It has become tradition to close the Berks Jazz Feat with a gospel show Sunday night, so we gathered at the Scottish Rite Cathedral to get another issue of Kirk Whalum's Gospel According To Jazz, with plenty of guests. As usual, the band consisted of Kevin Turner on guitar, Marcus Finnie on drums and musical director John Stoddart on keys and vocals, supported by the awesome Doxa Ensemble, the local gospel choir. Kirk Whalum kicked off the show with one of his instrumental, before trombone player Wycliffe Gordon joined him for a complex jazz piece called "Triage". Singers from the Doxa Ensemble got their solo spot, before Maysa and Kevin Whalum were featured. Then the main guest Jonathan Butler appeared, doing the instrumental "Elizabeth" dedicated to his mother, followed by "Living My Dream" and the appropriate "Falling In Love With Jesus", being a highlight. They wrapped up the show with "Love Is The Answer" creating a great climax, thus bringing this year's festival to a satisfying end.

Berks Jazz Fest 2018: David Benoit & Marc Antoine

The Sunday afternoon show featured pianist David Benoit and acoustic guitarist Marc Antoine in the Miller Center for the Arts, a great venue for their intimate playing. David Benoit got a 9 foot Steinway grand piano, which served his playing well. They were backed by Roberto Vally on bass and Dave Hooper on drums. These two artists work very well together, they played songs from their respective catalog and a few tracks from their current mutual effort called So Nice, like their hit "Caminando", and some bossa novas like "So Danco Samba" and "Agua De Beber", plus Benoit classics like "Kei's Song". The show was well received, so they came back for an encore and did as a duo their current track "Algarve".

Berks Jazz Fest 2018: Steve Cole & Friends

The popular Sunday morning brunch took place at the Inn At Reading, Steve Cole & Friends
featuring Nick Colionne and JJ Sansaverino on guitar, Kevin Whalum on vocals, Jay Rowe on keys, David Dyson on bass and Carl Anderson on drums were scheduled to appear. Unfortunately, Steve Cole got stuck due to a snow storm at an airport and was unable to perform, so Nick Colionne took over the show, along with all of Steve Cole's friends.

Nick Colionne took the opportunity and opened the show with some of his own tracks, among them "The Journey", before Kevin Whalum did Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do For Love" and a great rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing". JJ Sansaverino got one song, and tore the house down, before Nick Colionne did "When You Love Somebody" with an extended guitar solo done during a stroll into the audience, which was truly great. Other highlights were his rendition of "Rainy Night In Georgia", and Kevin Whalum's "Somebody, Somewhere". They wrapped up the show with their usual JB jam, having everybody on their feet.

Berks Jazz Fest 2018: Incognito with Maysa

Next were Incognito, a festival favourite, featuring songstress Maysa, whose career is intimately linked with this band. The lineup consisted of Matt Cooper on keys, Fancis Hylton on bass, Francesco Mendolia on drums, a new percussion player hailing from Brooklyn, the three piece horn section, plus awesome guitar player Francisco Sales. The lineup of singers, apart of Maysa, consisted of Chris Ballin, Imaani and Joy Rose. They kicked off the show with "1975" and went through classics like "Always There", "Deep Waters" and more, with Bluey telling stories in between songs. He even did a duet with Maysa, which was quite special. The part of the show where the instrumentalist did their solos was smoking, especially the drums versus percussion segment. This was a memorable evening by a great band that celebrates music and life wherever it goes.

The first show of Saturday night were EPK aka Euge Groove, Peter White and Keiko Matsui. This combination of players worked very well, they were backed by Greg Manning on keys, Third Richardson on drums and Darryl Williams on bass. The band was grooving, and each of the players did songs from their own catalogs, but the house was brought down when Peter White did his part where he played his renditions of the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady", followed by the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone". After all, they were playing in front of an "old school crowd". This was an evening done by a bunch of consummate players giving the people what they wanted, which was a lot of fun.

Berks Jazz Fest 2018: Grace Kelly & The Rippingtons

Saxophonist Grace Kelly opened Saturday afternoon with her band and led through an eclectic mix of music, ranging from jazz to pop to almost experimental music. When she started out, saxophonist Phil Woods was one of her mentors, so I expected her to pursue are more traditional jazz career, but these days it seems to me that she is still finding her way. Nevertheless, this provided a very entertaining set, among the songs that stood out were the vocal "Can't Figure It Out", a totally morphed version of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and the closing track, Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" played on the soprano, plus several original compositions. This is a player to watch out for who always entertains.

Next were the Rippingtons, led by guitarist Russ Freeman, the band consisted of Bill Heller on keys, Brandon Fields on sax, Dave Karasony on drums and Rico Belled on bass. They went trough a selection of songs from their vast catalog, with tons of solos by all players. They were asked for an encore and finished their show with some great rock classics, leaving a satisfied crowd.

Friday night at 10pm, festival favourite Gerald Albright was performing with special guests, daughter Selina Albright and singer extraordinaire Kenny Lattimore.

The Albright family has been a fixture of this festival for years, with Gerald Albright playing almost every year, bringing along his daughter Selina allowing us to witness her rise to a mature singer over the years. His wife Glynis, who usually is accompanying her husband during the festival, runs a chicken-and-waffles pop-up restaurant this year (at Glynis Albright's Kitchen) the last three days of the festival.

Gerald Albright was backed by a great band, we got Chris "Big Dog" Davis on keys, JJ Williams on drums and Corey Baker on bass. He opened his show with classics like "Bermuda Nights", before his daughter Selina Albright joined the stage for two songs, it was a blast to see to what level she has progressed, then the awesome singer Kenny Lattymore did two songs, he is a truly outstanding talent. One highlight was Gerald Albright's rendition of JB's "It's A Man's Man's World", apart of his signature song, "Georgia On My Mind".

Impressive was also the segment, where Kenny Lattimore summed up his musical career, having started out as classically trained singer, later switching to Soul/R&B (thanks God). The versatility and command of his voice was startling, he is a consummate artist. Then Selina Albright did a few more songs from her latest album Conversations, before they wrapped it up with everybody on their feet grooving to the music.

With such great players, these shows are always satisfying and fun to attend.

In recent years, I increasingly started to check out the smaller shows with music off the beaten path, since I have heard the established artists so many times. This time, I chose Rayford Griffin's Reflections Of Brownie: A Tribute To Clifford Brown. With Clifford Brown being his uncle, Rayford Griffin has a special relationship to his music, so I was looking forward to hear the spin he would give his music.

The stellar band consisted of Randy Brecker on trumpet, Brian Bromberg on bass, Hans Zermuehlen on keys and Andy Snitzer on sax. The band was tight, the horns were propelled by the powerful and precise playing by the leader, they went trough the challenging charts with ease. Among the songs played were "Jordu", "Joy Spring", a deliberately slowed down version of "Cherokee", "Sandu" and "Daahoud", the renditions were mostly funky and groovy yet still very jazzy. After a short intermission the show continued, allowing the band to play some tracks from Rayford Griffin's debut album Rebirth Of the Cool, with the title track allowing the drummer to showcase his vocal skills.

This was a cool show by a consummate band, each player contributed significantly to the music with his solos and tight playing. Top-notch music from beginning to end.

Berks Jazz Fest 2018: Berks All-Star Jazz Jam

This year, due to work commitments, I was only able to attend the second weekend, forcing me to miss several great shows, most notably the awesome tribute to the late guitar player Chuck Loeb called Remembering Chuck Loeb, who united tons of players to commemorate this great artist and his productive musical life. Chuck Loeb was one of the pillars of the festival and will be sorely missed.

I flew in on Thursday, met some friends and headed right to my first show, people's favourite, the Berks All-Star Jazz Jam who used to rest in the able hands of Chuck Loeb for many years, and now is led by bassist Gerald Veasley and trumpet player Rick Braun, both longstanding contributors to the festival.

The talent on stage was simply overwhelming with players like Randy Brecker on trumpet, Brian Bromberg on bass, Kirk Whalum, Maceo Parker, Gerald Albright, Everette Harp, Eric Marienthal, Andy Snitzer and Elan Trotman on saxes, Nestor Torres on flute, Bernie Williams, Nick Colionne, JJ Sansaverino and Paul Bollenback on guitars, Jay Rowe, Bobby Lyle and Chris "Big Dog" Davis on keyboards, Rayford Griffin on drums, Kevin Whalum and Selina Albright on vocals, plus the two hosts Gerald Veasley and Rick Braun.

They alternated between the full-line up doing songs like "Pick Up The Pieces" giving each one a solo spot and more intimate songs like "Manha De Carnaval" featuring the Caribbean Connection of Nestor Torres, Bernie Williams and Elan Trotman. With Maceo Parker and Nick Colionne on stage, their rendition of JB's "Sex Machine" was inevitable, and Maceo at age 75 still delivered a mean solo with some sharp, cutting horn stabs, his trademark playing. It was great to witness this living legend on stage.

While all the instrumentalists provided top notch work, I would like to single out the vocalists, Kevin Whalum, who is a great talent reminding me of Bobby McFerrin with his vocal dexterity, and Selina Albright, who gets better each time I see her, a confident woman with a beautiful voice building her career.

With the Berks All-Star Jazz Jam, the festival got off to a good start for me.

By Val Vaccaro    [photos courtesy of]

On Saturday, April 14th at 2pm and 7:30pm the 2018 Berks Jazz Fest will present two wonderful, special shows with The Caribbean Connection featuring Latin Grammy Award-nominated contemporary jazz guitarist Bernie Williams, saxophonist Elan Trotman, Latin Grammy Award winning flute player Nestor Torres, and steel pan virtuoso Kareem Thompson at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading.

Bernie Williams

Bernie Williams, a highly talented contemporary jazz guitarist, started playing guitar at the age of eight while growing up in Puerto Rico, and went to a performing arts high school. Williams was a NY Yankees baseball player for 16 years, a four-time World Series champion, and a five-time All-Star. 

A renaissance man, Williams went from playing centerfield position to center stage in 2003, when he released his debut record The Journey Within which went to number three on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart. Williams' sophomore record Moving Forward was number two on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts, and received a Latin Grammy nomination in 2009; the album included special guests Bruce Springsteen, Jon Secada, and Dave Koz. Williams has also played with artists such as Paul Simon, Garth Brooks and many others. This past March, Williams performed a one-week engagement at the renowned Café Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel, a Rosewood Hotel in New York City.

Williams humbly signs under his autographed name the letters SDG "Solo a Dios la Gloria"...which in Spanish means "Only to God the Glory." Williams is also co-author of the 2011 book (published by Hal Leonard) called Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Music and Athletic Performance. 

In February, Bernie Williams appeared in an interview on NBC's New York Live TV show. Williams is raising awareness as a spokesperson for the nonprofit organization Breathless IPF (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) which is a rare terminal lung disease. IPF took the life of Bernie Williams' father, who was instrumental in teaching him how to play both music and baseball. Williams said he was grateful to have the opportunity to pay tribute to his Dad's memory and to do a public service.

Elan Trotman

Elan Trotman, a native of Barbados, is a wonderful tenor saxophonist, and a dynamic and exciting performer whose music has been at the top of the Billboard charts over ten times. Trotman, a Berklee College of Music alum, is also Executive Producer of the Barbados Jazz Excursion. Trotman was honored as Jazz Artist of the Year by The Barbados Music Awards and the New England Urban Music Awards

Trotman also founded the Never Lose Your Drive Foundation which provides funding for free weekly musical instrument instruction to students from the Headstart Music Program. Trotman is also a sports fan who has performed the National Anthem at games for teams from the Boston Celtics to the LA Dodgers.  

He has performed with artists including Michael McDonald, Roberta Flack, Jonathan Butler, Keiko Matsui, Johnny Gill, Jeffrey Osborne, Sheila E, Marcus Miller, Will Downing, Earl Klugh, Jeff Lorber, Brian Simpson, Peter White and Peabo Bryson.


Nestor Torres                

Nestor Torres, a fantastic flutist originally from Puerto Rico, has recorded 14 solo albums, received a Latin Grammy Award, 4 Latin Grammy nominations, and a Grammy nomination. He has has worked with Gloria Estefan, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente, the Cleveland, Singapore, New World Symphony Orchestras, and many other artists.

Fatefully, Torres was scheduled to receive the Latin Grammy award in the pop instrumental category with his CD "This Side of Paradise" on September 11, 2001. That pivotal moment inspired Torres as a composer and performer to be a change agent for peace, working with organizations such as ICAP - the International Committee of Artists for Peace

In 1996, during the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games and the multicultural city of Miami where he resides, flute player Nestor Torres had the special honor of carrying the Olympic flame to a ceremony on top of Miami City hall. Torres noted that the Olympic torch is a symbol of the Olympic spirit of peaceful competition.


Kareem Thompson

Steel pan virtuoso Kareem Thompson, from Brooklyn, NY, began playing at the age of eight, inspired by his grandfather who played steel pan and was originally from Trinidad. During the 1990s, he was part of his family band "K.I.T Caribbean Connection." Thompson is a graduate of Berklee College of Music.

In addition to playing with The Caribbean Connection, Thompson is touring with Elan Trotman and trumpeter Etienne Charles. Kareem Thompson has also performed with other artists including Ludacris, Brian Simpson, Jessy J, and Mighty Sparrow. Thompson's current album is called Pan Roots Culture.