the evening.
While offering impressive versions of tunes by the late Grover Washington Jr. with the debonair charm that the late artist always deserves (i.e. “Let it Flow” and “Mr. Magic”), the iconic Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do” and “I Wish,” Billy Paul’s classic “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the world-renowned Nigerian songstress Sade’s “Love is Stronger Than Pride,” and the popular Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie,” the band laid into its own material with as much zeal.
Reaching back to their earlier Let’s Fly release, they delivered the title track with a gentle, soulful touch, just as moving as the recorded version, with an expressive lead bass and light, airy keys.
Jams from Unstoppable were all in extended top form as the band lit up the stage with such attractive tracks as “It Is What It Is” and “This One’s For You.”
I would have loved for Zoe to have offered more of their own smokin’ material, including a few more from one of my favorite releases by them, the previously mentioned Let’s Fly, but, because of the apparently marvelous time each member was having with each tune, songs were often extended longer than time permitted to perform other offerings. However, what they did offer was enough to start and stoke fires in the audience.
This is obviously a group of musicians deeply invested in what they do and offer. Their approach to their music is professional, comfortable to them, thorough, and classy. That was certainly exhibited in their performance that night…a performance that often prompted hoots, cheers, and much applause from the riveted audience.
It must be in the water there, but when you think of the amount of talent that has always flowed out of the Philly area (the genius of Thom Bell, the Stylistics, Grover Washington Jr., Patti Labelle, the supergroup Pieces of a Dream, and countless others), you are simply overwhelmed with respect and admiration. While not at the Spinners’ or Grover’s or Pieces’ heights yet, Zoe brings to contemporary jazz a freshness and vivid perspective that promises to continually raise the group to higher ground with each release and performance. With continuously solid recordings and entertaining performances like that exhibited at BB&J on that June 4 night, Zoe will be a name on every jazzer’s lips in short order. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr