Written by Rene Taniguchi, San Francisco, California, USA
Romantic British saxophonist James Vargas captivated Catalina audiences with his intoxicating blend of smooth grooves, funky rhythms and soulful singing during his American debut at the 18th Annual Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival, October 10 and 16, 2004, being only one of two artists to play twice during the three-weekend festival.
Vargas' performances, which were also broadcast live via streaming on Jazztrax Internet Radio, played to sold-out crowds of 1,450 in the beautiful Art Deco-styled Avalon Casino Ballroom on balmy October evenings on Catalina Island, opening for sax legend David Sanborn on October 10th and British funk band Down To The Bone, on October 16th. (His performances, along with the 29 other artists featured during the festival, was rebroadcast as part of a compilation on Jazztrax' syndicated 5-hour program Thanksgiving weekend, November 28, and is still available to listen to as Art Good's Jazztrax Radio Show On Demand. Go to www.jazztrax.com for more info.)
Good prides himself on showcasing new talent on the island, making virtual unknowns into Smooth Jazz favorites: The Rippingtons and David Benoit in 1987, Acoustic Alchemy in 1988, Mindi Abair in 1995, Paul Brown and Praful in 2003. The buzz in the audience this year was about the two new saxmen making their Catalina debut, who had catapulted onto the scene in June and July of 2004. Both James Vargas and Eric Darius were first introduced to American audiences by Good, who featured cuts off of Vargas' self-titled album and Darius' Night On The Town on his Internet Radio. With Catalina audiences used to such high-caliber performances, the underlying question of the weekend was: Would they wow or would they disappoint?
Both men were clearly in their element on an island that comes alive every October for the past 17 years with fabulous music and a great time. It was an incredible final weekend of performances, beginning with Rendezvous Entertainment saxman Michael Lington and ending with the all-star supergroup Groovin' for Grover, consisting of veteran artists Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright, Paul Taylor and Jeff Lorber. Both Vargas and Darius fit the bill for all things smooth; Vargas played up the more romantic side with his virtuoso performances on soprano, alto and tenor saxes while adding his warm voice to the mix, moving effortlessly from sax to vocals like a well-tuned car changing gears. Darius was the 'new kid on the block,' but at 21 years of age, performed like a seasoned veteran, not only with his fiery R&B sound and technique but with his showmanship, which surprised not only this reporter but some industry people spoken to after the show. We can only expect amazing things in the future from both performers, this 'next generation of Smooth Jazz artists,' who were both gracious, charming and thrilled to play such a prestigious show on their first time out to the West Coast.
Vargas clearly had his work cut out for him, opening for the legendary Sanborn his first weekend, but easily won over the jazz crowd with his killer chops, charisma and his ability to paint amazing audio landscapes with his sax. This reporter experienced the second of the two shows on October 16th and has to say that James Vargas had the crowd eating from the palm of his hand from the very first note. Wearing a caramel suit with black pinstriped shirt, Vargas was in command of the Saturday night 'British Invasion' at the Avalon Casino Ballroom, opening for Down To The Bone. He easily could've been headliner material with his fancy improv work and 'sound,' reminscent of the talents of Steve Cole or Walter Beasley in tone and sweetness. But that's where the similarities ended, with Vargas' fast-paced show taking the audience to higher highs ("Push Da Button" and "Speakeasy"), poignant reminisces of first love and romance ("Galveston Bay", "Won't Be A Fool", "Say You Will", "One Fine Day", "Lasting Impression") and everywhere in between ("Curtain Call", "Sitting Pretty", "Portmeadow"). The ease in which he took to the mic, lending his voice on the tender "Galveston Bay" and helping out on "Won't Be A Fool" with Kimberly Brewer, then playing a few lines on sax, proved his versatility and musical prowess. His encore was a tribute to Luther Vandross, performing a sprited and sassy rendition of "You're The Sweetest One," the perfect dessert to a fabulous musical feast. The audiences responded in kind, giving him standing ovations and cheers, each lasting longer than the last.
Rounding out Vargas' band were keyboardist extraordinaire and writing partner Oli Silk, whose band, Sugar & Silk, featured Vargas prominently on their second release entitled Duality, guitarist Allen Hinds (who did triple duty that final Saturday, playing with Dan Siegel in the afternoon, with Vargas Saturday evening and finally with his bandmates, Down to the Bone, Saturday night!), Keith Jones on bass, who had played with Grover Washington, Jr. (a fitting addition to the month-long tribute to Grover during the festival), with the talented Kimberly Brewer and Fred White on backing vocals.
Vargas, who makes his home in Wimbledon, England, was truly honored to be considered to be a part of the lineup, saying that to play Catalina was a long-held dream that had finally come true. He knows of the magic and the impact the festival has on Smooth Jazz as well as the success that usually follows once having played there. By the thunderous applause Vargas received on both evenings, it appears that this talented artist's time has come.
2005 promises to be an exciting year for Vargas, who is now setting his sights on taking America by storm and touring extensively around the country. If you get the chance to see this incredible performer live, by all means, GO! His affable charm and disarming good looks will immediately draw you in, but it is his grace and his impeccable showmanship that will make a 'lasting impression' in your soul.