Show time: Thursday evening, March 18, 2004
It�s always a match made in heaven � Berks Jazz Fest music fans and their artists. And that was never more obvious than at the Berks Jazz Fest�s All Star Jazz Jam, held March 18th, 2004, at the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was a night the house was, well, brought down and simply stayed there!
I'm not sure it can be described in mere words, but let me try! It could not have happened before, nor will it happen again, in quite the way it did tonight! It was like adding artist after artist until you reached ten people, but put them together and it seems you multiplied instead of added! The exponential synergy of this particular all star jazz jam was nothing short of truly *star* quality!
Take a look at the line-up! Chuck Loeb (the one who pulls it all together) and Chieli Minucci (guitars), Jeff Kashiwa, Jimmy Sommers and Kenny Blake (sax), Gerald Veasley (bass), Joe McBride and Freddie Ravel (keyboards), Rayford Griffin (drums), Rick Braun (trumpet). With a gathering of such talent, I knew what the night could bring!!
Here�s the scene on stage. Freddie and Joe framing the picture on opposite sides of the stage with Rayford in center back. Gerald, in between the drummer and Joe, stood toward the back. In fact, he seemed to have a nice little room of his own back there. Across the stage, from left to right, we have Chuck, Chieli, Jimmy, Jeff, Rick, and Kenny. Of course there was some moving around, moving front and back, a very minimal amount of �stage-leaving�, walking across to talk to a fellow artist, but basically the group stayed in this �formation.�
Now picture Joe McBride leading the song "Summertime" on the keyboard and singing the vocals. Here is an artist who is an amazing performer. When vision cannot distract, music seems to take a faster path from the heart to its expression, and I grew to love this about listening to Joe, both in his earlier show of the evening and during the late night All Star Jazz Jam.
Behind Joe is Gerald Veasley, bobbing his head back and forth, up and down, the way he does, reassuring us with his typical signature sign of bliss with the bass. He admitted in the earlier show that he sometimes goes into his own world, and we all know that when Gerald is there, all is well with the song and the world, so we don�t mind a bit! He's so motivating by virtue of the sheer fun he's having. His smile is contagious to anyone in the band who glances at him. Watching him makes me want to bob my own head up and down, back and forth. And for artists who are already having fun, they simply have more fun after looking at him.
Gerald and Rayford Griffin had a lot of fun in the back where they didn�t think we were watching! They played off each other all night and when others were traveling to faraway places, they were the ones with the working road map to be able to eventually lead everyone else safely home for each song. Rayford had some totally awesome, shining moments which left me wondering how it is humanly possible to hit all those different pieces of equipment in just the right way and for the length of time involved.
The interdependence of these players is a purely fascinating thing to watch. Something that isn�t seen in songs written with a prescribed progression from beginning to end, appeared so frequently during this night of jamming. There may be a general idea, or even a carefully thought out idea of where a song is headed, but the road winds; there are unexpected bends; someone takes off on a different trail and the others must follow. And follow they did, so very remarkably at times. Take any two of these artists and put them in close proximity and then stand back because sparks are going to fly!
The spotlight was shared so well tonight among all of the artists, and the graciousness with which each of them remained aware of keeping everyone�s contribution in balance was so obvious. During one fast moving number, there was a plan to start on one side of the stage and move to the other side, each one handing off the improvisation to the artist next to him. And so it went, from Joe to Kenny to Rick to Jeff to Jimmy, to Gerald then Chieli then Chuck, to Freddie and back to��.oops, Rick took it and quickly backed out and worked in Joe and Kenny, then to his amazement seemed to realize the drummer had been missed the first time around, and so he kept pointing to the back, to remind everyone to pause and get Rayford in there, too. This was just another example of how one rarely sees evidence of jealousy, or anything akin to one performer trying to upstage another. I see such a great picture, over and over again, of mutual respect, cooperation, synergy and wonderfully productive energy that goes into the final product of jazz music. Artists realize so well how they need each other, how much better each is because the other is there, that it is in the give and take, the working together, that lasting and beautiful results can happen. It occurred to me the world could take a lesson from ten multi-talented musical artists in a jam session!
Chuck Loeb is the consummate producer, unobtrusively and in a totally relaxed state, watching to see that everything is going on cue, reminding of the drum solo coming up, challenging each one to rise to each occasion given to show his stuff and move the music along. And no one disappointed him! I was glad to see Chuck take the lead several times and show what a passionate, extraordinary guitar player he is. He feels it all so deeply and he never seems to be rattled about something not coming off in a certain way he might have planned � he just changes gears and decides on something even better!
Chieli Minucci, in similar fashion as Chuck, is one who watches the overall picture; he's tapping that left foot, and he finds a way to keep playing in support of anyone else who is in the solo position. He can always find something to go with whatever another artist is doing! The only time he might stop playing is when the keyboard players are highlighted and they end up going so far off into their worlds (which is way cool) that before they realize it they are busily creating a whole new song! In those moments, Chieli just waits them out, but when he�s given that one tiny spark of where they�re headed, he�s right back with them. In fact, his face continually seems to reflect the sheer joy of rejoining whoever is playing. And when he gets the chance to add his own interpretation within the song, it�s in the form of the most intricate, spontaneous creations most of us will ever hear!
Speaking of a keyboard player going into his own world during a song, Freddie Ravel has got to be one of the best masters of improvisation I�ve ever seen. He bends low over that keyboard and I think his head is following his fingers, not the other way around. It seems that would be impossible but this is the second year in a row I�ve seen him do it! He can turn a few bars into the start of what could quickly become some kind of symphony! Everything seems to stop when Freddie goes on his journey and no one wants to hurry him back because he takes us to interesting, faraway places along the way.
Many of us have played musical instruments in our past, and being able to read notes on a page is a talent, for sure, but improvising on an instrument is another story entirely, especially with the deadline of a steady beat. I never reached the point of improvising with skill, and so when I watch the artists, I can�t help but try to figure out how much of the actual music is set on paper ahead of time and how much of it is unplanned. I can tell some of it is planned, because they have music stands and they look at what�s coming next, and now and then are reading music. My sense is that there is a framework, then within that framework there are many points of �undefined numbers of measures that will be taken,� and those are the times most of the improvisation occurs. It seems they all know �when� the improvisational part is going to fit in, and different ones seem to have the clear responsibility for it at different times, but now and then I am certain that there is no plan at all. It�s wide open for anyone to take it, and truly, that is an extremely satisfying and fun thing to watch, and there was so much of that this year during the All Star Jazz Jam!
Sitting in the front row and studying each player the way one can in that spot, made me realize a lot of things. The players interact not only musically, but also verbally and with facial expressions. It seems one of them always has a thought to share with the artist next to him, or the artist across the stage, and it�s no problem to simply walk from one side to the other while playing in order to share that thought. Sometimes it appears to be a question that needs an answer right away; other times it�s to banter back and forth about something that just happened; sometimes it�s almost as if one of them has thought of something important they meant to tell another one, and now might be the best time to tell them before it�s forgotten! For all we know, they�re making plans for future concerts, or social gatherings, or commenting on each others� playing or clothes. Who knows?? But it�s obvious there is a lot of communication going on. The facial expressions are priceless. The sheer determination of getting through a demanding solo part, the smile and wink of joy to have nailed it just right, the encouragement and admiration of each others� performances, the knowing look when something hasn�t gone quite as planned, the triumph when someone was forced to make great tasting lemonade out of lemons, it�s all there and it adds so much to the fun of watching the show! It seems to me that the more a band is really pumped and enjoying themselves, the more this communication goes on. They have to relate in these other ways, in addition to relating musically. It�s part of the bond that says, we�re in this together and we�re going to see it through one way or the other. How fascinating!
There was a theme tonight and it was called Miles, Monk and Motown, as in Davis, Thelonius, and well, Motown is self-explanatory. "Summertime", "When I Fall in Love", "I Heard it Through the Grapevine", "Well You Needn�t" � all these were songs I recognized, yes, but for the first time I didn�t mind if I didn�t know the song! That is very unusual for me, ask my friends in music! These artists could have played all night, one artist taking the lead where the other left off, adding to it as they went along, and it would have been fine with me. I grew to a new level of music appreciation tonight, thanks to this awesome combination of talent!
Jimmy Sommers, who I had never heard before, turned out to be a great addition to the jam. They call him �face� because he�s so good-looking, and it is true that since the show I�ve referred to him as having such a nice, you got it, �face!� Of course to many fans, it�s not really true that he�s better-looking than the rest of the artists on stage! Or should I say more attractive. Some very seasoned jazz faces are so appealing to us as jazz fans. Our older senior citizen �mascot� of a fan, named Lil, who has been attending shows for twelve years with her son who drives her here from Baltimore, for instance, is still trying to decide which one is cuter of the following: Jimmy, Chieli, or Chuck. When pressed, she says with a laugh, �I can handle more than one!� Here�s an older gal with an intact, very young heart of jazz!
Kenny Blake is another artist I heard for the first time in person, although the Heads Up Super Band CD (which includes Joe and Gerald and Keith Carlock on drums!) is in my CD player a lot these days as a real favorite! Kenny has the respect of his peers, of that I am certain, and when he had the baton passed his way, he could really run with it. I sat there realizing that his whole being simply IS music, and I loved hearing what he did with his solo every time.
Jeff Kashiwa is one of the happiest players I�ve ever watched. He has a way of taking it all in stride, he�s always ready, he doesn�t seem pressured, and brings his part home every time. The ease with which he plays and the power and strength he seems to have while playing are nothing short of amazing! Looking into the eyes of the artist he�s jamming with always brings that wonderful smile, impossible to hide even with the saxophone in his mouth! Watching him always makes me glad to be where he is!
Rick Braun did his share of taking the music in fascinating and innovative directions. Chuck seemed to count on him in a unique way to take it all to a new height (as a trumpet does) and, wow, did he deliver every time! His most noteworthy contribution to that, in addition to simply his mega skill in handling the trumpet, I thought, was during the encore song (you�ll pardon me if it doesn�t matter to me what the title was?)! It was a great encore, everything had run its proper course, and then it seemed to be ending at Rick�s doorstep. He hit notes that were a good fit and ushered in an appropriate ending. But as he bowed over to play that last lower note, something in him seemed to say, �no, this is not the BEST ending we could have. I�m going to crank it up one more time and see what we can do with this.� The rest of the song was unbelievable. I was so taken by all that happened next, that I don�t even know how to describe it. Everyone got back in for something, and I was certain this had to be the best of the unplanned jamming of the night. What a high! What a great recap to the entire evening! When it was all over, I knew that I was never going to �need� a recurring melody line again during the rest of my jazz life! Not when artists of this caliber are on stage, anyway!
And so this became an unforgettable night for me, a night of deepening appreciation for what is in the heart and soul of all the musicians now standing and bowing before me. And I can�t wait for more! And if you can�t either, you might be helped by at least picking up one, or all, of the most recently released CDs of this amazing group of artists, listed here for your convenience!
Kenny Blake An Intimate Affair
Rick Braun Esperanto
Rayford Griffin Rebirth of the Cool
Jeff Kashiwa Simple Truth
Chuck Loeb eBop
Joe McBride Keepin� It Real
Freddie Ravel Freddie Ravel
Jimmy Sommers Lovelife
Special EFX featuring Chieli Minucci Party
Gerald Veasley Velvet
Happy Happy Jazzin�
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
March 18, 2004
Photo credits, Michael Packard, March, 2004
It's columnist Beverly Packard�and�husband and photographer, Michael, with guitarists Chuck Loeb and Chieli Minucci at the Berks All Star Jazz Jam.