Heading into its 18th year in 2008, The Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania is an annual mecca for some 45,000 jazz fans for a few key reasons beyond an exciting ten-day lineup. Aside from its small city community spirit — the heart and soul behind the music is some 300 local volunteers — Berks is unabashed in its appeal to smoothies and jazz purists alike, juxtaposing Brian Culbertson and Pat Martino, Stanley Jordan and Rick Braun, Dave Brubeck and Mindi Abair in any given year.
Beyond that, while most festivals just hop from one big name to another, Berks these last few years has offered some tasty one time only all-star gatherings paying homage to icons like Marvin Gaye, Ivan Lins and Luther Vandross. The unofficial house ringleader for these events is Grammy winning keyboardist Jason Miles, who knows something about mining the old Rolodex for sweeping album projects that defy common logistical sense. He’s been the unofficial Quincy Jones of contemporary jazz over the past decade, helming star-studded discs paying homage to Gaye, Lins, Grover Washington, Jr. and Weather Report.
For Berks 2007, Miles reached back to the 60s soul that shaped his diverse musical sensibilities and put together a dream lineup of modern artists and still brilliant old school sidemen to help him re-imagine his favorite all-time R&B and soul-jazz songs. In an industry that generally shies away from live album releases, Shanachie Records shows progress by releasing this explosive concert on disc as Soul Summit. The subtitle “Can You Feel It?” comes from the easy grooving, wistfully brassy song by saxman/flutist Karl Denson and featuring Denson, Incognito singer Maysa and a host of sensual backup singers. For Miles, that track, that title, “got the message across.”
“Back when I was growing up, a lot of us didn’t know that what we were listening to was ‘soul music,’” he says. “I played organ in different bands in the late 60s and I loved Booker T and the MG’s, Howard Tate, Dyke and The Blazers and The Staple Singers. Soul is one of the building blocks of American music. From Memphis to Chicago blues, from the Mississippi Delta up to the Detroit of Motown, it represents the cultural history of our country. What was the first instrument man ever heard? The heartbeat. The music comes from that. We need to build off this legacy if we want the music to survive. With Soul Summit, I wanted to dig into these songs with the idea of revisiting classic music with a modern sense.”
To that end, he built his dream band beginning with famed Motown “Funk Brother” bassist Bob Babbitt, British skin legend Steve Ferrone (known for picking up the pieces with Average White Band and now a member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and guitarist Reggie Young (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles). The guest list grew to include saxman/flutist Karl Denson (Lenny Kravitz), singer Maysa (from Incognito), blues/soul singer songwriter Susan Tedeschi, Mike Mattison (gravel voiced lead singer from The Derek Trucks Band) and — paying as much homage to Tower of Power as the groovin’ side of smooth jazz — blistering saxman Richard Elliot.
Elliot loves playing “Shotgun” with his own band, but the experience of doing it here amongst old soul legends — where the tenor man blazes out of the gate and sets the hard driving energetic tone for the tracks to come — was somehow transcendent. He also gets in some deeper blues-soul licks than his smooth jazz catalogue allows on Miles’ hypnotic, simmer-soul composition “Chicken And Waffles,” which the keyboardist originally cut with Grover in 1996.
“When I was starting out in the early 80s, I played on sessions at Hitsville West with the Four Tops, Temptations and Smokey Robinson, who were experiencing career resurgences at the time,” Elliot says. “But Bob Babbitt and the Funk Brothers were on their original tracks that I was listening to growing up. That made Soul Summit something of a poignant experience for me. There’s an inherent, intangible quality in the way guys like him, Steve Ferrone and Reggie Young play that just comes from years of doing it. All of that is saved into a level of experience that you can’t get any other way but by touching and feeling the music of that era. Soul music to me is the one genre where the expression of pure emotion is mixed with the exactness and precision that comes with great R&B timekeeping.”
The fun part of the way this musical cirque du Miles covers the waterfront comes from some creative mixing and matching. Young played on the original “Son Of A Preacher Man” nearly 40 years ago and he adds the same simmering blues touch here behind Tedeschi’s raspy vocals and the blazing horn section. Tedeschi also adds torchy heartache to Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining.” The deep voiced but underrated soul diva Maysa is to this generation what Stax singer Linda Lyndell was to hers, which makes her the perfect choice to lead a fiery run through “What A Man,” which was reworked in the 90s by Salt ‘N Pepa with En Vogue; one of Miles’ goals is to educate young listeners, and this song is a great way to do it — i.e. all of today’s R&B had its roots back in the Stax (and Motown).
Before Soul Summit wraps with an extended crowd pleasing medley of James Brown songs (it ain’t soul without the Godfather), Miles tackles something more unexpected because it’s as much jazz as R&B driven: his connection to the late flute icon Herbie Mann. The concert goes all retro-soul/jazzy with a wistful, laid back, Denson led version of Mann’s 1969 classic “Memphis Underground”; Young played on the original track. Miles, again handing the reins to Denson’s lead flute, also includes the similar-vibed “Memphis 2000,” an original he and Mann recorded (with Ferrone on drums) in 1996.
Miles promises that Soul Summit isn’t just a one-time thing, adding, with the hope that some funky lightning can strike again, “The convergence of all these exceptional musicians onstage and on the recording was a meeting of perfection. The groove and vibe between the musicians, along with the response from the audience, let us know that something special was going on.”
Ferrone adds, “What made it memorable was that I ate the best Philly Cheesesteak sandwich I ever had! Oh, and with the show and rehearsal, it was two days of playing with some of the greatest musicians ever. ‘Shotgun’ was my favorite, the way Richard burned through the thing and scorched the rhythm section. You’ve got to be impressed with guys like that.”
What do David Letterman’s right hand man Paul Shaffer, Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and trumpet god Randy Brecker have in common? All are buddies of one of the East Coast’s most versatile guitarists, Grammy nominee Gil Parris, who gathered for an exciting night of jamming pop/jazz in January 2007 at the Irvington Town Hall just outside NYC. The concert is now a can’t miss DVD called Gil Parris and Friends, which the guitarist — in a clever promotional tactic - is giving away with the purchase of any one of the five discs in his eclectic catalogue. The latest of these, Strength, was one of the best indie discs of 2006 but suffered from the folding of its label, 215 Records. Parris, who does over 200 dates a year in the Tri-State Area (NY, New Jersey, Connecticut) and has shared bills with Spyro Gyra, Bob James, George Benson, Robben Ford, Joshua Redman and Chris Botti, is now marketing it independently. The album’s song “Duck Walk,” a blues funk duet with Brecker, was a longtime #1 in the summer and fall 2007 on Music Choice, America’s top cable radio channel.
For more info on Parris, check out www.gilparris.com.
1) Mark Berman, The Genesis Project (Mark Berman Music) – Someone was paying attention in Sunday School! The veteran NYC pianist and Broadway conductor explores the first chapter of the Bible with a witty, Manhattan Transfer-ish vocal harmony driven mix combining elements of rock, soul, samba, gospel and blues. This engaging set celebrates Judeo-Christian traditions while drawing attention to our connection to the earth itself.
2) Shannon Kennedy, Never My Love (Angel Eyes Creation Records)
3) Chris Botti, Italia (Columbia)
4) Dave Koz, Memories Of A Winter’s Night (Capitol)
5) Peter White Christmas (ARTizen Music Group)