Concert Reviews

Our review of various smooth jazz concerts.

Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, Virginia
Thursday, January 26, 2012

Last year, I was blessed to attend the Angela Bofill Experience at the Birchmere Music Hall, and Maysa provided the vocals for this outstanding lady on that winter evening. Tonight this wonderful songstress painted a landscape of her life for us, sharing that her life is being guided through faith, family, and supporters like those in attendance at this sold-out show. One word kept coming to my mind after the show: “Transparent.” I mention this because all of her energy and emotions are displayed when she performs, and her very spirit somehow manages to verbalize the moment.

I recently returned to the Birchmere to witness the Maysa musical production on Jan. 26.  The amazing talent that joined Maysa on stage was incredible. I call it a production because of the numerous musicians and vocalists joining her. It included Charles Baldwin on bass guitar, Richard Tucker on lead guitar, Leon Jordan Jr. on trumpet, Damon Bennett on flute and keyboards, Carl Cox on saxophone, Tim Hutson on drums, Angela Phillips on soprano vocals, Mycah Chevalier on alto vocals, Troy “Sol” Edler on tenor and baritone vocals, Kenny Wesley on tenor vocals, Geneva Renee on soprano and alto vocals, Maysa’s musical director Will Brock on keyboards, and two cousins-Jean Leak on soprano vocals and Donna Saunders on soprano and alto vocals.

Among the songs for tonight’s enjoyment were “Day N Night,” “Come Dance With Me,” “You Won’t Find Your Way Back,” “Have Sweet Dreams,” (the latter was written for her by Stevie Wonder who was displaying in song respect to Mrs. Obama supporting her husband, our President). She also performed the title track of her latest CD “Motions In Love” and “I Try,” the latter written by Angela Bofill. During “I Try,” Geneva Renee (remember the name) was called from the audience to help sing this mellow classic, creating one of the many standing ovations of the night. Maysa also treated us to a few classics such as Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelings,” The Commodores’ “Zoom,” and Norman Connors’ “You Are My Starship.” She closed out the evening with the much-requested “Deep Waters” by Incognito. The tune had the crowd dancing and cheering with zeal.

I was so emotionally and pleasantly drained from witnessing Maysa’s awesome performance, and just putting these feelings into words places a smile on my face and a song in my heart, literally.

Just a few long-overdue words about the Birchmere: If you have not had a chance to experience a concert there, do plan to attend a show whenever you are in the area. Their team of management and staff makes everyone feel special, and, once you come through the doors, you’ve become part of their extended family.

All in all, one very enjoyable evening to remember — Derrick Hooks

Photos by- Dwynn Barr

Cheikh Ndoye and Friends

Blues Alley
Washington, DC
Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tonight, I attended a highly energized sold-out jazz concert by bassist Cheikh Ndoye and Friends at the Blues Alley Jazz Club in Washington, DC. The show  featured a diverse lineup of outstanding musicians, and after the performance, I realized that this session delivered all the great music and showmanship that I had originally to hear and more.

Along with Ndoye were Karen Briggs on violin, Chieli Minucci (primarily known as the leader of the Grammy-nominated contemporary jazz group Special EFX) on lead guitar, Lao Tizer on keyboards, and Marcus Baylor on percussions and drums. In the audience for the previous night’s performance (that I, unfortunately, missed) was the one and only musical icon, Stevie Wonder. On this night, Frederic Yonnet (of Prince’s Power Generation Band) also joined Ndoye with his outstanding harmonica play.

Included in tonight’s musical selections were Ndoye’s “Amine,” “Alchemy East,” and the title track from his 2009 CD, A Child’s Tale.  Also performed were “Scheherazade’s Groove” from Karen Briggs’ 2009 Soulchestral Groove CD, and Chieli Minucci’s “Daybreak” from his 1993 Special EFX CD titled Collection. Before the evening was over, we also heard the not-yet-released single “Below Level” from Ndoye.

Musicians have a way of feeding off the energy and emotions of their audience, and, from the moment Marcus Baylor started the tempo, it was a concert in sync with the audience. Their passion and effort was visible to all, and we tried to match their intensity by partying in our seats from the start to the very end.

From Ndoye and Minucci making their respective guitars speak to us, to Briggs looking as if the violin would be sawed in half from her motions and then tenderly plucking notes with her fingers to Tizer making the keys play so beautifully, this was sheer poetry in motion. Not to be outdone, Baylor was in a zone this entire night with his energy.

In summary, this was a well-coordinated, excellently performed concert among five musically gifted friends onstage and some newly created friends in the audience. - Derrick Hooks

Photo by Dwynn Barr

Tony Exum, Jr., Dee Lucas, and Phaze II
Blues Alley
Washington, DC 
Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tonight was a tremendous way for some jazz lovers to start the new year by attending the special tribute concert for late jazz greats Art Porter Jr. and George Howard, both of whom departed this life too soon.

The entertainment for this evening’s outstanding performance was given by saxophonists Tony Exum Jr. and Dee Lucas, with support from the local DC/MD/VA super group Phaze II. I believe all three will enjoy national stardom in short order.

Opening the musical set, both Dee and Tony performed an original piece from their own individual previously released CDs — “Rebirth of the Smooth” and “Finally,” respectively.  Their smooth delivery quickly helped the audience warm from the frigid temperature outside and get this party started.

The musical selections from both Porter’s and Howard’s impressive collections were very clever and expressive and kept the crowd involved the entire night. This was obvious from observing the audience’s swaying, snapping of the fingers, head boppin,’ and clapping to the driving beats.

If your intentions in coming to Blues Alley were just to relax this evening, this was not the right show as the jamming energy thoroughly permeated the air and the artists rocked each selection.

The electricity included cover songs like Porter’s “Inside Myself,” “Lay Your Hands On Me,” “Lake Side Drive,” and the awesomely funky “Flight Time.”  Also included were tunes like Howard’s “Hop Scotch,” the groovin’ “Dancing in the Sun,” “When Summer Comes,” and the beautiful “Cross Your Mind” (the latter further enhanced by the vocals of Vince Chapman Jr.). These songs are jazz classics and, combining Phaze II’s stylish backing, they were truly delivered.

Both of the saxophonists seemed to truly capture the styles of the icons they honored. Although I never personally had a chance to see either Porter or Howard perform, it was easy to envision that energy via the interpretations by Exum and Lucas, and am I ever grateful for that experience. 

Phaze II — featuring Adrian Norton on bass guitar, Sam Marshall on drums, Kevin Powe on lead guitar, Steve Perkins on percussions, Trenton Thomas on keyboards, and vocalist Vince Chapman Jr. — always has that certain flair when performing that makes one wonder: Is it really that much fun and that easy? The DC metro area has known the Phaze II sound for quite awhile. The band is long overdue for the national spotlight..

Try to make a note of all three of these acts because they won’t stay off the national radar for long. What a way to bring in the new year.  — Derrick Hooks

Photo by Dwynn Barr

Jessy J

Blues Alley
Washington, DC
Monday, November 28, 2011

Are there much better ways to start your week than to attend a fiery jazz concert, Jessy J-style? Well, for me, the answer was “not many” as I witnessed this extraordinary talent perform at the legendary Blues Alley Jazz Club in Washington, DC. She  has had some pretty high solo achievements since her recording career began after being added to producer/guitarist Paul Brown’s list of discoveries.

I started this review by calling it a concert.  Actually, tonight turned into a hot fiesta, so full of energy, robust singing, and gleeful dancing-with Jessy staying true to both her Latin heritage and jazz influences.  As the first artist of Mexican-American heritage to join the smooth jazz ranks, she displayed much pride and enjoyment in that distinction. .  In fact, she talked about being born in Portland, raised in California, and growing up in a family where her Mexican- born father and Texas-native mother had parties at their house featured live Latin music.

The lovely saxtress recently released her third CD titled Hot Sauce which quickly debuted at #1 on the Billboard Jazz charts and features guest spots from Joe Sample, Paul Brown, Harvey Mason, Ray Parker Jr. and Saunders Sermons.

Tonight’s performance was no different from what I expected from Jessy. Joining her on stage were Robert “WaWa” LeGrand on lead guitar, Eli Staples on keyboards, Alfredo Mojica on percussions, and The Grainger Brothers-Greg on drums and Gary on bass.

She began her set with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo,” setting the night for explosive excitement.

So many moments came about during this performance. There was the sizzling “Fiesta Velada” from her Tequila Moon CD which not only showcased her Latin flare but also treated us to the guitar mastery of ‘WaWa” Legrand. The tune offered a scintillating rhythm and painted a colorful ambience.

From the same CD came “Sin Ti/Without You” which took us down to Rio with its samba groove and dreamy, romantic atmosphere. 

Her take on Sergio Mendez’ “Mas Que Nada” took us into the Grainger Brothers’ world where Greg showcased his outstanding drumming talents and bassist Gary added some be-bop and scat to his impressive stage presence. 

At several points, Jessy took us into full seduction mode, inviting us, for example, to enjoy a balmy, breezy evening with her infectious melody on “Tropical Rain” from her True Love CD.

Her cover of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” always a rousing crowd pleaser, was true to form tonight, arousing the audience to participation.

The title track from her latest was a scorcher, showcasing “Wa Wa”’ Legrand’s performance with a blistering guitar solo. He was joined by Alfredo Mojica on percussions and Eli Staples on keys. Excitement with a capital “E.”

“Morning of the Carnival” from her True Love CD is a famous theme of the movie Black Orpheus and revealed her fresh, exotic vocals in combination with her outstanding sax skills.

“Baila!,” also from the True Love CD, allowed the band members to showcase their dance moves. It was here that Jessy decided to leave the stage and weave through the crowd, seducing it with her own magical potion.

Talented, charming, beautiful, and energetic.  You could just taste the contagious flavor of Latin culture in her music; you could sense its thick essence in the air oh-so-well. The electrifying Latina gave us a very clear picture of what it all looks like — in her case — in concert.  You couldn’t possibly ask for more! — Denise R. Austin

Photos by Dwynn Barr


Acoustic Alchemy
The Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, Virginia
Monday, November 14, 2011

Simply put, I was extremely fortunate to be able to witness this iconic group based across the Atlantic Ocean. Strutting their new CD, Roseland, as well as some vintage material, Acoustic Alchemy displayed their energized style for the audience at the legendary Birchmere Music Hall.

The group consists of Greg Carmichael on acoustic guitar, Miles Gilderdale on both the steel-string acoustic and electric guitar, Anthony “Fred” White on keyboards, and the Baltimore, MD-based Grainger Brothers-Greg on drums and Gary on bass guitar.

The group jumped right into the foot-tappin,’ head-boppin,’ attention-grabbin’ first song “No Messin”  from the Radio Contact CD. Not allowing you to catch your breath from this up-tempo jam, this awesome display was followed with a tune from the Roseland CD “Overnight Sleeper,” which was just as funky and up-tempo as the opening tune. 

The very tight song “Angel of the South” from The Beautiful Game CD, had the entire band playing as though they were not just individual members of a band but, rather, one fused entity,  and we all just sat back and happily took it all in.

Next came the classic “Jamaica Heartbeat” from the Arcanum CD which provided that island feel and exoticism.  It was definitely the “jump and dance” piece it’s always been, even though we were all “politely contained” and resigned ourselves to just jammin’ and groovin’ in our seats. We were then treated to two more very funky jams, “Marrakesh” and “One For Shorty,” from  Roseland.

The song “Passion Play” from their Aart CD slowed the pace and totally impressed all with  guitar lines that were as clean and fluid as ever.  I also really hung onto those last piano notes. Simply lovely.

The group then picked up the pace again with “Ariane” from the Blue Chip CD  Transitioning into “Stone Circle” from the Red Dust and Spanish Lace CD was another attention-getter.

Later, the pace was again slowed when they played “Beautiful Game” from the CD of the same name.

Next up was “Tuff Puzzle” from the Aart CD, showcasing acoustic guitar wizardry at its very best. This was and has always been a masterpiece production.

We then witnessed The Grainger Brothers showcase their various skills when playing “Lazeez” from the Against the Grain CD. It was a magnificent experience to see them go back and forth, complimenting each other on the song.  These are two nationally acclaimed artists who definitely should be personally witnessed.

The group then transitioned into a rather mellow song entitled  “Flamoco Loco” from Sounds of St. Lucia CD.  For the closing number, the rousing “Playing For Time”—from the same CD- was chosen, and we were back on the dancing cloud again.

Again, it is a pleasurable treat to witness the way the band seemed to be really enjoying itself  which transferred to each and every person in the audience.   Combine that with the overall presentation, and you had one of Acoustic Alchemy’s most impressive displays of their artistic competence.  Watching each musician in his zone playing for our enjoyment, it was clear to see  their love and passion for the music.

Overall, the production was outstanding, and this band is clearly one that is in top form. They delivered a little something for everyone. What I call “must see and hear music.” I give the performance that night two thumbs up. A night to remember? You bet! — Denise R. Austin

Photo by Dwynn Barr


Art Sherrod, Jr.
K2 Restaurant and Lounge
Woodbridge, Virginia
Friday, November 11, 2011

As the nation celebrated the annual tradition of honoring our former and current military on their special day known as Veterans Day, I was blessed to have been in the company of some outstanding men and women who served our country for a fantastic jazz show provided by saxophonist Art Sherrod, Jr., with a special appearance by fellow saxman Marcus H. Mitchell. This was all arranged by entertainment coordinator Dequan Gillespie and his fine staff at the newly renovated K2 Restaurant and Lounge.

Let me start by saying that the K2 Restaurant and Lounge is constantly undergoing some great changes, and many kudos to Dequan and company. They obviously have serious plans to become much more than a rising star – they are seeking the moon there. The latest in enhancements involved installing a greater sound system that we’d experienced in our previous visit. Also, the food was delectable and well-prepared; so, all in all, the “stage” had been set for a great evening even before the first notes had been played.

Joining Mitchell and Sherrod onstage for stellar performances (each appeared separately, by the way) were Eddie Botts on keyboards, Jason Jones on drums, Ron Finney on bass guitar, and Lorenzo Miller on vocals.

All the energy and talent the audience could have hoped for was started by Mitchell sending a positive message to our veterans with a highly energetic version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On?”In a one-word answer to that question, one can only imagine that “PARTY” came to mind.

We also were treated to a rousing instrumental version of the Friends Of Distinction’s classic “Going In Circles.” Both of these songs were performed with the delicate precision you’d expect from artists who truly respect the work of those coming before them. The saxman then offered a moving, jazzy version of “Amazing Grace,” as well as a great instrumental version of what is considered by many Johnny Gill’s signature song,“My, My, My.”

Mitchell then asked if we were ready for a special treat, and vocalist Lorenzo Miller joined the stage. He seemed to hit every vocal range from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows while singing the always-becoming “My Funny Valentine.” He truly affected the audience with his expressive version.

After a brief intermission, saxman Art Sherrod Jr. then took the stage, full of robust showmanship.  He laid into the Earth, Wind and Fire staple “That’s The Way Of The World,” playing it in a manner that Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer Maurice White would most certainly have approved.  We were also treated to his version of the Stevie Wonder hit “Isn’t She Lovely?”

Taking a brief moment, the saxophonist asked the ladies “What do ladies really want?” He then jumped into his hot version of Joe’s “I Wanna Know.”

To close out the evening, with the dance floor now being fully utilized by the patrons, Sherrod launched into another Stevie Wonder song, the classic “Superstitious.”

The couple of hours spent with the veterans and musicians made it a holiday to be shared with you, and I hope my account places you there on that wonderful night! — Derrick Hooks

Photos by Dwynn Barr


Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA
Friday, Sept. 23, 2011

I’ve spent a good part of my adult life enjoying the sounds of this contemporary jazz supergroup, now in their 31st year together. The band’s sound and style is never dated, and, as usual, they did not disappoint this evening.

Hiroshima, as always, was led by Dan Kuramoto (keyboards and woodwinds) and June Kuramoto (koto), with superior contributions from Danny Yamamoto (drums), Kimo Cornwell (keyboardist), Dean Cortez (bass guitar) and Shoji Kameda, aka Youngblood (taiko drum and percussion). They were joined on stage by vocalist and percussionist Vincent D’Jon Parette aka “Vinx.” 

Here is how I witnessed and perceived this musical wonderment of sound.

The band entered with “Squeeze Me,” a very smooth, almost dramatically slow number (something you might liken to the Pink Panther or James Bond theme) that, while atypical from what you’d usually expect from an opening number, was so encompassing and really made the audience both curious and anxious with anticipation as to what would follow.

Having roused that curiosity, the group then eased stepped into the slow & smooth “Turning Point” from their Grammy nominated CD, “Legacy.” This is a song that I feel is so very reminiscent of the early Hiroshima days yet still so very timely and current. It shows how truly ahead of their time these performers are when compared to so many others.

“Koto Cruise” was an up-tempo and funky sneak preview of the upcoming new release, Departure.  In a word, jammin’.  If you are cruising in a vehicle with this in your music player, you most likely will have to pull over, because driving and grooving like this is hard to mix.  It’s already has become one of my favorite jams, and it is not even released yet.

“Have You Ever Wondered” followed. This slow, mellow tune was written by koto queen June Kuramoto and keyboardist Kimo Cornwell for the upcoming release. It simply held the audience captive with its beauty.

The mid-tempo “Never Gonna Let You Go” was led by the unique vocal and percussion sounds of Vinx, who has the unique skill of producing instrumental sounds with parts of his body. Uncanny? You bet!

The group then launched the funk groove again with “Red Beans and Rice,” a heart-thumping jam, indeed. 

The classic “My Funny Valentine” was a standout in that it was performed solo by Vinx on a cappella vocals and percussion, again using his body as an instrument of sorts.

The Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” was performed with Vinx leading the way on the vocals and percussion. His  unique style seemed to make each song his own on this night. On this tune, he used an appealing African type of musical style.

Dean Cortez then treated us to some of the bass line skills that have made him such a desired performer in the music industry, as did Kimo Cornwell on keys.

Overall, this is not nor has it ever been a group given to mediocrity. Hiroshima still reigns among the most supreme in producing some of the most breathtaking, unique, and soul-wrenching sounds ever heard in contempoarary jazz. Its ability to call up Far Eastern vibes while remaining tied to Western groove is truly remarkable. Such a wonderful group to experience, both on and off the stage. – Derrick Hooks


Groove Skool Band & Drew Davidsen
K2 Restaurant and Lounge
Woodbridge, VA
Friday, Sept. 16, 2011

In a word: Wow! I’d not had the opportunity to visit this small, rather quaint and earthy restaurant and lounge prior to this event. As such, I had no idea of the energy and good spirit it exudes. It was all so evident during this totally jamming show.  The establishment might consider better stage lighting but, on this night, all of the light needed came from within the talented artists who graced the stage.

I had seen Groove Skool Band in concert before, and its stage presence and obvious skill were again most undeniable. They, in a word, “brought it” full throttle, with Christian De Mesones laying down the infectious bottom on bass, Mike Gamble cooking up pronounced runs and melodies on guitar, Keith Anderson displaying stellar skills on sax (even seducing the ladies on Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” with his calling style by coming offstage and making his way through the audience), and drummer Nick Costa and percussionist Frank Lloyd calling up driving rhythms that were simply too much to resist.

The lovely vocalist, Yvette Spears, was, as usual, simply breathtaking. Her phrasing, her presence, her emotion, and her obvious command of the material (which, by the way, included a marvelously creative cover of the classic Bobby Hebb tune, “Sunny” and the islandesque “Blame it on Rio”) all spoke to the professionalism and sparkling appeal of this nightingale.

Before the band exited, there was an emotional tribute to Wayman Tisdale on the band’s “Brother to Brother,” reminding us all to never forget the awesome contributions made by the late ray of sunshine who played bass as much with his smile and personality as he did with his hands.

Following this energetic collection of talent, renowned guitarist Drew Davidsen proved that his nomination as the American Smooth Jazz Award guitarist of the year was certainly no fluke. Another one with massive stage presence (even coming out into the audience to play behind his head, Hendrix-style), he came on in a blaze with “My Club Side” from his well-produced Spin Cycle CD and “Bounce” from Around (Again), bringing the audience to the verge of frenzy more than once.  He kept the flame alive, returning to Spin Cycle with the track “Don’t Delay,” before jumping into a scorching tongue-in-cheek 12-bar blues number, based loosely on Hendrix’s classic “Red House,” with plenty of help from his saxman Dave Krug.

Seeing and meeting Davidsen for the first time, I was immediately taken by his personable, down-to-earth nature. He mingled and chatted and performed as if we were all family. If you confined your focus to his playing, you would have been mesmerized by his handling of rock-like runs of the Hendrix era, blues runs of any era, and, of course, the effectiveness of his own material. Accompanying the guitarist was a very effective support squad which included Chris Rhodes (bass), Craig Alston (keys), Cory Baker (drums), and a very present Dave Krug on sax.

Once the guitarist finished his set, there was a short break wherein all of the artists mingled and chatted with the ecstatic and appreciative audience. Such a comfortable environment, from the artists to the restaurant owner, Len Gillespie, who was quite accommodating and pleasant and to whom we owe much gratitude for a really befitting atmosphere.

When the show resumed, Davidsen joined Groove Skool on a fired-up “Fight Club” from Groove Skool’s Limited Edition CD,  “The Ghetto,” and a rousing “Freddie’s Dead”-like tune (again from the Limited Edition CD), “Dekalb and Flatbush,” which the band actually did dedicate to the  late great musical innovator, Curtis Mayfield. Needless to say, this was the final blow to an audience that vowed to return whenever these guys are willing to do the same.

An excellent Friday night showing—and a full-throated testament that contemporary jazz has an extremely long way to go to get to any deathbed prepared for it by its critics. — Ronald Jackson

Photos bt Dwynn Barr


Norman Brown/Richard Elliot
Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA
Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011

Not just the roof, but the entire Birchmere Music Hall was on fire this night, and phenomenal guitarist Norman Brown along with outstanding, iconic saxman Richard Elliot were the culprits.  There was just too much heat and smoke to extinguish, so the packed house of jazz fans just donned their fireproof “suits of groove” and hung in there for this outrageously energized 2-hour party.

As always, the devout early birds lined up hours ahead of the doors opening and patiently waited in the searing sun. They immediately found out how well worth the wait it was from the moment the first notes arrived on stage.
The place was buzzing with excitement and anticipation as fans compared their jazz experiences with each other and enjoyed dinners ranging from roast chicken to steak to simple wings and fries.

When showtime arrived, Brown and Elliot stormed onstage in their first blaze of flame with EWF’s “Getaway.” The audience went berserk, certifying that, if the artists had wanted to do so, they could have simply carried this tune well into the night without a single complaint. So, the party was on.

Elliot the rolled into his most recent release with the Queen of Soul’s “Rock Steady” and the late great Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Yes, the blazes were building to a threatening high by now.

The saxman then performed his dedication to the beloved late Grover Washington Jr. with a rousing version of “Inner City Blues.” Gasping and exhaustion at the end of the piece could be heard everywhere.

It was now Brown’s turn. The man’s name alone ignited unbelievable excitement as he pushed into “Take Me There,” “Sending My Love,” and his irresistible classic cover of Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” always a house fave.

Elliot then knocked out the romantics in the audience with his soul-wrenching version of his classic cover of the Percy Sledge tune, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

The dynamic saxman then picked up the pace again like an 18-wheeler on the open road, and we were hit with Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep On Trucking.” Oh yes, the wheels were spinning on this jazzed up version.

Brown then replaced Elliot on stage, seducing the ladies with the Isley Brothers’ classic “For The Love Of You.”  Oh, the man knows his way around that guitar!

The guitarist then cranked up the intensity further (how does he keep that energy going?) with the tune “Lydian” which had all of us back on our feet again, pushing the band, for the umpteenth time that evening.

As if we hadn’t depleted our energy levels enough, the two artists then reunited onstage with “Heartbreak Hotel” in a totally 5-star presentation, and the audience “lost it” again in the heat of the moment.  Another real “WOW” moment in an evening of “WOWs.”  To finish bringing down the house, the duo jammed it out with the Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On.”

All in all, it was a magnificently arranged open jam session between tremendously talented and iconic musicians and gracious jazz music lovers.

In addition to the duo, we were treated to the talents and skills of Brown’s musical director and keyboardist Gail Jhonson, bass guitarist/vocalist Rob McDonald, Elliot keyboardist Ron Reinhardt, guitarist Dwight Sills, drummer Al J. Holyfield, and Brown’s daughter and beautiful vocalist Rochella Brown.  That supporting cast and the stellar performance of Elliot and Brown made this truly a Summer Storm to remember. – Ronald Jackson/Derrick Hooks

Photos by Dwynn Barr

Marcus Mitchell and Marcus Anderson
Blues Alley
Washington, D.C.
Monday, August 8, 2011

Well, there I was, back at the famed Blues Alley again. This time, I was treated to two talented young saxophonists, a lot of energy, and, as usual, a jazz-loving crowd.

This show from the beginning to the very end was high energy, starting off with Marcus Mitchell performing a funky version of the Bob James classic “Maputo.”

 ”Mr. Magic” — Mitchell treated us to a very rousing version of the Grover Washington, Jr. classic and, in a word, it was outstanding.

Mitchell performed the classic Friends of Distinction tune “Going In Circles” to allow us to catch our breath. However, it was done with such passion that it could have conceivably taken just as much breath out of the audience. A short version of “Amazing Grace” was interwoven into the piece, as well. Talk about creativity.

 “Graceful,” originally written by saxman Jackiem Joyner, was performed magnificently by Mitchell, and, although Joyner was not in attendance, he had to have felt the positive upbeat vibes from this performance.

Helping Marcus Mitchell was the outstanding band featuring Eddie Botts, Jr. on keyboards and piano, Ronald Finney on bass guitar, and Jason Jones on drums.

Not to be outdone, Marcus Anderson and his band then came on stage to perform a funky version of Rufus’ “Ain’t Nobody.”

If you have been able to catch a Marcus Anderson show recently, you know that a special tribute and acknowledgment to Michael Jackson has usually been part of his set. Tonight was no different, and “Rock With You” kept the level of energy going.

To start winding the evening down, we received a Marcus Anderson version of “Cruisin,’” complete with his trademark EWI (electronic wind instrument) that combined the uniqueness of that sound with the smoothness of crooner Smokey Robinson.

To close out the evening, both artists lent their skills to a great interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time.” Considering the ambience and the mood in which the duo left the audience, remembering that time at Blues Alley should be a cinch – Derrick Hooks

Matt Cusson and Elan Trotman
Blues Alley
Washington, D.C
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Blues Alley again lived up to its reputation as an establishment noted for its fantastic jazz shows. On August 2, I was treated to a great show featuring keyboardist/vocalist Matt Cusson (who was discovered by one of his biggest musical inspirations, Brian McKnight) and saxman Elan Trotman. Here, via a playlist, is how it all jammed out.

1. “All I Do” - This up-tempo Trotman tune was sung beautifully by Cusson and was a great way to get the crowd prepared for the show, and, once the first note was heard, we were all totally riveted

2. “Every Step” – Another tune sung brilliantly by Cusson. This mellow gem has such smoothing lyrics. One for lovers, for sure. 

3. “Comfortable” – With this mostly a cappela song, Cusson had the entire audience hanging onto his lyrics. Even the resting band members were in awe because he was in such a special zone.

4. “Last Dance” - A sweet, slow jam tune that allowed Trotman to elicit reflection and place the audience in a most peaceful state of being.  He also offered hs version of the famous Gerald Albright “kick,” and the audience loved it.

5. “Heaven In Your Eyes” – A tune that made it to #11 on the Smooth Jazz Charts with Brian Simpson on keys in the studio, according to Trotman. This night, Cusson filled in on keys, and it was hard to believe there were ten songs rated higher.

6. “Heaven” – Yes, this funk-filled piece was heaven, as Tyrone Chase laid out some strong Benson/Norman Brown licks during his solo. Not to be outdone, Tyler Sherman had that bass kick out sounds that didn’t seem possible. Then, there was Anthony Steele. He played the drums with such passion that he often appeared as a blur. He then slowed down the tempo enough to confirm that he was also using his elbows as well as flying drumsticks.

7. “Midnight Serenade” - Led by Trotman’s sax and vocals was a back-in-the-day “players” song (fellas, you know what I’m saying). Trotman treated one lady to her own special performance during this romantic piece.

8. “Only Human” - Cusson admitted that he often sang this tune to get him through awkward first dates. Judging from the way he performed it, an awkward date might have happened just once to him.

9. “Lovely Day” – The upbeat finale brought the entire audience together in a cool singalong. A great moment in an evening of moments. — Derrick Hooks

Gentlemen Of The Night
Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, Virginia
Thursday, July 21, 2011
A note from our publisher and chief editor - The review you are about to read is coming from an editor who was truly in the throes of “jazzified bliss,” as were others in our entourage that night. The three saxmen who turned it on and turned it out were taking no prisoners and leaving no stones unturned. Their passion was obvious; their love for what they do even more obvious. This brainchild of Marion Meadows has grown rapidly since its conception, and it has strong legs now. We can and do expect more from this trio in the future. The Smooth Jazz Ride was grateful to have been in attendance and bearing witness to this phenomenal event.  – Ronald Jackson

They call themselves and the music set “Gentlemen Of The Night.”  While definitely gentlemen in every sense of the word, these guys (saxmen Paul Taylor, Warren Hill, and Marion Meadows) tore into this high energy performance like men possessed—possessed with the spirit of jazz today, yesterday, and probably tomorrow. Their knack for playing to the ladies while not leaving the men to feel unappreciated as devoted fans, as well, made me recall all of the good things I was taught or learned about being a gentleman. Yes, my “refresher course” took place in Virginia last Thursday at the historic Birchmere Music Hall.

All three saxophonists bought their unique and perfectly blended styles into one joyous and crowd-pleasing performance from start to finish. As a way to make us forget the 100+ degree temperature outside, a rousing version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” got everyone on their feet immediately. 

Spectacular showmanship was on display throughout the set by all three saxophonists. For example, one point in the show found Paul Taylor working the room while performing on his knees in front of some blushing ladies. At another point, lead guitarist Wayne Girard’s glasses flew completely across the stage, propelled by his energy.

We were next treated to a very fitting song for the evening, Paul Taylor’s ever-popular “Pleasure Seekers,” and, surveying the room, it definitely was not hard to spot many. Speaking of Taylor, his cohorts announced that the popular single “Push to Start,” from his latest release, Prime Time, has already skyrocketed to #2 on Billboard.  Congrats are certainly in order!

Warren Hill then decided to take us back to a huge hit from 1987 (from his Truth CD) called “Another Goodbye.” I have no doubt that couples fell in love all over again. Fast forwarding to the year 1995 and his hit “Do You Feel What I’m Feeling,” it all made one wonder where the time had gone because I felt as if it were just yesterday when this song was in my constant rotation of new hits. We also were treated to the song he wrote for his wife on their wedding day in 1993, “Our First Dance.”  Such a beautiful melody. That he still recalls that day and plays that song with the same passion as he did in 1993 leaves no wonder as to why they’re still happily married. Way to go, Warren.

What can be said of Marion’s sax play?? The mastermind behind the creation of this super trio, he was as smooth as a professional pickpocket on a crowded train. The humorous, quick-witted saxman also reached back to grab some of his earlier goodies to mix in with the later material and, needless to say, the audience was lovin’ it as much as his interaction with them.

We were just restoring our energy levels and trying to keep the pace when all three saxmen decided to “go there” and perform the classic Tower of Power anthem “Pick Up The Pieces.” At that point, I’m certain parts of the roof were lifted. Let me just stop here and give a hearty THANKS! to the incredible supporting band members: highly sought-after keyboardist Kevin Flounoy, smokin’ guitarist Wayne Girard, rock & roll Hall of Famer bassist “Chocolate Chip,” and the high-powered drummer Perry Richardson. 

Keeping the party going, the trio later plunged into the funky Rufus classic “Tell Me Something Good,” Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” and, as a finale, led us out the music hall with Michael Jackson’s “Got Me Working Day And Night.”

Listening to all of that great music, watching and feeling all of that great energy (the scene with all of them swarming the audience in different directions at the same time like some type of  musical bees was truly a “You should have been there” moment) leaves me winded even now as I think about it. Whew! Maybe I’ll take a nap now. – Derrick Hooks

 Photos by Dwynn Barr

Lake Arbor Jazz Festival
Mitchellville, Maryland
Saturday, July 16, 2011
A hot summer day in the DC/MD/VA metro area became even hotter on Saturday, July 16, as the 2nd annual musical event known as the Lake Arbor Jazz Festival,  created by executive producer Kevin Alexander , was held on the spacious, grassy lawn of the Lake Arbor Community Park.  The atmosphere, the community climate and spirit, the beautiful weather, and the price (FREE) all cooperated to make this a most memorable event indeed.

In attendance were not just jazz lovers of all ages, but Lake Arbor’s most prominent citizen, Maryland’s Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. The event was co-hosted by one of the most talented women in radio, Olivia Fox, and jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson.

I mentioned that all ages were in attendance, and to illustrate my point, we were treated at the very start of the festival with the sounds of the Inner City Jazz Foundation Youth Orchestra (ranging from elementary to high school-age performers). These young musicians demonstrated that some of them might soon be on a larger stage, symbolically speaking, than what we were witnessing that day. They were young in years but certainly not  in energy or talent.

Marcus Mitchell is rapidly making a name for his saxophone play, and his Grover Washington tribute was more than noteworthy. To help get the audience further involved, keyboardist Marcus Johnson provided some of his special skills during Mitchell’s set.

An interesting and entertaining “aside” was the moment during a brief intermission when the audience was divided into the East Side and West Side Dancers and proceeded to line dance to perfection.  I thought I’d sit that one out. 

Sabroso Jazz Ensemble followed with some amazingly outstanding Afro – Cuban music that blended soothing Latin beat throughout their set. On such a hot day, their grooves seemed to drop the temperature right on time.

Groove Skool Band, led by bassist Christian de Mesones, knew that you can’t play to this area without some Go – Go flair, and did they bring it, along with lots of latin, pop, contemporary, and funk grooves. Two covers that they performed (“Me and Mrs. Jones” and  “The Ghetto” were done so superbly that I almost forgot they were covers. They also treated us to their big radio hit “Latin Jive” and the monstrously funky “The Train.” With talent and stage presence galore, De Mesones & Co. meant business, and did they show how they enjoyed that business. This up-and-coming band is the real deal. Watch for their national rise!

Chelsey Green & The Green Project. This illustrative, energetic violinist started performing when she was 5 years old, and you get the feeling watching her that there haven’t been many when days she hasn’t applied her trade since that age. Listening to her perform covers of tunes by Earth, Wind and Fire, Beyonce, and Marvin Gaye extremely well-in addition to her own Green Project work, this young woman has exceptional promise, passion, and electricity. Another one with stage presence, Green was so fierce on stage that I personally lost a couple of ounces of sweat trying to keep up with her.

 Saxman Brian Lenair, yet another shining star of excellence and energy, put his stage presence front and center and could not contain all his energy there on stage as he decided to come out into the audience and work it there as well. Work it he did and roused the audience into a frenzy. During the set, Tony Hinton’s extraordinary bass guitar play was also creating a stir amongst the crowd and major respect among fellow colleagues who were serving then as onlookers. Suffice it to say that Marcus Miller would have been very impressed and pretty proud of his fellow bassist. Lenair then showed us how truly gifted he is by playing two saxophones at the same time during “Keep It Funky.” He also dazzled us with his version of “Rock Creek Park.”

 Then, the “Sheriff with the Flute” arrived. Well, former Deputy Sheriff, anyway. The sexy Althea Rene who captured our collective attention with her 2006 smokin’ release, In the Moment, and solidified that attention with the 2008 release of No Restrictions strode onto the stage and claimed it. Covering the classic “Wishing On A Star” and the title track from In The Moment may well be moments I’ll always remember. The young lady, now residing in Houston, TX, who found the time to dedicate to this free event and dedicate so much energy and drive to it, has added many more to her already growing fan base, I’m sure.

Rene was backed by Phaze II, the local band giants who have endeared local fans to them for years now did a complete slam dunk, as usual. With Redfootz on drums, this band has no plans on fading into the sunset anytime soon, and the DC/MD/VA area should be so very, very thankful for that. What we now await is this band’s inevitable emergence on the national stage. It’s undoubtedly coming.

All in all, it was a wonderful, wonderful way to spend a day and evening. Seven hours of good food, good people, great weather, and musical bliss.  All easy on the pockets, all great for the soul. Thank you, Kevin Alexander. Thank you to every single participant—artist and fan alike—for being part of this remarkable experience. – Derrick Hooks


Marcus Johnson Project
Blues Alley
Washington, D.C.
Sunday, July 10, 2011

As I’ve often stated, the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, (i.e., Blues Alley) is known for bringing in some quality musical gems. Keyboardist Marcus Johnson, a smooth jazz landmark here in the DC area (as well as being a prominent presence elsewhere in the SJ arena) is a key example (no pun intended).  I sat in on the artist at the famed Blues Alley last Sunday and enjoyed some of that MJ smoothness. 

Prior to his set, Johnson moved around and got the crowd prepared for what the rousing show that was about to take off. Included in the crowd was one of his former students, Marcus Mitchell, a fine young jazz saxophonist in his own right.

During his travels in Europe, Johnson met French DJ/Producer Young Pulse, and they joined forces a year ago to create JURIS. They created a combination of Electro/Hip-Hop/Jazz which also takes influences from Funk, Dance, house, samba, etc.  After releasing their first album together (Flo Chill vol. 2: JURIS) last November, and after traveling in France and in the U.S. to promote this new French-American collaboration, they just released their new project : JURIS presents FloPak No. 1. 

Along with the dynamic skills of Young Pulse, Johnson was joined on stage by Sean Geason (bass) and Jayson Jones (drums).

From the first note to the last melody, we were treated to such a powerful performance. Road to Los Suenos was like tires squealing from the burning rubber of a standing start. Some of us are still trying to catch up to the opening. I felt like we’d just gone to another musical dimension.

Seeing that the audience needed a brief break, the pace was slowed slightly by one of Johnson’s In  Concert For A Cause tracks and gave us the first of several Memorex moments, bringing Johnson off his bench. The audience seemed to be doing their version of the “Electric Slide” in their seats!

One of the set’s most beautiful pieces was a tune Johnson had titled “Danni’s Song” in dedication to a supporter who had been confronted with a health challenge.  Johnson asked all of us, as a result, to try to do our part to support Danni and people like Danni by walking 10 to 20 minutes a day.  Such a thoughtful gesture indeed.

During the set, Johnson  gave Young Pulse the opportunity to strut his stuff, and strut he did!  His playing of the turntables, mixers, and keyboards was undeniably top notch.

Johnson later shared his “Me, Myself and I,” a swaying, smooth track that lulls one into that sweet state of mind.  He further inspired the audience during that tune by reminding them that “Every morning you wake, it’s a miracle and what you do with the rest of the day is up to you.” Words by which to live.

“This Place Hotel” was a marvelous way to finish off the set. In fact, I’m trying to book my room for the next event already.  – Derrick Hooks

Tony Exum, Jr.
Blues Alley
Washington, DC
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What better way to celebrate the official first day of summer in the sunny Nation’s capital (Washington, DC) than to spend an evening with the smooth sounds of saxophonist Tony Exum Jr., and backed up by the local supergroup Phaze II. Tony is a presently unheralded talent who comes from Colorado Springs, CO, and, as his CD, Finally, suggests, he is well overdue for the recognition his artistry so clearly deserves.  Allow me to bring that fascinating evening in the heart of Georgetown DC to you by way of Exum’s set.

1. Sweet Conversations: From the first note, Exum and Phaze II let the audience know that there was a party underway.

In many ways, the Washington, DC, area is known for its “open arms” policy to smooth jazz, and the Blues Alley audience appeared quite ready to embrace Exum.  His saxophone and Derek “Redfootz” Freeman’s drums, leading the way on this first cut, were the enthusiastic response to that embrace.

2. Finally:  This song definitely let us know we were in the midst of some Exum magic, and  hearing Phaze II’s Kevin Powe on lead guitar (shades of Ernie Isley) was the perfect way to go accentuate this tune which took us from the opener’s 60 mph to 30 mph in the coolest of ways.

3. So Beautiful: Musiq Soulchild’s lovely tune received the royal treatment. In addition to Tony’s saxophone, Trendle Thomas was telling us a story that had to be heard from his keyboards, and Steve Perkins added a defined yet subtle touch from his percussions.

4. Give It To Me: Time to pick up the pace again, and all the audience seemed to become one in rhythm. Even the wait staff seemed to be gliding to the beats from the stage and the strong bass playing of Adrian Norton.  What a wonderful moment!

5. Human Nature: A very fitting tribute to one of the all-time great musical performers (Michael Jackson). Tony’s saxophone replaced the words so effortlessly and hit the proper tones of Michael’s voice throughout. It reminded me of how much the King of Pop is missed and also just how much of his legacy was left for all to enjoy.

6. Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thang: A feel-good song that makes you want to impress the partner you’re with. Exum came off the stage and worked the crowd with his saxophone. From where I sat, some of those ladies had a look on their faces that clearly said “Oh, I’m ready for the challenge! Now, bring it!”

7. 4 On The Floor: A perfect way to close out a wonderful set, and each of the artists shared separate, magnificent solo performances.

All in all, this concert truly placed on display a jazz artist and band in sync with the genre and that Blues Alley audience.  Many new artists have trumped-up PR and promotion. Trust me when I say that Tony Exum Jr. is the real deal and here to stay. – Derrick Hooks

Keiko Matsui
Blues Alley
Washington, DC
Saturday, May 14, 2011

While going through historic Georgetown in Washington, DC, I came across an energy that would be hard to match, and it was such a joy to bask in that energy.  It was in the form of a live performance at the legendary Blues Alley Jazz Club.

The Washington, DC, area is very unique in the diversity of its culture.  Part of that wonderful culture would be the Japanese, who have provided us with the Yen, Cherry Blossom trees., and, this weekend in DC, the dynamic jazz keyboardist named Keiko Matsui. Keiko has just completed her 23rd CD in the United States titled The Road…  Here at Blues Alley, she shared tunes from that and other releases.

Those of you who have yet to experience Keiko’s mastery of the keys: Just close your eyes for a moment, and let me try to recapture some of her magic, tune by tune.

1. Doll:  A fitting title to start her set with, Keiko was pulled into matching intensity of her saxophonist Jackiem Joyner and bass guitarist Eric Baines.  Ninety seconds into the song, and the crowd felt the earth shift.

2. Allure: Keiko was so charged up that she treated us to a little swaying while we watched her from behind, and Jackiem made you wonder if a serpent was going to start wiggling near the stage from his charmer spell. Then, lead guitarist Heigo Yokouchi decided he would try to match Keiko note for note. A wonderful effort indeed.

3. The Road… : Keiko shared that this album was something very personal to her and her life. Although this was strictly an instrumental piece, the way she played this song was if the words were screaming to be heard. The sigh you heard was the piano catching its wind.

4. Awakening: A feel-good song blending all the unique talent on stage. Again, that Joyner sax just takes you to a happy place.

5. Nguea Wokja: A song that made you believe you’re on the beach waiting for your iced tea with the umbrella and sun block. Oh yes, she took me on a mini vacation, and did I need it.

6. Embrace & Surrender: The crowd just had to give in to the smoothness of the band, although we had our phones turned off, it seemed like you just wanted to contact someone and just say “I’m so sorry if there is anything I have ever done wrong to you.”

7. Bohemian Concerto: Keiko said that, when she presented this track to the record company, they loved it.  After hearing what she and Heigo Yokouchi had just finished, how could they not enjoy such a marvelous sound?

8. Safari: Most of the time, this word means hunting for animals or prey. Well, the “elephant” on stage was the piano, and did she ever bag that trophy for all to hear. Afterward, you could almost sense the keys sweating from the workout.

9. Affirmation: This tune was another positive feel-good song, with each artist displaying a quick solo performance off their skills.

10. A Night In Gibraltar: What a wonderful way to wind things down with such an upbeat song.

11. Light Above The Trees: This tune was a bonus/encore. Keiko actually asked us if we wanted one more, rather than leaving the stage and having us call her back for another.It just shows how much she was into us and her music! It made me want to just get back in line and start all over again!

If you’ve never experienced this most dynamic and all-around complete artist, please treat yourself, and open a whole new world. – Derrick Hooks

Marcus Anderson, BK Jackson, Phaze II
Brencore Entertainment’s A Great Night of Sax and R&B
The Carlyle Club
Alexandria, VA
Apr. 29, 8:00 pm

I am so pleased to open this series of concert reviews with this particular one – a blockbuster showcase presented by Brencore Entertainment in the Washington, DC, area at the Carlyle Club in Alexandria, VA on Friday, Apr. 29 from 8:00 pm - 11:00 pm, featuring some of the most awesome yet underexposed talent on the smooth jazz circuit today.

The show highlighted past winners of the region’s Capital Jazz Festival’s Competition, held during the renowned festival’s June occurrence. The competition throws the spotlight on new and aspiring talent seeking to break onto the “big stage” of smooth jazz via the venue.

The acts that this particular show presented were the 2009 winner, saxman Marcus Anderson,  2008 winner, young saxman BK Jackson (now 19), and 2005’s winner Phaze II. In addition, vocalist Pam Ward and music director/Phaze II drummer Derek Redfootz Freeman rounded out a great 3-hour magnificent evening of which I was proud to have witnessed.

The outrageous electricity, stage presence, and adeptness  of the “baby” of the bunch, BK Jackson (who, by the way, happens to be one of the most polite and humble as well as educationally focused and accomplished young men around), was on full display throughout the show. The young man’s handling of his own fiery material was, of course, moving. However, what he did with Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon In The Sky” was phenomenal. Working the crowd, weaving between the tables and serenading all present, he certainly would have made Stevie proud with his skillful runs.

Following him, one of the most entertaining, solid, and innovative of the newer saxmen, Marcus Anderson equally riled the crowd and turned the King of Pop Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” into a rousing tribute, complete with a touch of the MJ dance and the wearing of the Glove. His use of the EWI was icing on the cake. In fact, he actually made excellent use of that instrument at various points during his magnificent performance. Also noteworthy was his impressive handling of some standard jazz runs during one of R&B vocalist Pam Ward’s performances, proving that he’s more than just another run-of-the-mill smooth jazz sax.

The powerful and driving support of the locally well-known band Phaze II, which backed each act, including the velvet-voiced Pam Ward who took on Teena Marie and Patti Labelle with equal confidence, was powerful and authoritative, to say the least, and the muscular drumming and creative time signatures of the musical director Redfootz gave drumming a big boost in its definition. Here is truly a high-powered, well-rooted band with its hands firmly wrapped around the very essence of contemporary jazz.

Robert Smoot of Brencore had his finger on the pulse of what moves the Washington, DC, area jazzers (and those who ventured out from beyond its borders) and dared to present those artists who some may see as flying below the radar. He did so and saw the Carlyle Club filled to almost capacity! Impressive? You bet your Smooth Jazz it is!  It’s apparent that, if it’s wearing the Brencore brand, it is probably an affair you want to catch. I did, and I have absolutely no regrets.  As for the club itself: The ambience, the staff, and the food (though a tad pricey) all spoke to the fact that, yes, this is a top-tier spot for DC-area jazzers. Watch this one – Ronald Jackson