Boston is a strange city in many ways. Not only does it boast a baseball team that is allegedly cursed never again to win a major trophy it is also one of the few cities not do have a dedicated smooth jazz radio station. Despite one recent failed attempt Boston is a smooth jazz dry city making it that much more difficult to find the promotion to attract the sort of live acts that cities like Chicago routinely do.
Consequently such events are joys to savour and one such tasty morsel came along on September 22 with the appearance of Rick Braun at the intimate Scullers Jazz Club.
Despite the fact that it was already heavily charting in the smooth jazz listings, Braun was on the road to promote his latest CD release Esperanto and to the crowd who packed out Scullers he was quite simply sensational. While the genre groans with saxophone overload top notch trumpet players remain uncommon and that perhaps is one of the reasons why Braun has created his own exclusive niche on the smooth jazz scene. Another reason is that Braun is one of those live performers who possess real star quality and this asset was evident in spade fulls that night in Boston.
With a tight band that included the excellent Mitch Forman on keyboards Braun showcased Esperanto his long-anticipated follow-up to the 2001 Warner Bros. Records debut Kisses In The Rain. The album is a wistful reference to a language created in the late 19th century by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, who used the pseudonym ‘Dr. Esperanto’ to facilitate communication between people of different lands and cultures. Braun is on hand here with the message that music is truly the transcendent universal language.
A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, trumpeter Rick Braun first surfaced as a member of the jazz-fusion outfit Auracle, formed while he was a student at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. After two LPs the group disbanded and Braun turned to songwriting. He scored a hit for REO Speedwagon with ‘Here with Me’; but in time directed his focus to contemporary jazz, releasing his solo debut Intimate Secrets in 1993.
Yet Rick's initial move to contemporary jazz came about by accident. He travelled to Toronto to try and get an audience for several of his demo tapes. One music publisher who listened to Rick's instrumentals suggested that he contact Mesa - Bluemoon, whose main offices were only two miles from his home in Studio City.
After touring with Sade on her Love Deluxe tour, he was back in the studio in 1994 with Night Walks as well as the seasonal release Christmas Present. The Sade influence hangs heavy on Night Walks that has been likened to listening to Sade instrumentally.
His popularity was on the up curve with his 1995 Beat Street the influence for which Braun attributes to his days in the 80’s touring with the band War. A year later came Body and Soul, that launched the NAC chart-topper ‘Notorious’ and topped the contemporary jazz charts for no less than 13 consecutive weeks. His next release Full Stride, topped the charts for 20 weeks, and his numerous collaborations with artists Richard Elliot, Brian Bromberg, Chris Standring, Jeff Golub, Peter White and 3rd Force led to multiple No. 1 records.
Already a two-time winner of the Gavin Report's smooth jazz artist of the year award, he returned in 1998 with South Of Midnight. A more recent highpoint was his collaboration with Boney James on the 2000 release Shake It Up that helped the two of them perform to audiences in the United Kingdom. Kisses in the Rain followed a year later.
Braun’s pedigree is impeccable having worked as a side man on tour with such rock and pop stars as Rickie Lee Jones, Sade, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole, Tom Petty, Crowded House, Phoebe Snow and of course, War.
In his colourful liner notes for Esperanto, Braun conveys the album's distinctive Euro-vibe influences with images of folks from various European countries sitting on an Italian portico, speaking different languages amongst themselves. Wafting over the conversations from inside the house is the music of Miles Davis, one of Braun's idols. ‘The idea is that music is a link between these people of varied backgrounds, a healing force that brings them together’. It creates an atmosphere of mutual understanding’.
Braun's finely cultivated eye for fruitful musical collaborations continues on Esperanto. It features two tracks co-written and co-produced with keyboard legend Jeff Lorber In addition the likes of Gerald Albright, keyboardist Gregg Karukas and long-time Braun keyboard player Mitch Forman all guest as part of this eclectic mix of smooth jazz flavours.
The album also includes cuts created with Rhodes player Johnny Britt, the moody chill tune ‘To Manhattan with Love’, keyboard player Tim Gant, from the band Chicago, drummer Tony Moore and long-time Dave Koz bassist Bill Sharp.
Esperanto's first single is ‘Green Tomatoes’, an old school, Les McCann flavoured retro-funk explosion written by Braun over a groove originally composed by the popular London based acid jazz outfit 45DIP. In Boston Braun had some fun with this one having been approached before the show by a member of the audience who told Rick he didn’t think much of the track as the choice for the single. Before playing the tune he retold the story and then at its completion asked the self appointed critic if he had had a change of mind. The feedback was thankfully in the affirmative. Included on this track on the album are Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown who kick it up to tremendous effect.
On explaining his motivation for the Esperanto project Braun recalls the risk taking approach he took to his 1995 breakthrough recording Beat Street. ’The trumpet wasn't an accepted smooth jazz instrument at the time’, he explains, ‘but I was making some strong inroads. I just did what felt right for me and enjoyed the process, and it became a very successful record. I had just got back from a visit to the Northern region of Italy when I began to write for Esperanto, and the romantic Euro vibes were just running through me. It was all about how I felt at the time, and the music evolved organically. One cultural difference I notice about Europeans is that they move at a more leisurely pace than we do. The slower unfolding pace permeates the album, and in a few cases I forgo traditional song form, create longer intros and wait longer to get to the hook. Trance and lounge music played a big part in the inspiration.’
Those who were there on September 22 can certainly testify to that.
New live CD by Onaje Allan Gumbs Return to Form, Live at the Blue Note (Half Note Records)
After years of perfecting a piano touch regarded by many as state-of-the-art, Gumbs has re-emerged to lead an acoustic group, his first foray heading a traditional jazz ensemble for an entire recording project.
Onaje first established his reputation playing with trumpet great Woody Shaw, from whom he developed a rich harmonic palette and a keen feel for melody. His writing and arranging owe much to artists as diverse as Henry Mancini, Horace Silver and Gil Evans.
Album selections include originals "Left Side of Right" (a nod to Eddie Harris and Les McCann), "First Time We Met" and "Quiet Passion", as well as John Coltrane's "Equinox" and Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream.
Onaje Allan Gumbs leads a group that features bassist Marcus McLaurine (Clark Terry, Cleo Laine), drummer Payton Crossley (McCoy Tyner), percussionist Gary Fritz (Roberta Flack) as well as special guest, saxophonist Rene McLean."
The CD will be distributed by Ryko Disc. Street Date: November 7, 2003, get it here at Amazon.com.
The seventh annual Times Square West Celebration at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine presented by Sycuan Casino & Resort is the West Coast’s premier New Year’s Eve Celebration.
Times Square West, modeled after New York’s historic New Year’s Eve Celebration and Ball Drop, gained international recognition after portions of the event were broadcast world wide during the 2000/2001 Millennium Celebration. Now recognized as a San Diego institution - Times Square West is covered extensively by the media during the weeks leading up to the celebration and is carried live by many of the county’s top television stations throughout the evening.
The midnight spectacular features a 15-minute choreographed show that includes pyrotechnics, lasers, video screens, contemporary soundtrack and 500 pounds of confetti shot from 24 cannons as a specially designed Ball is lowered outdoors from the 16th-floor of the Hyatt Regency La Jolla.
The Hyatt Regency and the Aventine complex will host an array of electrifying performances on five stages beginning at 7 pm. This year’s attendees will spend the final hours of 2003 in style while enjoying the smooth jazz sounds of the Smooth Jazz Super group - Guitars, Sax and more featuring individual performances by saxophonist Richard Elliot, guitarist Peter White, sax man Steve Cole and Guitarist Jeff Golub before midnight - then together after midnight in the Hyatt’s Grand Ballroom. Plus the incredible Disco Pimps will keep you dancing all night long in the glass enclosed Barcino Pavilion along with more dancing to swing band Big Time Operator in Michael's, a Steel Drum band on the Aventine Courtyard and San Diego's hottest DJ Maximum Impact featuring Greg Rackley on two dance floors under the stars in the clear Copa Tent.
A limited number of advance purchase tickets are currently on sale for $99 each and include unlimited access to the event including five stages of entertainment, party favors, complimentary light hors-d’oeuvres from 7:30 to 9:30 pm, and the unbelievable outdoor Times Square West Midnight Ball Drop and laser light show.
Guaranteed dinner reservations at one of the four unique restaurants at the Aventine can also be arranged at the same time that you purchase your tickets.
A limited number of standard and Regency Club room packages are also available.
Call Times Square West today: (858) 552-6000
Artists confirmed to date:
Guitars, Sax and more featuring
· Richard Elliot
· Peter White
· Jeff Golub
· Steve Cole
Big Time Operator
DJ Greg Rackley
Steel Drum Band
In the fall of 2000, I had the distinct pleasure to experience a week of paradise mixing two of the great loves of my life — smooth jazz and travel to exotic, windswept places with miles of golden beaches and aqua blue water. For one week, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ venerable SS Norway headed from Miami to the Western Caribbean, in the process magically transforming into a smoothie experience of a lifetime.
Imagine lolling on the beach in St. Maarten and shopping in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas by day, then listening to Craig Chaquico, Jonathan Butler, Patti Austin and Warren Hill at night? For genre fans who love personally mingling with their favorite stars, I thought, what could be more exciting than having them as a captive audience on a ship, surrounded only by breeze and blue, for a week?
While I was enjoying my fancy suite with a view, the outstanding shows and my first dips ever into the steamy tides of the Caribbean, Warren Hill struck up some interesting conversations with Peter D’Attoma, owner for 25 years of the Akron, Ohio based Davinci Travel Group, which signed on a large contingent of Midwestern based fans for the cruise. Both on board and throughout the following months, the two discussed what they liked and disliked about the event, and how they might have made it an even greater experience.
In the meantime, the original promoters’ goals of making this an annual event fell through, creating an opening for Hill and D’Attoma’s talks to take shape as an upcoming, exciting new reality. On January 18, 2004, the Italian based Costa Cruise Lines’ Costa Atlantica sets sail from Miami for a weeklong jaunt through the Western Caribbean, including stops in Key West, Cozumel, Ocho Rios (Jamaica) and Grand Cayman. Over two thousand enthusiastic smooth jazz fans will be joined by a slate of genre all-star performers — Peter White, Jeff Golub, Kirk Whalum, Chieli Minucci, Euge Groove and Marion Meadows (who played on the 2000 cruise) — in addition to singer Angela Bofill and popular flutist Alexander Zonjic. Their host? None other than the guy who booked them, Warren Hill, who also happens to be headlining.
“There are a lot of great jazz festivals out there, but our goal is to create a one of a kind experience, mixing the luxuries of a world class cruise line, the beauty and fun of these tropical islands and nights full of the best smooth jazz artists I know,” says Hill. “A lot of those signing up are first time cruisers who used to think ships were full of retirees. We’ve been successful at showing them that the audience will be the types that attend most of the regular festivals. There’s so much potential to make this the ultimate event.
“Peter knows the travel and cruise business,” he continues, “and I know the artists and managers, so we each have our strengths. Both schedule wise and creatively, I could look at the gig from an artist’s perspective. I like to think I’m creating a dream gig for myself, and I simply made a wish list of artists and started making calls. We’re basically offering them and their families a great working vacation. January seemed to be the perfect time to both cure the post Christmas blues for some, and offering something more fun and self-indulgent for those whose holidays are full of stressful obligations.”
While the more challenging elements of Hill’s role have instilled in him a newfound respect for what promoters go through, he’s excited about the prospect of creating an ongoing event, annually or perhaps bi-annually. “Already, as the buzz has got going and the best cabins (which start at $829 per person, double occupancy) are selling out, other artists are calling me, wondering why I didn’t ask them,” he says. “I really believe that if everything goes as well as we expect it to, artists will be calling me to sign up for the next cruise. It’s fun to create this kind of excitement.”
Hill describes the Costa Atlantica enthusiastically, noting all of its lush amenities, from a top of the line spa and health club to lovely Italian décor and great food, plus the Coral Lounge, which is actually a lounge made from a bed of coral! Also key are the concert facilities, including the 1,300 seat theatre and secondary lounge which will accommodate Hill’s goal of featuring a total of four artists a night for six nights, plus a midnight jam session for the headliners and their supporting players. Hill is also trying to coordinate a series of master classes, taught by some of the featured musicians, for passenger fans who are also fledging players. Smooth Jazz TV will be on board, chronicling the festivities for fans who need further proof that this may just be the genre’s premier event for years to come.
SMOOTH AFRICA ARRIVES: In conjunction with the magazine’s world music issue this past May, I featured an interview with Dave Love, President of Heads Up Records whose love for the music and beauty of South Africa (and appreciation of that country’s explosive interest in smooth jazz) has led him to create the Smooth Africa recording franchise. Smooth Africa II, the long awaited sequel to the 2000 release, is every bit as spirited, funky and celebration-driven as the first, an exciting cultural exchange featuring label artists (and popular SA live attractions) Joe McBride, Andy Narell and even Spyro Gyra (an immediate smash hit when they played the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival) jamming between tracks by heretofore unsung (at least to us Americans) native performers and some we Stateside fans know well, including the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The more notable of these are guitarist Jimmy Dludlu (who drives the playful rhythms of “Walk of Life”), singer/guitarist Allou April (joined by a lush wordless vocal chorus on his Cape Town hit “Bringing Joy”) and vocalist/guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi, one of the country’s greatest stars whose raspy tones capture the gentle emotions of “Neria,” title song from a Zimbabwean film soundtrack. McBride’s happy keyboard funk and Andy Narell’s cool island “Punch” are joined by several local musicians. The title of Spyro Gyra’s festive closer “Cape Town Love” sums up the vibe of this engaging international extravaganza.
RISING STARS: Keep your ears attuned to three new solo artists currently trying to break into the ranks of the tightknit handful of regulars we see on the charts and festival lineups over and over. Smooth jazz has never been overly kind to violinists, despite the moderate success of brilliant composers and performers like Doug Cameron and Charlie Bisharat (both of whom have been off the commercial radar for a few years). A cool, midtempo burst of passion like Noel Webb’s “Fever” (from The Soul of Noel Webb on Labrador Records) could change the instrument’s fortunes. He’s romantic and melodic, into great grooves and slick production, and — if programmers would give him a shot - radio friendly.
I’ve only heard the crisp, brass-tinged funk single “She’s So Fine” by Blake Aaron (from Bringin' It Back on Innervision Records), but his slick electric guitar packs some strong, Jeff Golub-like punch, and Greg Adams’ trumpet adds snazzy texture. An even better guitarist, and one you’ve probably heard before working for the likes of Quincy Jones, David Foster, Whitney Houston and George Duke, is Ray Fuller. His R&B driven self-released debut The Weeper (A Ray Artists Music) is chock full of his all-star pals — Eric Marienthal, Everette Harp, Phil Perry, Teri Lynn Carrington, Ricky Lawson, and George Duke, who gave him his nickname. While Fuller’s crisp, precise electric strings and brilliant mix of material (both originals and covers of classics from Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane and Teena Marie) stand out, it’s clear that he’s enjoying interacting with the company.
EDUCATIONALLY SPEAKING: This being Jazziz’s education issue, I took it upon myself to ask saxman/cruise talent booker Warren Hill the name of his greatest teacher on his chosen instrument. It took him about two seconds to mention Joe Viola, longtime head of the woodwind department at Berklee College of Music.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Shapes, The Last Farewell (Burnin’ Down the House Productions) – How could someone not appreciate six of L.A.’s top session/club cats (Roger Burn, Michael Higgins, Andy Suzuki, etc) joining with a couple of Yellowjackets (including producer Jimmy Haslip) for a genre-defying jam session that goes bop, bossa, ballad and even a little twangy steel guitar country at times?
2) Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Hip-O Records)
3) Annie Lennox, Bare (J Records)
4) Lizz Wright, Salt (Verve)
5) American Idol Season 2: All Time Classic Love Songs (RCA)