I am currently spending some time in Los Angeles attending a few smooth jazz concerts and meeting people. So far I have attended concerts by Chieli Minucci & Special EFX, Doc Powell with guest Gary Taylor, the Braxton Brothers, Hiroshima, Joyce Cooling and Norman Brown and was invited to the CD release party of The House Of Urban Groove masterminded by Tony Joseph. Let me give you some of my impressions of these concerts and my stay in the smooth jazz capital LA.
The concert by Chieli Minucci & Special EFX was held at the "Garden Of Eden" as part of the "Live Jazz Wednesday's at the Garden Of Eden" series of The Wave 94.7 radio station sponsored by Lincoln. The "Garden Of Eden" is an upscale club located in West Hollywood decorated with an oriental flair. The layout is a bit spread out with not every seat having an unobstructed view to the stage, which due to space restrictions had to be put right next to the main entrance. I felt a bit disturbed by people circulating in front of the stage during the concert, but obviously this didn't seem to pose much of a problem to others who were dancing in front of the stage. Chieli Minucci had David Mann on sax, Mitch Forman on keys, Dave Hooper on drums, a small Sizilian guy named Kevin Brandon on bass. Despite the aforementioned somewhat distracting factors they did a great job. Chieli played songs from his vast catalog and I was happy that he played one of my favorites, the Stevie Wonder cover of "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" with its rousing climax. Especially David Mann provided a few burning sax solos turning up the heat with the rest of the band delivering a solid background. During the intermission I talked briefly to Chieli and David who both are nice and down to earth guys. Despite their music seems to come straight out of Southern California they operate from Manhattan, NY.
Next evening it was Doc Powell and Gary Taylor at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The concert was part of "Jazz By The Bay at the Queen Mary" series. Set outside right next to the huge Queen Mary ship which now has been turned into a hotel remaining stationary anchored in Long Beach on a nice summer night with a cool breeze from the ocean I was in for a great concert. Doc Powell delivered some phat grooves with his band consisting of two keyboard players (one playing occasionally with Eric Clapton), a great bass player and drummer. Doc Powell showed some considerable skills improvising on guitar with warm sounds out of the Wes Montgomery/George Benson school. He was stretching out and letting it go to the enjoyment of the capacity crowd.
For a few songs guest Gary Taylor stepped in on vocals. Among them was "No Love" and the Bill Withers classic "Ain't No Sunshine" delivered with great style and class despite Gary claiming not to be much of a live performer doing mainly studio work. During the talking between songs Doc Powell not only told us about Luther Vandross recovering from a stroke to be doing quite well (Doc was a member of his band for years and stays close to Luther's family), about his religious beliefs and the fact that he is grateful for his career and the way it has turned out so far. He finished the set with his version of Ramsey Lewis' "Sun Goddess". A great concert and one of the highlights.
Next were the Braxton Brothers and Hiroshima at a very upscale event at the Hyatt Newporter in Newport Beach. The event was part of the Wave's "Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Summer Jazz Series" with sponsor Volvo aiming at the affluent smooth jazz crowd. Included was dinner to be taken in the nice surroundings of the Newporter outdoors, then over to the concert with the stage set in the garden and chairs set up on the lawn. Again it was a beautiful evening and a great setting for the concert. The Braxton Brothers were opening the concert with a short 30 minutes set having them play live over a recorded playback accompaniment. They delivered on sax and bass creating a good mood and upbeat groove despite the lack of a full band.
Then came Hiroshima with longtime members June Kuramoto on koto, Kimo Cornwell on keyboards and leader Dan Kuramoto on keys and woodwinds next to the rest of the band. They delivered their trademark sound which owns a lot to the unique koto playing of June Kuramoto. With a flower in her hair and a fragile smile she brought a lot of flair to the evening. Bandleader Dan Kuramoto was communicating with the crowd while black singer Terry Steele brought the ladies to their feet. When he sang the Isley Brothers classic "Caravan Of Love" everybody was just loving it. Their set was varied running the gamut from asian flavored jazz to pop and soul. This beautiful evening found its end too soon but at 10pm sharp they had to wrap it up.
Sunday afternoon I drove down the Thornton Winery in Temecula where Joyce Cooling and Norman Brown were scheduled. The sun was burning hot and cold drinks were flowing. The show was opened by the Thorntons who welcomed the crowd and introduced the artists. First was guitarist Joyce Cooling with partner Jay Wagner on keys and a great drummer and bass player. She played a nice set but appeared to me lacking a bit of fire so the crowd stayed on their seats.
That changed when Norman Brown entered the stage. His fluid guitar playing blew us away. Having amassed quite a catalog by now he gave us the best from the past 10+ years showing us being a first rate artist. I fondly remember his fun medley featuring a Jimi Hendrix track, "This Masquerade" by George Benson and "Bumpin On Sunset" by Wes Montgomery just ending abruptly asking us if we came here to listen to his stuff or what! After solving some technical problems with a hum they kept the good vibe by playing Stevie's "Too High" and more having the crowd on its feet at the end of the concert. Apart from Doc Powell this was one of the best concerts I have attended this week. On the website of the Thornton Winery you can find out about more upcoming concerts to come.
The Wave 94.7 seems to be rather active in organizing concerts and events with smooth jazz artists which is great. Unfortunately this contrasts to their radio programming. The Wave has been instrumental in the development of the smooth jazz format being the first station on the west coast playing this type of music. When I came to LA I was looking forward to hear the Wave again and discover some new music but soon was a bit disappointed. One problem was the amount of advertising they have. After having heard the Volvo ad for the umpteenth time I was a bit tired wondering if I was listening to an ad or a music station. Second problem was their programming which could be tagged as "safe". I don't consider Kenny G's "Songbird" or Sade's "Smooth Operator" as very original programming (knowing how much good stuff is out there). Besides they mainly play music from non smooth jazz artists like Gladys Knight, Sade, Earth Wind & Fire, Natalie Cole, Vanessa Williams, Anita Baker etc. and throw a smooth jazz track in there only once in while. So after a short while I got fed up with it, got an iPod mini and now program my music myself - without the odd pop song and no ads.
Next will be the Long Beach Jazz Festival which starts tonight - more on that later so stay tuned!