Berks Jazz Fest 2014: BWB

Friday night at 7pm, supergroup BWB featuring Rick Braun on trumpet, Kirk Whalum on sax and Norman Brown on guitar were performing at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. They kicked off their show with Miles Davis' "Milestones" before segueing into "Billy Jean" from their current Human Nature CD dedicated to the music of Michael Jackson, followed by "Ruby Baby" from their first album, which was released over 10 years ago. The relaxed "Do You Feel Me" from Kirk Whalum's catalog was next, before things slowed down with "I Can't Help It". Norman Brown took over with his great rendition of Janet Jackson's "That's The Way Love Goes", followed by short P-Funk medley, which was one of the highlights of the whole show for me. Then they did the beautiful "I'll Be There" having the audience sing along. The pace picked up with "Groverworked & Underpaid", Kirk Whalum's tribute to the later Grover Washington Jr. and the "After The Storm" medley done by Norman Brown, which is always a crowd pleaser. Rick Braun stepped down from the stage into the audience to do his "Cadillac Slim" having the audience clap along, then his fellow players joined him and moved around in the aisles. With the audience in a party mood, "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" was the appropriate choice to finish the show. They returned for one encore, doing "Groovin'", finishing a very entertaining show on the highest level of musicianship.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Berks All-Star Jazz Jam

Thursday night at 8pm, everybody's favorite, the Berks All-Star Jazz Jam took place at the Crowne Plaza Ballroom in front of a capacity crowd, the show was sold out. Put together by guitarist Chuck Loeb, we got a tremendous amount of talent to jam and have fun. The lineup consisted of Lionel Cordew on drums, Joe McBride, Jeff Lorber and Keiko Matsui on keyboards, Eric Marienthal, Andy Snitzer, Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright on saxophone, Gerald Veasley and Brian Bromberg on bass, Nick Colionne, Norman Brown and Chuck Loeb on guitar plus Randy Brecker and Rick Braun on trumpet. With everybody on stage, they opened with Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time" giving each player a short solo spot, before the remainder of the show was done in varying combinations of players. Next was Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" featuring Eric Marienthal, Chuck Loeb, Gerald Veasley and Jeff Lorber, the easy flowing track was delivered in style by all involved. On "Summertime", keyboardist Joe McBride was featured on vocals and keys, supported by Gerald Albright on sax and Brian Bromberg on acoustic bass. They did Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" featuring Rick Braun on trumpet, then Keiko Matsui, Norman Brown and Kirk Whalum returned to the stage for Eddie Harris' "Cold Duck Time", before Jeff Lorber, Andy Snitzer and Randy Brecker - who all funnily went to Cheltenham High School - did a little high school reunion concert by performing Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar", which concluded the first half of the show.

After the intermission, the show continued with a funked up version of Miles Davis' "So What", followed by Chick Corea's "Spain" which was opened with a beautiful intro on keyboards by Keiko Matsui, before they settled into the song, with Eric Marienthal - who played with Chick Corea's band for years - took care of the sax part, while Gerald Veasley contributed a nice bass solo. The Crusaders' "Put It Where You Want It" was done justice by the three guitars of Chuck Loeb, Nick Colionne and Norman Brown. Joe McBride returned for a beautiful rendition of "My Funny Valentine", supported by Rick Braun on the muted trumpet. Next was Herbie Hancock's "Canteloupe Island" featuring Jeff Lorber, Brian Bromberg and Rick Braun. Then it was time to wrap up the show, all players were summoned onto the stage to do Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mr. Magic", which is always a crowd pleaser. The cheering crowd got one more encore, Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon", bringing a truly great show to a rousing end.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Berks Bop V

Wednesday night, the festival continued for me with Berks Bop V, the traditional straight ahead concert led by guitarist Chuck Loeb which was held at the intimate Jazz Base. The evening was sold out and we were eager to hear some of our favorite players in a be bop setting. The rhythm section consisted of Jeff Lorber on keyboards, Brian Bromberg on acoustic bass and Lionel Cordew on drums, while the horn players were Randy Brecker on trumpet and Gerald Albright and Eric Marienthal on alto saxophones. When entering the stage, the band was dressed in dark suits wearing sun glasses. The concert was opened with a fiery version of "Straight No Chaser" featuring all players, then it was only Eric Marienthal to deliver "Confirmation", complete with nice guitar, keyboards and bass solos, before the rest of the players returned to do "Night In Tunisia", followed by Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" featuring the two sax players doing some "alto madness" on that one. The first set was closed with a very nice version of "Round Midnight" that featured Gerald Albright at his best. During this performance, Randy Brecker quickly left to go to the next room to sit in with the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note big band to play on his own "Some Skunk Funk" as a surprise guest.

The second set started with Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time" with the whole band soloing on it, followed by the uptempo "Ornithology" showing the superior skills of all involved. The next song was "All The Things You Are", featuring the rhythm section only which gave each one ample solo space, before Eric Marienthal came back to do a smoking rendition of "Body And Soul". The pace picked up with the whole band reunited to do "St. Thomas", which concluded the concert. The show was well received and this series definitely will be continued next year.

Chuck Loeb mentioned also that a CD of this Bop project is planned, all the money from that will benefit the pkd organization supporting people with polycystic kidney disease (http://www.pkdcure.org).

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Spyro Gyra

Next were Spyro Gyra, a band that is celebrating their 40th anniversary in the music business and are still going strong, touring and recording, led by founder Jay Beckenstein on saxophone. The rest of the lineup consists of Tom Schuman on keyboards, Julio Fernandez on guitar, Scott Ambush on bass and Lee Pierson on drums. They opened the show with their classic "Catching The Sun", segueing into "Incognito", bringing things nicely up to speed. Then they did Julio Fernandez' classic composition "De La Luz", a song he always puts his heart and soul into. Marking the 35th anniversary of their seminal Morning Dance album, they played "Morning Dance", "Jubilee", "It Doesn't Matter" from it, before turning to their current album The Rhinebeck Sessions which was done during three days in the studio without any written music, just jamming hard and see what would come out. They played three tracks from it, "Not Unlike That" featured an extended bass solo by Scott Ambush, while "Odds Get Even" gave Lee Pierson the opportunity to show his skills during a lengthy drum solo. The show was concluded with a fun track led by Julio Fernandez and some audience participation. This was a very entertaining show although I was a bit irritated by the attitudes of both Jay Beckenstein and Tom Schuman who - despite their flawless performances - looked a bit bored and uninvolved just doing their jobs, at least Julio Fernandez and the other players took every effort to provide a powerful and exciting show. Anyway, this band is always worth seeing and they delivered once more.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Raul Midón

Sunday afternoon, there were two full-length concerts scheduled. The first half was done by blind multi-instrumentalist and singer Raul Midón, who plays guitar, bongos, keyboards and sings, in addition he creates the sound of a trumpet with his pitched lips, adding another flavor to his palette of sounds. He is a veritable one man band and a talented songwriter. So far I had ignored his work and welcomed the opportunity to check his music out. He started his show with "Sunshine (I Can Fly)" strumming on his guitar, playing the bongos while concurrently tapping the strings on the neck of the guitar, and singing with his soulful voice, in addition doing some mouth trumpet sounds, delivering a totally convincing and artful performance. He was talking between songs and turned out to be a witty, self-ironic person, the music played ran a wide gamut of styles, ranging from pop to reggae to jazz and soul, other songs done were "All I Need", the Who's "I Can See For Miles" and Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" as a guitar instrumental. He switched between standing behind his bongos to a chair to perform guitar or sat at a keyboard, depending on the song, an aide led him around on the stage. I didn't memorize the rest of his playlist, all I can say is that Raul Midón is a very talented individual stylistically hard to pinpoint who provided an entertaining show that was well received.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Elan Trotman & Jessy J

Sunday morning, the always popular Sunday Jazz Brunch took place at Building 24, a freshly renovated turn-of-the-century industrial complex in West Reading that hosts live concerts and serves as a nightclub as well. Doors opened at 10am, I arrived at 11am and found the place to be packed, the kitchen had a hard time to keep up with the demand, many people had to wait until later during the concert to get their breakfast, which caused a few unhappy faces. Anyway, most of us were here for the music anyway, and sometimes you have to "give up food for funk" to enjoy it. We were in for a treat with saxophonists Jessy J (filling in for the originally scheduled Jackiem Joyner) and rising star Elan Trotman. The two players entered the stage to greet us with an abridged version of "Where Is The Love", before Jessy J took over to do her own "Listen 2 The Groove" which featured her tenor sax and was nicely grooving along, followed by "Tequila Moon" from her debut CD released in 2008, which was the first year she appeared at Berks. Elan Trotman returned to the stage, with Jessy's dad hailing from Mexico and Elan hailing from Barbados, they decided to do a tropical theme, doing Jessy J's songs "Hot Sauce", followed by "Baila!" allowing for some audience participation. Then Elan Trotman took over to do "Heaven In Your Eyes" from his first album, a song that was a big success and helped him to get recognized. Kareem Thompson was featured on steel drums during the next song "Tradewinds", while Jessy J played some flute during this one. Next was "100 Degrees" from his This Time Around album featuring him on soprano sax. Then Jessy J joined back in to do Chick Corea's "Spain" featuring the whole band. Speaking of the band, it consisted of Greg Grainger on drums, his brother Gary Grainger on bass, Jay Rowe on keyboards and Kareem Thompson on steel drums and percussion. The show continued with Jessy J doing her "Tropical Rain", a track that suits her smooth tenor sound perfectly. The concert was concluded with both saxophonists doing Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" having people dance in the aisles. This was a very entertaining and pleasant show by two aspiring young saxophonists.

Saturday at midnight, it was time for Gerald Veasley's Midnight Jam #2, the loose get together of artists at hand to jam at the Jazz Base, the intimate club in the Crowne Plaza hotel, led by bassist Gerald Veasley. The core band was again Richard Waller on drums and Donald Robinson on keyboards, in addtion to the host on bass. They opened with "St. Thomas", featuring Kareem Thompson on the steel drums (who plays with Elan Trotman and is a Berklee alumnus), he was nicely improvising on his instrument, Jay Rowe played the piano during this one. Next came saxophonists Jessy J and Elan Trotman, while Bobby Lyle sat at the piano, to do "Night In Tunisia", with great solos by all involved. For the next song, guitarist Dean Brown joined the stage, along with saxophonist Art Sherrod Jr. to do "So What". Lionel Cordew took over the drums, then violinist Karen Briggs came to do "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing", pulling all the stops, while Bobby Lyle, Dean Brown and Lionel Cordew contributed great solos. Chris Miskel took over the drum seat, while saxophonists Andrew Neu, Art Sherrod Jr., Erich Cawalla, Jay Rodriguez and Marqueal Jordan, plus percussionist Emedin Riviera and singer Matissa Hill came to the stage to do the final track, Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues", bringing another entertaining Midnight Jam to a rousing end.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Global Noize

At 10pm, Global Noize were ready for some mayhem with their Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly & The Family Stone project. This band is the brainchild of eclectic keyboardist and producer Jason Miles, he took every effort to provide a world-class lineup to bring this music not only to life, but especially into this millennium with his re-imagined and seriously funked-up version of Sly's music. The band consisted of Gene Lake on drums, Amanda Ruzza on bass, Nick Moroch on guitar, Ian Cook on various electronic gadgets, Jay Rodriguez on reeds, Andy Snitzer on saxophone, Alex Bugnon on keyboards, Karen Briggs on violin plus the leader on keys. The vocalists were Maya Azucena, the legendary Nona Hendryx and the always lovely Maysa, a great bunch of singers to raise the roof. They started the show with a wicked instrumental that represented the Global Noize spirit to the fullest, when I heard this track with the cool flute of Jay Rodriguez, the soaring violin of Karen Briggs and the powerful bass of Amanda Ruzza, I knew we were in for a special treat. Maya Azucena was the featured singer on "Fun", while Nona Hendryx did "The Same Thing" justice, totally kicking ass at her 69 years, you could witness a mature artist still on top of her game, the baritone sax of Jay Rodriguez and the fender rhodes of Alex Bugnon gave the song a cool touch. Maysa joined in for "You Can Make It If You Try", the grooves continued with "Stand!" Then they did "It's A Family Affair", starting as an instrumental providing some great solos by Andy Snitzer, Karen Briggs and - most memorably - Alex Bugnon who really gave his all on the fender rhodes during his extended solo, before the singers kicked in to take the song to the next level. Then it was "In Time" with Nona Hendryx bringing the house down, before the show was concluded with an rousing version of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", giving all the players an opportunity to shine. Jason Miles was in the mood to play, so he finished the show with "A Jam 4 Joe", re-named "Jam For George" in memory of George Duke, plus "A Prayer For The Planet", wrapping up a the concert in style. This was an exceptional and really entertaining show off the beaten path, providing Sly's catalog in a contemporary setting by a diverse group of great players. Kudos to Jason Miles for pulling this off, check this show out whenever you have the chance!

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Gregory Porter

At 7.30pm, Gregory Porter appeared at Miller Center for the Arts, an intimate venue that provided the perfect setting for this outstanding singer and his acoustic band. His warm baritone is captivating and his mostly self-composed songs have depth and meaning, Riding on a wave of success with his three albums, having won or at least being nominated for a bunch of awards, Grammys included, touring the world with his band, he definitely is one of the hottest tickets in town. His band consisted of Chip Crawford on acoustic piano, Aaron James on acoustic bass, Yosuke Sato on alto sax and Emanuel Harrold on drums. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the hall were a bit lacking, the drums were overpowering the rest of the band while the acoustic piano drowned a bit in the mix. He opened his show with "Painted On Canvas", followed by "On My Way To Harlem" and the beautiful "No Love Dying" that had the audience sing along at the end of the song. Then he did "Liquid Spirit", the title track of his current CD having the audience clap along. Things slowed down for a heartfelt rendition of the jazz classic "I Fall In Love Too Easily", before he did a great version of "Work Song" that really evoked images of prisoners working in the quarry. Among some other songs done were "Lonesome Lover" and his current hit, "Hey Laura". As expected, the show was concluded with the awesome "1960 What?". He returned for one encore, giving us "Be Good", the tile track from his second album. I really liked this show, his band dares to stretch out a bit and provide some rough edges, while the smooth baritone of the leader holds everything together like glue. The concert was well received and marked a highlight of the festival.

Berks Jazz Fest 2014: Chuck Loeb & Friends

Saturday afternoon, Chuck Loeb & Friends were on at the Plaza Ballroom, we were in for a treat with a bunch of fine musicians ready to entertain us on the highest level. Chuck Loeb is one of the very best guitar players on the scene who has had a tremendous career that led him to become a member of supergroup Fourplay. This afternoon, the spotlight was put onto him and his friends, all stars in their own right. The band consisted of Lionel Cordew on drums, Ron Jenkins on bass and Oli Rockberger on keys. They kicked off the show with "Silhouette", the title track of his current CD, with a nice melodica solo by Oli Rockberger. Saxophonist Everette Harp was the first friend to appear, especially memorable was his song "Going Through Changes" dedicated to George Duke which was really emotional. Next was saxophonist Andy Snitzer joining for one of Chuck Loeb's biggest hits, "Music Inside" which always is a crowd pleaser, followed by Andy Snitzer's own "Marseille", a mellow and melodic song that showed the subtler sides of his playing. Then Everette Harp returned for one more nicely grooving song to wrap up the first half of the show.