Smooth Jazz Concert Reviews
Our review of various smooth jazz concerts.
Birchmere Music Hall
April 12, 2014, 7:30 PM
A refreshing spring night welcomed the world renowned band Hiroshima to the jam-packed Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA this night. I am talking about a concert filled with emotion, fun, and passion as the legendary band performed many of their tunes, filling the venue with mystical melodies and hypnotic sounds that easily captured the imagination of the audience.
Showcasing tracks from their latest release J-Town Beat and several previous releases, the band graced the stage, for starters, with the presence of original members such as the charismatic band leader and composer Dan Kuramoto (flutes, saxes, and keyboards), the lovely June Kuramoto (koto), and drummer/percussionist Danny Yamamoto Additionally, over the years, the band, known for its culturally diverse East-Meets-West approach to contemporary jazz, has done exceptionally well to add the illustrious Kimo Cornwell on keyboards and synthesizers and bassist Dean Cortez. Take a ride with TSJR for a marvelous evening of contemporary and fusion jazz as you read on about this iconic group’s amazing performance.
Yamamoto opened with a traditional Japanese-style percussion intro, complete with powerfully inspiring and loud monosyllabic vocal proclamations, resembling a ritualistic call of sorts — a forceful demonstration that simply stayed with you. This led to the wonderful “Obon” a track from the 1987 Go album, which ultimately became the title of the group’s 2005 release. The song captures the very essence of the signature East-Meets-West contemporary jazz sound for which the band is so well known, and clearly brings to mind a vision of passion and energy with every note.
“Red Beans and Rice,” a funk-laden track from the 2007 Little Tokyo album, kept the fans grooving in their seats with Cornwell’s powerful keyboard solo, Yamamoto holding it down hard on drums, Cortez’s funky bottom, and leader Kuramoto’s bright sax work. The poetic strumming of the ancient and enchanting koto by the lovely and mega-talented June Kuramoto always provides that wonderful Far East backdrop, and it did so splendidly here, as well. I would certainly agree with legendary bassist Stanley Clarke that she is truly the world’s best koto player. Stay with me as I journey into how she lights up the stage later in the show.
Slowing down the tempo a bit, “Turning Point” from the 2009 Legacy album featured multi-instrumentalist Kuramoto on flute and koto wiz June. The chemistry they exhibited was as refreshingly alluring as the ever-changing low exotic lighting during the seductive song.
The band then easily transitioned to their next mid- tempo jams, “Koto Cruise,” from the Departure project and the ultra-funky “Da Kitchen” from the current J-Town Beat album. The latter’s motivation has a mouth-watering story behind it as Dan Kuramoto described a menu item called Loco Moco from an oceanside lunch place in Cornwell’s Hawaii. The plate consists of rice, two hamburger patties, and two sunny-side-up eggs, all topped with fresh mushroom gravy –where’s my plate?? ) Of course, the tunes perfectly connected with the already fired-up jazzers.
“Things Unsaid” from 1999’s Between Black and White CD sweetly mellowed the fans and the atmosphere once more, leaving all in a dreamy state.
Some of the highlights – and I stress some – were their tribute to the late George Duke, the late Wayne Henderson, and Joe Sample on the soulful “State of Mind” — a touching moment offering much respect for these top-tier artists who inspired the group.
June Kuramoto, the koto princess, introduced “Thousand Cranes” from the 1989 East album — one of my favorites — and totally mesmerized the audience with this beautiful and haunting piece. The track is dedicated to a little girl named Sadako who fell victim to the “A” bomb and died 10 years later of leukemia. A children’s book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, was later written and has been published in many places and schools in peace education programs. Needless to say, Kuramoto’s interpretation of this is most moving, and the thirteen strings and thirteen bridges of the mystical koto speak all of the words necessary.
The finale, “One Wish,” from the 1986 Another Place, rocked us – and I mean rocked us — all into the night. What a majestically potent way to close out a concert totally based in sprit and energy. Hiroshima has always rocked, and I have every reason to believe it always will! – Mike Sutton
Photos by Dwynn Barr
From Ronald Jackson, TSJR President
On that following Monday, the group offered a free performance in the SiriusXM studios in Washington, DC. TSJR was extremely fortunate to be part of the guest studio audience. Nothing short of exhilarating were that hour-long performance and the intimate chats that followed. I can speak from the heart without reservation when I say that this band is not only one of the best performing acts ever to grace contemporary jazz – or any music genre – but is an exceptionally warm, humble, and lovely group of people. They perform music that projects warmth, love, diversity, and peace. They practice that at their core, as well, and we are so very pleased and humbled to be able to call them “friend.”
We also extend many thanks to John Chung of the Hiroshima team and the SiriusXM team, especially Trinity Colon and Jacqueline Hall, for accommodating us in such warm fashion.
Rams Head On Stage
Mar. 28, 2014, 9:30 pm
Rather than keyboardist Brian Culbertson labeling his latest tour as the Long Night Out 20th Anniversary Tour, he should have let it all hang out and called it Funkfest in the Springtime, which is exactly what we here in the MD/VA area witnessed over a two-night period. First obliterating the renowned Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA, with a totally wired and hot set, then taking it on to Rams Head Onstage in Annapolis, MD, to leave that place in pleasant funk-filled shambles, the keyboardist/composer/producer was truly on a mission, and fans were made more than aware of that.
I was among the partygoers who witnessed the experience from the audience at Rams Head, and the headiness of that concert was almost too much for the enthusiastic fans to bear.
Bringing everything including the kitchen sink (the whole kitchen, actually), Culbertson left no prisoners. Bringing the heat with him were his musically gifted cohorts (powerful saxman/vocalist Marqueal Jordan, keyboardist/vocalist Eddie Miller, guitarist Adam Hawley who also provided backing vocals, Chris Miskel laying it out all over the place on drums, bassist Rodney Jones Jr. who simply killed every track he played, putting a capital “B” on “bottom,” and Michael Stever working it on trumpet, oftentimes in unison with Culbertson’s trombone). Each member played as if he was possessed, and the audience certainly aided in fueling the ensuing fire.
The keyboardist kicked off the party in high gear with “Always Remember” from his Bringin’ Back the Funk release, an already blazing track made hotter on this night. Totally full of crank.
Following up with his classic jammer “Do You Really Love Me,” I knew this was to be one mightily sweaty and stratospheric night.
Jumping into the CD that sparked this tour, Culbertson rolled into the 20-year-old single “Fullerton Ave.,” fully demonstrating why he felt it would be a great idea to reprise that album. Another from that album, “Beautiful Liar,” found guitarist Hawley presenting some scorching guitar work on the beautiful piece.
A fine medley followed, including “Skies Wide Open” with Jordan on vocals, the title track from Culbertson’s Dreams release, and the always becoming “Secret Garden” (with plenty of giddy audience participation). The latter found Culbertson displaying his talent for playing keys backwards and sideways. As you can imagine, by now, the audience was insane.
Oh, but it hadn’t gotten as insane as it would get when the funkmeister jumped into his cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” and then back into the Bringin’ Back the Funk release with “Funkin’ Like My Father,” the collaborative effort between him and the legendary Bootsy Collins. Yep, that pretty much set the place ablaze.
One of my faves was included as we wrapped up the night – “All About You,” always a Culbertson signature piece for me and many others I’m sure because of its suave appeal.
Taking into account all of the R&B, funkin’, and just groovin’, it is still so very refreshing to have witnessed this artist mature over the years to the point where he could reach all the way back in retrospect and tap a release that really showcased his contemporary jazz technique and style. Watching him as he intently laid out the tracks from that earlier album and intertwined them with some of the funkier years that followed was like watching the pages of a history book turn.
The Culbertson journey is truly one worth experiencing from the start. There is a lot there from which a young up-and-coming or aspiring artist can glean. The clear message here for any artist is: With insight, dedication, and skill, you can pretty much have it all, musically anyway. This keys wiz is proof of that. Just ask any of the concert-goers who were present at either of the two MD/VA venues here. – Ronald Jackson
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club
Jan. 9, 2014, 7:30 pm
For the few days leading up to yesterday, we were all mostly in a good replica of Siberia, with temperatures plunging to ridiculous lows. Yesterday, we here on the East coast began to experience a bit of a thaw, and here in the DC/MD/VA area, that thaw was accelerated by the warm—often hot– sounds of saxman Andrew Neu as he lit up the stage with his brand of great eclectic jazz.
Neu, clearly one of the newest members my “musician of musicians,” displayed his exceptional musical skills and imagination for two solid –and I mean solid—and continuous hours with a remarkable support group of musicians (keyboardist/musical director Demetrius Pappas, guitarist Richard Tucker , bassist Jason Long, and drummer Matt Curran). As if Neu wasn’t enough of a high-octane combustible commodity alone, the band was also in need of a fire extinguisher all night long as they followed and were often showcased (as was the case with Pappas, Tucker, and Curran) with Neu along his path of musical paradise.
Neu played with as much intensity and energy as if he were playing before thousands at a stadium instead of in a quaint supper club. Of course, the many who attended were clearly mesmerized and in heaven with appreciation for the saxman, and if you were one of the souls who just happened to miss this display (and heaven knows I hope it wasn’t because you were concerned about the weather, which really was a non-factor), what you missed was perfection personified.
Truly one of singer Bobby Caldwell’s main and most respected men, Neu started us off in fine fashion with the driving, hot jam “Poolside” from his latest release Everything Happens For A Reason. Having sufficiently warmed the audience for more, he then took a seductive turn and serenaded the fans with another from the same album, the sweet, sexy, soulfully jazzy “Hit Me Up.”
Never one to pass on the opportunity to give kudos to a man he so admires and who so admires him, Neu then offered the track on which he and Caldwell collaborated on Neu’s latest, a tune called “What Would I Do?” This finely sculptured tune was initially so titled to refer to Neu’s love of music and his question to himself, “What would I do if I weren’t playing this wonderful music?” Caldwell later convinced him to consider changing the meaning so that those who do not play an instrument could relate. Thus, Neu chose to pose the question instead: In essence, “What would I do without the one I love?” It worked perfectly. The tune is one powerful piece of seriously romantic jazz.
From this point, Neu chose to segue into another from the album, a tune called “Night of the Mojito,” an up-tempo jazz/blues/boogaloo (young people: Ask a seasoned music aficionado what the term ”boogaloo” means if you don’t know). Tucker’s guitar was totally on fire on this one as was Curran’s drums.
Tucker again showed out on Neu’s funky version of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take 5.”
To provide even more variety, the saxman rolled over to his Try Something Neu release and allowed his sax to sing the title track and the slow, sultry “Open Mind.”
Touching on songs from every one of his albums plus imaginative covers like Steely Dan’s “Peg” and the romantic Coltrane/Hartman standard “My One and Only Love,” Neu was as thorough as he was good.
Closing with the Latin-tinged “Midnight Buffet” from his debut release, Inspire, Neu left everyone in attendance without a doubt as to why he is so favored by Bobby Caldwell and why so many in contemporary jazz (Jeff Lorber, Steve Oliver, Brian Bromberg, Rick Braun, etc., etc.) bought into his latest release, offering their contributions. Here is polish, poise, and skill personified. If you haven’t yet seen him live, you owe yourself. Many thanks, Andrew, for a night of dazzling jazz and showmanship. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Dwynn Barr
Talk about spreading Christmas cheer and joy! The Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour was certainly dead-on in their mission to do just that at the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric in Baltimore last Thursday night. The Center was filled to the rafters with the air and feel of the season.
One thing that I’ve always noted about a Dave Koz show, especially one with a theme such as this one: He knows how to create such a powerful atmosphere and irresistible aura around the show.
That Thursday night at the Modell Center, the friends he brought were the friends you know you love, as well: The wonderfully talented and beautiful keyboardist/composer/humanitarian/storyteller Keiko Matsui, the always effervescent and oh-so-spiritual guitarist/vocalist/composer Jonathan Butler, and the lovely nightingale Oleta Adams, along with a rock-solid group of backing musicians that included musical director/guitarist Randy Jacobs. Now, I ask you: Would they not be enough decoration on and around your Christmas tree?
Kicking it off in the theater full of excitedly buzzing fans, the announcer called out from the audience a violinist with whom I was not familiar before that night, one Aaron Weinstein (I now understand that he has been a part of the Koz Christmas show in the past), and the two proceeded with a humorous chat in a brief skit which ultimately found Weinstein onstage intentionally making a horrid mess of “Jingle Bells” before launching into the more seriously competent playing of the same piece, arousing the appreciative fans to cheers.
We were then shown a brief film where Koz is lying in his bed, thumb-in-mouth and clearly annoyed at the announcer who’s attempting to wake him to get him ready for his show – a show for which he’s supposedly late. Hilarious.
The “real” show finally gets underway with Koz wailing away to the intro to “Get Ready” before morphing into “Winter Wonderland.” Now, we’re really cookin’.
Shortly thereafter, Butler entered with “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” If you’ve ever witnessed Butler’s vocals and overall spirit that comes through in those heartfelt vocals, I needn’t say more. Spectacular. Koz and Butler then tore it up holiday-style with “Sleigh Ride.”
Following the pair was the Japanese princess of contemporary jazz, Keiko Matsui, with a wonderful acoustic piano version of “My Favorite Things.” Heavenly.
Just to toss in a delightful wrinkle, the band hopped into the Jimi Hendrix intro to “Who Knows” from the late guitar king’s only Band of Gypsies live recording. That slipped seamlessly into “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” To those of you who know the Band of Gypsies tune I’ve just referenced: Try to imagine the Santa carol stemming from that! Pure genius, to say the least!
So many bright moments filled this night, from Matsui’s offering of her “Black Lion” track from her latest release, Soul Quest, to the stirring duets featuring Adams and Butler on “The Christmas Song”, Koz and Adams and Butler and Matsui on a humorous version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Koz and Weinstein on a spirited Hanukah tune, to Butler’s offering of “Little Drummer Boy,” including a rousing prelude in his native South African tongue. This enchanting piece can be found on his Merry Christmas to You latest release. Speaking of Butler, absolutely one of the most spirited and soul-stirring moments in the show was his rendering of “O Holy Night.” The audience was beside itself with appreciation as it offered a prolonged and deserved standing ovation.
While the night was full of Christmas spirit, there was still room for each artist to offer one of their most favorite tunes in an “Unplugged” segment. In that segment, Matsui dazzled the audience with a Chopin/Beethoven classical offering while Butler riveted the audience with his take on Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Koz offered “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and showed off some superb vocal chops, and Adams offered “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In addition to the “Unplugged” segment, there was also time for each artist to offer one of the tunes from their more “conventional” releases, which included “You Make Me Smile” from Koz, Matsui’s “Safari,” Adams’ “Get Here,” and Butler’s spirited “Brand New Day” (accompanied by a joyfully participating audience).
With so many moments, so much enthralling music, and such a fullness of spirit, this is one Christmas show, that, if it is coming to a venue near you, you will be doing yourself a gross injustice by not attending. Christmastime and the generous over-two-hour Dave Koz & Friends Christmas show — what a wonderful joy to the world. – Ronald Jackson
Photos by Aira Olave
Birchmere Music Hall
Nov. 24, 2013, 7:30 PM
Tonight, the sold-out Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA, known for its incredible hospitality, good food, and reputation for featuring top contemporary jazz artists, kicked off a Thanksgiving holiday week with a fabulous concert by the renowned UK group Acoustic Alchemy. This very exciting ensemble of musicians with its own unique style and sound and led by guitarists Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale and anchored by local talents bassist Gary Grainger and drummer Greg Grainger and UK keyboardist Fred White played some of the best music from their 23 albums, and I can definitely tell you that the band spared no talent. Check out how they did it.
Through the initial darkness of the stage, the band entered to rousing applause and opened with their album Arcanum’s “Homecoming.” The mid-tempo groove quickly captured the audience as Carmichael and Gilderdale demonstrated masterful riffs.
These cats kept everyone rocking with their next tune “Overnight Sleeper” from the Natural Elements album. Gilderdale’s solo on the tune was magical. White, adding to the recipe of rocking tunes on the keys, majestically enhanced the guitars. If you like rock, you would have loved seeing Gilderdale strumming the strings on “No Messing” from the 2003 Radio Contact and “Shorty” from the Roseland project.
Among the many musical treats the group offered were their reggae-tinged melody “Jamaica Heartbeat,” which can be found on both the Arcanum and Back On The Case albums, and “Sand In Her Eyes” from the Roseland CD.
At one point slowing the tempo; the band graced us with a traditional style of jazz on the track “Clear Air for Miles” from the Back On The Case album. The performance was just the “breather” that the exhausted audience needed at the time. The impressive tune highlighted the talents of Gilderdale, Carmichael, and White.
Let’s talk about the Grainger siblings and what I consider to be one the night’s most memorable moments. It started with Greg’s dynamic drumming during the performance of “Trail Blazer” from The Beautiful Game venture. Gary’s bass runs on the tune transformed it into an exciting funk-laden track. Next, to further satisfy the audience’s pallet, the band followed up with the reggae-rich title track from The Beautiful Game.
With the audience already energized, the band started jamming the tune titled “Tuff Puzzle” from the Aart CD, and the Grainger brothers initiated an amazing bass and drum duel for several minutes that brought us jazzers to our feet. The band then approached center stage, took a well-deserved bow, and exited the hall only to return at the request of the fans for an encore. That led to their signature hit from the Arcanum project “Mr. Chow.” The Far East-tinged melody fused with delicate reggae features the guitars in beautiful harmony and proved to be an excellent choice to take us into the night.
The buzz around the hall was most cheerful and positive. Although some members have come and gone, the legacy remains. Acoustic Alchemy will always have a home here. – Mike Sutton
Photos by Dwynn Barr
The Birchmere Music Hall
Oct. 19, 2013, 7:30 pm
This concert was actually reviewed by two editors here at The Ride. Both reviews are presented here (most redundancies having been removed) because we felt that it was a concert very worthy of more than one witnessing voice.
If the musical heavens could be opened by the sheer vision of one painting a gorgeous landscape with one’s music, jazz pianist/keyboardist virtuoso Keiko Matsui would have had us looking skyward at that beautiful sight long ago…25 albums ago to be exact, with 24 being released here in the States. Seeing and feeling her portraits of sound and life come to fruition in concert is yet another extraordinary experience.
The lovely artist once again put on a display of her unmatched musical charms at the sold-out Birchmere Music Hall in VA on last Saturday night. The saying “You had to be there” could not be truer in this case, but I’ve attempted to put into words what this aural gift looked like to me.
Matsui appeared with an entirely new band (at least for us) consisting of guitarist J.P. Mourao, bassist Rico Belled and drummer Dave Karasony (both of The Rippingtons fame), and saxophonist Randy Gist. With these guys poised to jam, the pianist gracefully strode onto the stage amidst wild applause and immediately put her soul on display through song with two from her latest release, Soul Quest. The first was the funky mid-tempo “Dream Seeker” immediately followed by the powerful up-tempo “Black Lion,” a track for which she offered a wonderful story about her motivation to create the tune (a painting she spotted in the country of Georgia outside of a restaurant called – what else? — Black Lion. It turns out that there was quite a story behind the artist which further motivated her to write the piece).
Throughout her glowing performance, all eyes and ears were glued on her, and you could plainly see the audience appreciating the depth to which she delved into her soul to pour out her essence in such abundance.
Older gems like 1997’s “Kappa” (from her No Borders release), the story of the elf who kept the Japanese forests alive as long as he lived, and the moving motivations for “Deep Blue” from the 2001 release of the same name, as well as the newer “Antarctica: A Call to Action” from Soul Quest were laid bare for all to witness.
In the audience were a few young witnesses, one at my own table who was a 10-year-old aspiring pianist, and they were clearly in awe of the moments Matsui had created. Living, personified motivation. Who can better embody that than this Japanese princess of boundless musical horizons?
A first for me was the sight of Matsui strolling through the mesmerized audience, serenading all with her keytar. It only proved how much she values the appreciation of and interaction with her audiences.
In addition to one of her signature tunes, “Forever Forever” from her 1998 Full Moon and The Shrine release (a tune where she pays tribute to her younger daughter, then just 2 years old), the pianist graced us with a couple of additional funky tracks from Soul Quest including “A Night With Cha Cha” (you simply must hear her tell the story of her motivation for this one) and her tribute to one of her favorite artists – legendary rocker Sting – on a track called “Stingo” (a first-time live performance of the track). She also fascinated us with her signature “Bridge Over the Stars” from her 1996 Dream Walk release and the classic “Safari” from her 1995 Sapphire release which rocked out the house.
Another track I would be remiss for not mentioning is the sweet and bluesy “Embrace & Surrender.” It’s truly a track for lovers. This night, she surely made someone fall in love all over again.
The very body language of the pianist as she interacted with the keys told several stories. At several points, you could see the emotion take form in her eyes as she fought back tears brought on from the strong driving forces that took her to those wonderful musical places. I know, because I was as overwhelmed and could clearly – oh-so-clearly — understand and feel what she felt.
This is not just music, my friends. No, this is life experienced and imagined to its fullest. To witness Keiko Matsui on her records is one super powerful thing; to see her live out those songs in concert is simply beyond words. Speaking of words, witness the following take on the adventure by editor Mike Sutton – Ronald Jackson
As Ron has already stated, we were blessed tonight with the presence and music of the world-renowned keyboardist and composer Keiko Matsui at the sold-out Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA. I am talking about a concert filled with emotion, fun, and passion as each song performed seemed to paint a lively memorable picture, in my opinion, that is beyond comparison.
I must also offer kudos to the remarkable band which featured great solos from drummer Karasony, saxman Gist, and guitarist Mourao during different stages of the night’s performance. Needless to say, the audience demonstrated their appreciation with a standing ovation.
All of the tunes offered were exemplary, and the finale certainly was no exception. That song, “Antarctica: A Call to Action,” is a track dedicated to environmental awareness and spotlighted saxman Gist and bassist Belled. While these cats turned up energy, Matsui played the keys with elevating intensity.
The true end of the night found the pianist rendering two more tunes in her encore: “Safari” from her 1995 Sapphire release and the title track from her 2001 Deep Blue release. These two tunes were definitely a fine way to end this memorable night of smooth jazz. What a ride!
Keiko – contemporary jazzers here in the DC/MD/VA region – like fans all over the world– love you and your music, and The Smooth Jazz Ride would like to thank you for celebrating your 25th anniversary in the music industry with us. – Mike Sutton
Photos by Aira Olave