George Benson was the one packing the seats and commanding center stage at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 13, but it was hard to keep eyes and ears off of keyboardist, musical director and overall band cheerleader David Garfield for more than a split second.
Garfield’s appearance at the 14th Annual FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Fest, one of the 50 or so dates he does annually with Benson, added frenetic energy and real jazz chops to a memorable, smooth jazz heavy opening weekend. Whether he was running lightning fast piano solos (be-bop style on “Mambo Inn,” tropical Latin on the 10 minute showstopper “On Broadway”), scampering back towards the percussion and drum kits playing tambourine, calling out changes with a wave of his arm or encouraging the crowd to clap along, Garfield was always in motion. He’s always finding freshness in a routine he knows very well; he’s four years into his second tenure as Benson’s MD, after an original run from 1986 through 1990.
The pace continued after the show in the lobby, as he stuck around to sign copies of his latest, just released solo CD, Giving Back, an eclectic mix of the smooth stuff, fusion and R&B-tinged vocals featuring an impressive lineup of L.A. based musical talent from the city’s studio scene Garfield has been a part of for two decades plus: The Brecker Brothers, Lee Ritenour, Paul Jackson, Jr., Airto Moreira, Eric Marienthal, Michael O’Neill (his Benson bandmate) and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who also plays with Garfield in the L.A. club band Los Lobotomys.
Even as he was gearing up for this year’s dates with Benson, the album’s first single, “Desert Hideaway,” featuring Gerald Albright and June Kuramoto, was the #1 most added smooth jazz single the week it was released. That’s just the tip of the iceberg this year for his independent label, Creatchy Records. Garfield not only runs the company, but also produces the artists he signs, including a new ensemble called Potato Salad, whom he discovered as they were promoting themselves as a “David Garfield cover band.” The group’s debut album, partially recorded live at The Baked Potato in North Hollywood, will be released this year.
The Creatchy catalog now has 20 releases, and its stable of artists, including several by the keyboardist’s own band Karizma, enjoy a loyal following worldwide, from Australia to Japan to all points European. “Running the label myself takes a lot of work, and it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to practice and write songs,” says Garfield, who moved to L.A. from St. Louis thirty years ago, while still in his late teens. “There’s not always a lot of creative time when you’re taking care of business, but I’m very committed to our success. Even though it looks like a lot of hard work when I’m up there with George, I actually like the break it gives me from being totally in charge. I can enjoy being in a supporting role and the different level of responsibility that brings.”
Garfield’s handful of 80’s recordings as a solo artist and with Karizma were so popular in Japan that a big conglomerate there gave him money to start Creatchy Productions and produce eight CDs for other artists - which he fulfilled with projects by Karizma, Phil Perry, Los Lobotomys, Michael Landau and Brandon Fields. It took him a a handful of years to get around to another solo project, but when he did, it was a doozy; Tribute to Jeff, a Quincy Jones like all-star affair dedicated to the music and memory of the late drummer Jeff Porcaro, featured 78 musicians, including pop rockers Don Henley, Eddie Van Halen, Michael McDonald and Richard Marx. To date, it has sold over 50,000 worldwide. Garfield is currently remixing the album for a re-release entitled Tribute to Jeff Revisited, with additional vocals by Phil Perry and Alex Ligertwood.
“Everything in the Creatchy catalog is still selling around the world, including those records I did in the 80s, and that’s proof that American jazz is a great form of expression,” he says. “We’re now a full fledged record company, not just a label, the difference being that I’m responsible for all the manufacturing and marketing. I’m always learning more about the business end of music, but the best thing has always been getting to work with my heroes, like Chick Corea, Horace Silver and of course, George Benson. I love listening to their stories and learning from them. One thing I know after all these years is, you never stop learning.”
BERKS JAZZ FESTIVAL
The one place Garfield was nowhere to be found that night at the Sovereign was the lower level green room, where I snagged a few sacred moments with George Benson after his bandmates left to change for the show. Offering an abundance of the kind of stories the keyboardist is talking about, the down to earth star was eager to share historical anecdotes about Count Basie, segregation for black musicians and his own love for chief influence Charlie Christian. After holding me rapt for twenty minutes, Benson also kindly said, “You write good things about jazz, keep it up.”
The entire festival had that sort of mix of casually wonderful moments and titillating excitement. Over the years, I’ve been to countless well-run and well-attended West Coast festivals, and have been on two smooth jazz cruises. To me, the combination of strong organization, friendly people, hospitality and extreme community involvement put this right at the top of fest experiences for me. All this, combined with a commitment to put the profits back into the community’s arts programs, have made this a globally significant festival that now stretches for ten days. Philadelphia’s smooth station KJJZ is intimately involved in promoting the event.
The city of Reading, just over an hour East of Philly, becomes jazz central for ten days, and my hosts — festival organizers and marketing folks Mike Zielinski and John Ernesto (from the Reading Eagle newspaper) and Connie Leinbach from the Berks Arts Council — became fast friends. I was treated to lunch at the 80 year old institution The Peanut Bar and to a minor league hockey game played by the Reading Royals, as well as a tour of the newspaper’s offices.
My schedule limited me to one weekend, and I chose the first at the expense of some certainly phenomenal jam sessions and shows on the second. So apologies to Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Jim Brickman, Jeff Kashiwa, Joe McBride, Kim Waters, et al, who I would have loved to see!
Opening night at the Sovereign featured another knockout performance by Brian Culbertson (one of the genre’s most popular artists locally) with special guest saxman Michael Lington, but this was expected. I enjoyed the great surprise of Culby’s opening act, keyboardist/producer Jason Miles, whose Maximum Grooves band (featuring the incredible Andy Snitzer and singer Cassandra Reed) rocked and funked steady. Miles is an East Coast guy who doesn’t do many live shows, but hopefully the title of his new Coast to Coast CD will prove prophetic.
Other irresistible first weekend shows were George Benson’s and afternoon delights by keyboardist Bob Baldwin (who I had lunch with later that day) with Phil Perry (whose gospel-tinged renditions of R&B classics added feisty electricity to the Lincoln Plaza Ballroom), and Steve Oliver (at first unfamiliar to some new smooth fans, but not anymore) with the ladies’ favorite Chris Botti. Botti goes a bit too artsy at times, but Oliver was, as always, pure pop delight with his mix of melodic guitar and catchy vocalese. Heartthrob Peter Cincotti brought a unique audience to the room a night later.
Aside from all the hospitality and the great music, I enjoyed hanging out at the famed Outlet Center (Reading is known as the Outlet Capital of the World), and watching 5 inches of snow fall just days before returning to 85 degree weather in SoCal. In another publication, I reported that the event takes place near Amish country, but as Mike Zielinski pointed out, no one from that culture attended the festival or actually lives that close to town. This city and Berks County loves its jazz and puts on a wonderful event. I look forward to a repeat visit in 2005.
What I’m Listening To:
1) Joe Kurasz, Soul Searching (Ren Music) – An immediately enjoyable indie gem featuring a mix of funk, smooth jazz and the tastiest Hammond B-3 lines this side of Joey DeFrancesco, a few sparkling piano pieces and a sensuous cameo by Gerald Albright.
2) Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (Blue Note)
3) Jazz For Couch Potatoes (Shanachie)
4) Will Sumner, Coast Drive (Ocean Street)
5) Starsky & Hutch, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (TVT Soundtrak)