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Smooth Jazz Concert Reviews

Our review of various smooth jazz concerts.

The Rippingtons
The Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA
Sept. 28, 2017, 7:30 pm

It should come as no surprise that the versatile, mega-talented, world-renowned contemporary jazz group The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman rolled into the Birchmere Music Hall on this fine autumn night with all the fervor and style we’ve come to know as their signature approach to providing fine performances time and again.

With the same members intact for a few years now (Russ Freeman on guitar, Bill Heller on keys, Rico Belled on bass, Dave Karasony on drums, and Brandon Fields on sax), the group delighted and wowed the audience with great original compositions that most of us know well, such as “Wild Tales” (from True Stories), the title track from Curves Ahead, “Morocco” (from Kilimanjaro) “Carnival!” (from Weekend in Monaco), “Aspen” (another from Curves Ahead), the title track from Built to Last, the title track from Welcome to the St. James Club, “Body Art,” (from Modern Art), and the title track from Tourist in Paradise.

So many other grooves were presented, including their usual driving, electrifying covers of a pair of Jimi Hendrix classics (“Purple Haze” and “Fire”).

In terms of stage presence, saxman Fields strutted his solid energetic style and even offered a bluesy riff that fit right into the improv atmosphere of this particular set, as much of the material was retooled and massaged to include all manner of new iterations – some so profound as to make the song sound brand new.

Bassist Belled and drummer Karasony totally blew it out with strong, vibrant solos (Karasony giving one that lasted for several awe-inspiring minutes, drawing crazed applause of appreciation from the now riled-up audience).
Freeman always presents himself in that smooth, confident, cool fashion – no outrageous stage antics and few words; just highly competent, almost effortless and mind-blowing guitar work.

The entire band always exhibits the ultimate in professionalism and knowledge of how to get this live thing right.

In the past, Freeman has been criticized by some media not truly appreciative of his versatility, stating that his music is not jazz at all but contemporary pop, and some even knocked his courageous move to Latin-and tropical-based music, folding that into an eclectic and one-of-a-kind style – a move I personally welcomed with wild enthusiasm, being a great fan of Latin music and grooves.

It only goes to show that, often, certain music media are not always on top of anything that can’t be explained away in stern, inflexible tangibles and pigeonholes – knowing, understanding, or appreciating little about the intangibles like an artist’s motivation and groove. Still, the band returned to its earlier signature style a few albums back, which should now satisfy those critics. Actually, as I’ve implied here already, they have never really abandoned that style, only embraced more eclecticism – a very good thing, for sure.

Having had my moment on the podium with this revelation or observation, I now return to that night of Ripps magic. All in all, the audience was totally in a place of musical bliss as it marveled at the musicianship of this time-resistant band that has seen the likes of Kenny G and Jeff Kashiwa pass through it and go on to establish solo careers.

While I had hoped to be surprised by a sneak preview of an upcoming album (didn’t happen), I was nonetheless as pleased as always with the wonderful presence of this polished group. I do hope that something new is in the works because I know that Freeman’s imagination is almost limitless, and I so welcome that as do so many others, I’m sure.

If you’ve not experienced these guys in concert, you owe it to yourself to do so whenever and wherever you can. Excellence personified. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr
 

Warren Hill’s Cancun Jazz Festival
Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya
Cancun, Mexico
Aug. 31- Sept. 3, 2017

Saxman Warren Hill must surely have the Midas touch. Years ago, when he launched the first Warren Hill Smooth Jazz Cruise, it turned out that he’d tapped into something novel and exciting for smooth jazz fans. Since then, that idea has become the gold standard for at-sea fun and music. Now in his second year at the helm of Warren Hill’s Cancun Jazz Festival (formerly known in 2015 as The Cancun Jazz Festival), he has again set a gold standard for 5-star, all-inclusive resort jazzin’. A mini-vacation to end all mini-vacations, this paradise of music, food, new and old friends, and exotic ambience has attracted fans from everywhere, making Cancun, Mexico even more of a go-to spot than before when there was just the sparking water along the pristine beaches and the warmth of that Mexican sun and atmosphere.

Packed with stellar lineups including Keiko Matsui, Candy Dulfer, Norman Brown, Peter White, George Benson, and so many others, this festival is the one place to be each year to chase away your blues and the daily work grind.

This year’s festival included all of the aforementioned artists and more, each one sparking a lively fire and magical vibes.

Candy Dulfer opened the festivities with a stompin’ set that found her wailing notes into the wonderful breezy night with such faves as “Sax a Go Go,” “How It’s Done” from her new album, the classic “Lily Was Here,” and a rousing version of AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces.” These and other goodies, most performed with her funkmaster keyboardist and musical director Chance Howard, served as a fitting welcome to the four-day extravaganza.

Thunderstorms and constant dark and ominous clouds threatened the weekend, all to no avail, as Hill concocted the ingenious alternative of moving the party indoors to the roomy venues like the spacious Epic Ballroom and his own “Warren’s Lounge.” There were even jams in the two resort lobbies by saxman Phil Denny and trumpeter Lin Rountree.

So many acts, so much glee, so much food and hospitality! There was the awesomely entertaining trio of Peter, Paul, and Euge (White, Taylor, and Groove, respectively, that is), the thunderous trio of Richard Elliot, Rick Braun, and Norman Brown, the sweet, exotic yet equally funky and groove-steady sound of the Japanese Princess of Smooth Jazz Keiko Matsui (you’d have to include World and everything that spells beautiful music) who, occasionally joined by saxmen Paul Taylor, Warren Hill, and Michael Lington, offered such palatable tracks as “Forever Forever,” “Safari,” “Movin’ On” from her latest, and so much more.

There was also the funky set by Michael Lington, keyboardist Brian Simpson, and vocalist Elliot Yamin. Lington brought it right into your face as he strolled through the audience, wooing ladies left and right).

Let’s not forget a very charged set from the event’s host Warren Hill who grooved and moved with many of his memorable tracks, even reaching back to the tracks that cemented him as a mainstay in the genre like “Take-Out Dreams” and “Tell Me All Your Secrets” and included a moving duet with daughter Olivia Rox. Fantastic stuff!

So much more was included here, and I surely can’t address it all now, but it all ended (onstage, anyway), with a blow-out performance by the one and only ageless George Benson who captivated the audience with all of his signature material. Man, this cat not only still has the guitar chops, but his vocals are sterling!

All in all, this was the festival to end all festivals. It left everyone wanting more and surely interested in making that return trip next year – hopefully to better weather.

Many thanks to Hill. As a host, he outdid himself, accommodating concert-goers as they waited for the transition of equipment from outdoors to indoors and the ensuing soundchecks that had to be performed. During the one time that the process caught a massive crowd standing outside the venue’s doors awaiting admittance, he brought out drinks and chairs to all who asked for them. Who does that? Yeah, yeah, I know the business aspect – a happy customer will return, but I believe that there was more than that. He truly wanted everyone comfortable, I believe. I say that because I was the first chair recipient. I don’t think that accommodation was first and foremost on his mind until he noticed me leaning on a cane. I swear I could see the look of concern, and a lightbulb immediately going off in his head, and he quickly moved to remedy that. Many more chairs followed for others, as well. When music began to be piped to us allowing for line dancing, any scowling faces and souls were quickly turned into smiling ones as they danced with elation. Kudos for your compassion and quick thinking, Warren.

If you missed this one because you just didn’t know how it would go, or if you felt it was too expensive, do your due diligence this time and plan to be at that party in 2018. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. —  Ronald Jackson

Photos by Aira Olave

 

Kevin Howard
The Carlyle Club
Alexandria, VA
Thursday July 20, 2017, 7:30 pm

Along with possessing totally adept, almost second nature skill, keyboardist/pianist Kevin Howard is one of the most humble, personable, centered artists I have ever met. His humility is so evident that you wonder how he stays so focused in an industry chock full of bloated egos that are often more pronounced than the level of talent. Still, he does so brilliantly.

At the classy, quaint, acoustics-friendlyCarlyle Club in Alexandria, VA, on last Thursday night, Howard – who I have seen and heard on a couple of other occasions with less than complimentary acoustics – put on a display of smooth jazz and general keyboard/piano mastery that had to be heard and seen to truly appreciate.

Equipped with a baby grand, synth, and keyboard and accompanied by impressively skilled support musicians –Chris Ghee on drums (who was absolutely explosive), in-the-pocket Wardell Howell on bass, and Isaac Parnham on saxes), Howard aroused and wowed the audience both with his choice of material and a few choice theatrics.

Now living in the Washington, DC area in Waldorf, MD, the keyboardist attracted the locals who were most appreciative and supportive of his work. While not a huge audience, I’m sure that the attendees would all agree that this is one true musician who should have long ago been placed in a very conspicuous place on the map of most competent smooth jazz artists. If the smooth jazz “umbrella” is truly inclusive, Howard should have definitely been invited under it ages ago.

Opening with a snappy version of the Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day,” Howard quickly set the tone for the evening. He transitioned from there to his own classy and abundantly smooth “In Motion” from his Travels CD. Following with an impressive cover of the Ronnie Laws classic “Always There,” it was obvious that he had secured the audience’s undivided attention for the evening.

Settling down to the luscious groove “Desert Morning” from his Travels CD, the mood became quickly transformed to a cushiony, relaxed one – but not for long as he then introduced his original “Random Groove” tune, a spirited piece that turned out to be the showstopper as he rolled out his personal pièce de résistance, reaching an intense crescendo of action by playing with his elbows, playing backwards, and even playing with his face – that’s right, his face! Remarkable is a most insufficient word to describe this point in the performance. As performers and their impressive theatrics go, Brian Culbertson and James Lloyd should truly create a space for Howard on that particular stage.

Wrapping things up with a handsomely soulful version of Usher’s “Here I Stand,” his own “Tahoe,” and the title track from his Travels release, Howard left quite a mark on the Washington, DC metro area’s smooth jazz goers in attendance. Along with his outgoing personality, his music should take hold here easily. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr

  

Gerald Albright and Jonathan Butler
Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA
June 21, 2017, 7:30 pm

The Fourth of July came early as one of the best musical dynamic duos you could ever put together for a live performance – saxman/multi-instrumentalist Gerald Albright and guitarist/vocalist/ inspirationalist Jonathan Butler (I will affectionately refer to them respectively as “G” and “JB” from this point on in this review) — appeared in full and true form at the completely sold-out legendary Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA. The funk was there, the jazz-filled smooth grooves were there, the uplifting and glorifying testimony was there, the enthusiastic and receptive fans were there, the very soul of music was there – and it all completely permeated the air.

It’s always a wonderful thing to experience musically talented artists at work in a live performance, but it’s something else again to witness superior talent combined with the most attractive of personalities. With Albright and Butler, you have two genuinely personable, lovable gentlemen who just happen to know and love their craft so well. The combination of attributes is simply incomparable. These guys talk to you with sincerity, enjoyment, and excitement not because it’s part of their set act, but because, as I and a whole host of others believe, it is who they are to the soul. I would bet on that with huge confidence. It wasn’t only the audience’s party – it was the artists’ party as well. That they are paid for this is just icing on their respective cakes. How blessed they must feel!

To ignite the flame for this smooth jazz/revival set, the pair opened with JB’s movin’, groovin’ “African Breeze” from his Living My Dream release. It was full of that beautiful, wonderful South African spirit and cultural vividness that the guitarist brings with him everywhere. It’s the kind of tune that will forever endear fans worldwide to his music and his magnetism.

That lively opener was followed by G’s solid groove “G & Lee” from his Smooth release. Just two tunes in, and the audience was already riveted and flying high.

JB then further launched into his Living My Dream release, offering the spirited title track and his moving slow jam “Do You Love Me?” The latter tune featured some great support musician talent as keyboardist Arlington Jones and guitarist Rick Watford took the spotlight for a few moments to razzle and dazzle.

Speaking of backing musicians, joining this party were bassist and musical director Dan Lutz and dynamic drummer Jay Williams. Talk about energized support!

G then hopped into the snappy “Champagne Life” track from the joint album with famed guitarist Norman Brown, 24/7. This started a mini seismic event in the audience with some robust singalongs. Since the ground was still under our feet, he then pulled out his powerful version of the late James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” covered on G’s Slam Dunk release. “Killer” is a word that simply cannot begin to describe the performance of this classic. It was met with a standing ovation – one of many to follow.

Speaking of standing Os, JB had the audience completely and spiritually transfixed as he rendered his version of the late Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” calling on everyone to pick up on the inspirational message there. They did. Truly a heartfelt church moment!

Shifting back to the party mode, the effervescent guitarist/vocalist then kicked off a robust version of his classic “Sarah Sarah” which was again met with enthusiastic singalongs and dancing in the seats.

What followed next just had to be witnessed in person as G displayed some saxercises on his “Boom Boom” tune from his latest album G. Words do little to describe the command this cat has over the sax. The playing/breathing technique and performance quite naturally drew loud cheers and a standing ovation.
After a seriously bluesy tribute to the classic “Georgia On My Mind,” featuring some blistering, emotional guitar work from Watford, the band slipped into a hip hip/R&B/funk mashup as a finale which included chants of “Ain’t No Party Like An East Coast Party” but not before the duo convinced members of the audience to get down in a classic “Soul Train Line” which paraded through the venue, ignited excited screams and cheers of appreciation. It was now time for the fire extinguishers!

A tribute to the late Al Jarreau, choosing an apropos song, “We’re In This Love Together,” served as the encore and capped off a night of musical glee not to be forgotten.

Great music is great music, but great music in conjunction with artists partying right along with you in earnest is a total treasure. If you’ve yet to catch this duo this year, make it your business to do so – in your town or wherever you can. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr

 

Tony Craddock, Jr. & Cold Front
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club
Bethesda, MD
June 14, 2017, 8:00 pm

Let me start by saying that saxman/meteorologist Tony Craddock, Jr. and his band Cold Front do have a great onstage presence, theme, and motif. The strategy to capture and keep the attention of the audience seemed to be quite effective.

While the saxman doesn’t have an abundance of original material in his repertoire at this time (he is working on a third album, however), his choice of tunes for his set clearly demonstrated his grasp on how to fire up his live performance. Let me walk you through the cool late-Spring breeze that wafted through the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club last Wednesday night before a packed house of concert-goers.

The first sign that Craddock takes his live set seriously and gives much thought as to how to make it strong was his introduction. With the rest of the band assembled onstage, Craddock spoke offstage in a commanding yet soothing, refreshing tone as he introduced himself and his background and the rationale for the theme that drives his show. To rousing applause, he then walked onto the stage with a beaming smile and the backdrop of rolling clouds (one of many visuals that would prove to be as integral a part of his stage presence as the set itself).

Opening with the title track from his 2013 Convection release, the DC-area resident quickly whipped the supportive and attentive audience into a groove that would last all night.

Cold Front is comprised of Ashli Rice (vocals), Felipe Paccagnella (piano/keyboards), Johnnie Castro (bass), Corey Wilson (drums), and Eric Perez (percussion), and they collectively proved to be a very competent and solid group thoroughly enjoying itself and the audience’s appreciation. Throughout the evening, members would step forward to exhibit their individual strong talents (Rice’s strong vocals, Paccagnella’s masterful piano skills, Castro’s commanding bass work, Wilson’s solid drumming, and Perez’s rhythmic dance on percussion all more than complemented Craddock’s sax.

In addition to a few Craddock originals, the band offered very clever interpretations and improvisations on such tunes as Jeff Lorber’s “Rain Dance” (wonderful demo on how well the saxman works the fusion element), the late Wayman Tisdale’s “Brazilia,” another great display of the groove mechanics of fusion on Chick Corea’s “Spain,” Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” They also offered an interesting arrangement of Ronny Jordan’s “After Hours,” setting the late acid jazz guitarist’s smooth riffs to sax. Nicely done, but I’m still a huge fan of the Jordan original as I feel that particular track is definitely better suited for guitar. Still, Craddock sold his version well, judging from the audience’s robust reaction.

Other cool iterations of some classics were offered, and they all obviously further endeared the riveted audience to the saxman.

A warm night outside met a cool set inside, and the contrast was much appreciated — as was the impressive set by the weatherman with a penchant for sax and smooth jazz. — Ronald Jackson 

Photos by Dwynn Barr