17th annual Long Beach Jazz Festival

LongBeachJazzFest.jpgThe 17th annual Long Beach Jazz Festival took place August 13-15 in Rainbow Lagoon Park in Long Beach, California. Sponsored by Bank of America and a host of others and organized by jazz drummer Al Williams, it included a wide selection of first rate artists. Also a part of the festival were winners of the "Jazz Talent Search" 2004 - an event Williams founded in 2002 with the goal of promoting new jazz talent giving the winners the opportunity to perform in front of thousands and help the genre throw. During the festival host Al Williams personally introduced the artists, most of whom he calls his friends.

Here are my impressions from this festival.

I opted to attend the festival in the VIP section that is located right in front of the stage and grants backstage access. Although you were not allowed to actually go backstage, you could at least stick around in this area where the chance of meeting artists is higher. Tickets for these seats included a separate entrance, seating at a table complete with food and wine, and a good view to the stage. It�s fun to meet those sharing the table with you. Behind the VIP section is the boxed seat area with numbered seats while the rest of the park is taken up with people setting up their umbrellas, blankets, picnic chairs etc. creating a cool festival atmosphere. The number of attendees over the weekend usually exceeds 30,000 people. The weather was just perfect with blue skies and a cool breeze from the ocean.

KarinaNuvo.jpgFriday evening at 7pm the festival was opened by newcomer Karina Nuvo, a Cuban-American singer who had quite a bit of smooth jazz talent in her band. On keyboards was Dan Siegel, on sax Jeff Kashiwa (replacing the originally scheduled Tom Scott) and trumpet player Johnny Britt from Impromp2. Nuvo�s material ranged from pop songs to songs with a Latin flavor, as in the rendition of EWF's "Shining Star.� Dan Siegel had the opportunity to play the title track from his current CD Inside Out, marking the only smooth jazz spot of this set. To learn more about her and her music, you can check out her work at her site at www.karinanuvo.com.

PeterWhiteLB.jpgAfter the usual 30 minutes break one of the first highlights of the festival for me occurred: guitar player Peter White was on. I had bumped into Peter a short while before the concert and was able to talk to him briefly. He is a nice guy and very approachable person. His set was excellent, showcasing his ability to entertain a crowd with his acoustic guitar playing. He delighted fans with some covers of treasured soul classics like "My Cheri Amour", "The Closer I Get To You" and "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and possibly showing where his musical roots (and probably heart) may lie. This was appropriately followed by his own "Bueno Funk, " bringing the crowd to their feet. In between songs, he told funny stories, and the set ended much too soon after 60 minutes. I wondered where Peter would have taken us if he had had more time.

AlJarreauLB.jpgThe evening ended with singer Al Jarreau who sang material from his new CD Accentuate The Positive, but it wasn�t long before he found himself performing his old hits. His top-notch band was led by Larry Williams on keys and saxophone. At the beginning of the concert he scatted jazzily, telling us that "this is called jazz" but later during the course of the show had to rely on his pop hits from the 80�s like "Sad And So Distracted" and finally "Roofgarden" to bring the crowd to their feet. I wish I could have heard him in a more intimate setting as he used during his early work. But times are changing and no matter what, in my opinion, Al Jarreau is a world class performer and unique talent.

DonovanMuradian.jpgSaturday the festival was opened at noon by the Donavan/Muradian Quintet, winner of the "Best Mainstream Band" category of the 2004 Jazz Talent Search. The quintet was fronted by sax player Chuck Manning and trumpet player Kye Palmer with Curtis Brengle on piano, Larry Muradian on bass and Jeff Donavan on drums. I wholly enjoyed their swinging and occasionally grooving straight-ahead playing. Despite having had only 30 minutes of playing time, they left a lasting impression and I enjoyed their set thoroughly.

JulieBurrell.jpgThe next 30 minutes were devoted to Julie Burrell, winner in the "Vocals" category of the 2004 Jazz Talent Search. Originally hailing from Austin, Texas, Burrell relocated to Long Beach in 1999 and currently performs in the local club scene. She possesses a strong voice and good phrasing, delivering supper-club jazz and blues. Check out her new CD JulieJazz at her site at www.julieburrell.com. I had a good time listening to her as well.

TommyAros.jpgMarkEvans.jpgThe first big name act to come up Saturday afternoon was Fattburger, the ever reliable and genre defining group from Southern California. Fattburger members are Carl Evans Jr. on keyboards, Mark Hunter on bass, Kevin Koch on drums, Tom Aros on percussion and Evan Marks on guitar. They opened the concert with the track "Sizzlin,� the title track from their CD of the same name which gave Evan Marks the first chance to stretch out. They played some classic songs like "Who Put That Meat In My Bed?" from their vast catalog and cool cover versions of "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va" showing their Latin inclination. Fattburger is a joy to listen to and for me represent my idea of laid back, easy going Southern Californian smooth jazz to the fullest.

Next were the Jazz Crusaders, whose name caused some confusion. After Wayne Henderson split with buddies Wilton Felder and Joe Sample, there was some arguing about the use of the "Crusaders" name. It appeared to be settled by having Wilton Felder/Joe Sample use the "Jazz Crusaders" name, with Wayne Henderson adding "and the Next Crusade" to his name. And so I was expecting to see Joe Sample and Wilton Felder but learned instead that Wayne Henderson and band was scheduled. I like Wayne Henderson, I just wish the name problem could be cleared up.

WayneHenderson.jpgWayne Henderson is a living legend, not only as a member of the original Crusaders, but also as a producer during the 80�s and 90�s (there even was a time I was collecting Wayne Henderson productions!). Wayne was dressed like a cook with an apron, claiming to have come to cook for us. He had a sax player in his band helping him to recreate the original Crusaders sound (but when soloing didn't reach the level of a Wilton Felder). Wayne played old Crusaders hits like "Buck Stomp Dance� and "Keep That Same Old Feeling," with the audience singing along. He finished his set by bringing Jean Carne to the stage singing "Street Life," a stellar performance. Wayne helped us all have a good time during this old school set.

BillyPaul.jpgDuring the later afternoon it was time for three classic soul singers to enter the stage. First it was Billy Paul, with his velvety voice, delivering his old classics like "This Is Your Life,� "Let Them In" and the beautiful "Me and Mrs Jones" to a very receptive crowd singing along to each of his songs. Next was the inimitable Jean Carne singing, among others of her classics, "Love Don't Love Nobody.� She put her heart and soul in every note she sang turning out to be an absolutely consummate performer. Despite being a mother of three she still continues to tour six months out of the year and is totally committed to her art. Last we heard Michael Henderson, who performed "Valentine Love", "You Are My Starship" and after having grabbed his bass "Wide Receiver" with some funky bass playing starting the party. I caught myself thinking that it�s a shame this type of music is not made anymore. The sheer class and soul of these performers was not only bringing memories but was also touching my soul in a way I had almost forgotten was possible. It was beautiful to have these at the festival. Thanks to Al Williams for inviting them.

CulbertsonLington.jpgAt 7pm it was time for one of my all-time favorites: Brian Culbertson featuring Michael Lington on saxophone. I had never seen Brian Culbertson before and knew that I was in for a treat. They opened the show with a splash, being in a party mood right away. The camaraderie was obvious with them jamming together and having a good time. Michael Lington, who was born and raised in Denmark and moved to the US in 1990, has become a smooth jazz star himself. He played a hot sax and made a great team with Brian Culbertson who was grooving at the keyboards which were located at center stage. The dynamic showmanship of all involved provided a great show and when Brian picked up his trombone to join in with Michael Lington and his father Jim Culbertson on trumpet in a wild horn frenzy, at that point the music went trough the roof. Brian also was a perfect entertainer, talking to the crowd and providing lots of fun, also when playing soft romantic songs on his keys. His rendition of EWF's "Serpentine Fire" was a beauty as well and had the crowd on their feet. It was a great show and this hour went by too fast. I have to see this guy again and hope that he will be allowed to play at least two hours! Great stuff!

Sanborn.jpgThe evening was concluded by sax legend David Sanborn, who had his work cut out for him after the powerful performance of Brian Culbertson and Michael Lington. But his sound is unique and his style founded a whole new school of playing the saxophone with all current smooth jazz sax players indebted to him. So his performance was warmly received and people continued to dance in front of the stage. He gave us his classic songs like "Chicago Song", "As We Speak" and "Lisa" among others. He was expressively improvising over a heaving backbeat, showing his incredible class as sax player. He concluded the evening with "Coming Home Baby" from his current CD. It was truly a privilege to witness this artist.

Sunday at noon I was there again to check out the AC Timba Jazz Band, who won in the "Latin" category of the 2004 Jazz Talent Search. Unfortunately their longtime leader Juan Sanchez Oliva passed away a short time before the festival, which may have hampered demonstration of a performance up to their fullest ability. The band consists of a rhythm section, piano, sax and trombone out-front. Nevertheless they provided a solid Latin set which seemed to appeal to the gathering crowd.

SteveColeLB.jpgThe first big name act at 1:30pm was sax player Steve Cole and band, who flew in just for this concert from Chicago. They were here to have a good time and so were we. Steve Cole played with a lot of heart and expression delivering one great song after the other, backed by his great band who had their own solo spots in which to shine as well. With hit albums Between Us and NY LA under his belt, which are regularly played at smooth jazz radio, Steve Cole has become another one of smooth jazz finest artists. His set was full of energy and enthusiasm bringing the crowd to their feet and providing the first highlight. He even dared to ignore his time limit saying that he didn't come all the way from Chicago to leave now and gave us one more to our delight. I talked to him and part of the band after the concert. They all turned out to be nice and friendly guys. This concert was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

AlWilliamsNikiHarris.jpgNext was the Al Williams Jazz Society, featuring Niki Harris on vocals. Al Williams is not only the founder of the Long Beach Jazz Festival and promoter of new jazz talent, he is also a noted jazz drummer deeply rooted in the jazz community. His band consists of veteran musicians like music director Nolan Shaheed on trumpet, Dave Bradshaw on keyboards, Nedra Wheeler on bass, Charles Owens on saxophone and Tony Poingsett on percussion. Later during the concert singer Niki Harris joined the band. Niki Harris is the daughter of late jazz pianist Gene Harris and provided a lot of energy to the show. Also sitting in was Wayne Henderson on trombone. They played mostly mainstream jazz but in a groovy and accessible way. Among the tunes played was Eddie Harris' "Cold Duck Time" which I particularly enjoyed.

Kem.jpgWith Kem came a performer many had been waiting for. His first CD Kemistry just went gold and he is a very respected figure in the industry. Clad in white, he sat at his keyboards center stage singing songs which have a lot of meaning. As he pointed out during the concert, he went through his share of troubles with drug and alcohol addiction, but has now not only found his faith but also a successful way of living with his music. His voice and style are unique and his performance brought this special vibe over. He had a first class band with sax player Dave McMurray being the most notable one. Dave opened and closed the show with his sax playing and colored many songs with his horn. I was delighted to see him to be part of this band and met him after the concert, when he told me that some new material from him is coming soon. We will watch for that, Dave!

RoyAyersLB.jpgAt 6pm it was time to welcome vibes maestro Roy Ayers to the stage. Right from the start, the band was grooving, causing us to be in the right party mood. During the first 10 minutes, Roy was just singing a little and hanging around at the stage, occasionally taking the place of one of his background singers while this one was allowed to show his soulful singing capabilities. Then the guitar player had his solo, then it was sax player Ray Gaskins who got his solo spot before Roy decided to involve himself a little more. A cool way to start things off. Then it was time for "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" - which was quite appropriate with the sun burning hot - and Roy playing some mean vibes. "Evolution" followed, as an extended party jam. Again time was up too soon and I wonder where Roy would have taken us had he had more time. This set was fun and a great part of the afternoon. By the way, Roy Ayers' latest CD is called Mahogany Vibe and is available at Tower Records.

GeorgeDuke.jpgNext was George Duke, who is one of the most important figures in the industry, not only as a jazz musician, but as a producer with a career spanning over 30 years. Seeing him is something I was looking forward to and knowing him as I do, I expected to see only musicians of the highest calibre in his band. On bass was Michael Manson, on guitar Ray "The Weeper" Fuller. The drummer was not familiar to me. He had two background vocalists, one of whom was the famous Lori Perry. George started out with some of his old fusion stuff from the era with Stanley Clarke, then gave us a beautiful rendition of "No Rhyme No Reason" with Lori Perry shining on vocals. He then delved deeply into his funk stuff with "Dukey Stick" giving Michael Manson a solo spot and bringing the crowd to its feet again. People were dancing in front of the stage and at the end of the show he even invited one member of the audience to the stage to sing with him. The guy was first a bit puzzled after the microphone was handed to him, but he soon took heart and started to improvise quite well, to the delight of George. The show - which had to stick to the hour which was available - ended far to soon!

PonchoSanchez.jpgAs in every year since the inception of the festival, Poncho Sanchez concluded the festival. The conga player appeared with his sharp band and horn section delivering his mix of Latin jazz, Salsa and more. The receptive crowd kept on dancing in front of the stage and when he went funky with "Out Of Sight" he finished this great festival on a good note. At 10pm the festival was over.

This 17th issue of the Long Beach Jazz Fest was a great collection of sounds featuring artists from a broad spectrum of music. We heard some smooth jazz greats like Peter White, Brian Culbertson, Michael Lington, Fattburger and Steve Cole, we had vintage acts from the old school like Wayne Henderson, George Duke, Roy Ayers, Al Jarreau and David Sanborn, we got our share of soul and R&B from people like Billy Paul, Jean Carne, Michael Henderson and newcomer Kem, and there even was some mainstream, straight-ahead and Latin jazz thrown in for good measure like Al Williams, the Donavan/Muradian Quintet and Poncho Sanchez. All of this music fit together and the selection of artists made up a varied, interesting and stimulating program showing the desire of Al Williams to keep the artform viable, give older artists a chance to shine and new talent an opportunity to appear.

Looking back, personal highlights of the festival were the appearances by Brian Culbertson/Michael Lington and Peter White, both of which presented the most entertaining and crowd pleasing shows; singer Jean Carne who simply blew me away with her totally committed and heartfelt performance; George Duke for being such a consummate performer and artist who provided a good time; and finally the "Jazz Search 2004" winners who made it worthwhile for me to show up early on the days they performed.

I applaud Al Williams for his work and look forward to attending another Long Beach Jazz Festival in the future. I also send out my greetings to all the nice people I met at the festival (you know who you are) and the artists I met backstage. See you next time!