In conjunction with a smooth jazz tribute CD for Luther Vandross due July 27, the Verve Music Group has set up a fund in his name through the American Diabetes Association. The label will also co-sponsor a letter-writing campaign beginning Aug. 3.
There are also conflicting opinions on the state of Vandross' health and what the diabetes-induced stroke he suffered means to his singing career.
Although a tribute album for singer Luther Vandross by some of smooth jazz’s biggest names won’t be released until July 27, you can do something now to help support research into the disease that caused the singer’s stroke on April 16th, 2003. The Verve Music Group, which is releasing Forever, For Always, For Luther, has set up a fund in Luther’s name to support the American Diabetes Association as it works to find a cure and make a difference in the lives of millions of Americans with diabetes. If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation, you can send it to:
American Diabetes Association
Forever, For Always, For Luther Fund
1701 North Beauregard St.
Alexandria, VA 22311
Mary Ida Vandross, Luther’s mother, said in a statement that she appreciates the support of musicians such as Boney James, Kirk Whalum, Mindi Abair, Richard Elliot, George Benson, Paul Jackson Jr., Dave Koz, Brian Culbertson and Rex Rideout, who contributed to the album. “I really enjoy and appreciate this wonderful jazz tribute to my son and his musical legacy,” she says. “I’m hoping that this album will touch you as it has me. And will help to keep Luther in the hearts and minds of his fans around the world.”
The Verve label has added the Write a Lover Letter to Luther campaign. The call to action will be featured inside the upcoming CD, in all advertising, online marketing and point-of-purchase at retail stores. The American Diabetes Association will also promote the campaign. Fans will be invited to send a note to Luther with a contribution to the For Always, For Always, For Luther fund. The letter-writing campaign will begin on Aug. 3rd. The letters will be collected and presented to Luther and his family.
In a related note, there are now plans to a tribute show for Vandross in New York sometime in October featuring many of the artists on the tribute album.
Meanwhile, there are conflicting opinions about Vandross' condition. Singer Richard Marx told the Associated Press he thinks it’s doubtful that Vandross will ever perform again. Marx co-wrote Vandross' smash hit “Dance With My Father.” But Fox News reported that Luther may be thinking of singing again. Luther made the announcement at a fund-raiser at famed Studio 54 in New York. At the event was Nile Rodgers, who created the disco group Chic. Fox News reported that, if he’s ready, Vandross may sing on a new Chic album that Rodgers is assembling for late fall.
“I do hope that Luther will be able to come back," says saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who has performed on numerous of his CDs. It’ll be a hard run, of course. I know a lot of people will be praying for him.”
Saxophonist Michael Lington delivers a CD that should put place him among the smooth jazz elite. Also reviews of new music from George Benson, The Benoit/Freeman Project, Wayman Tisdale, Gerald Albright, Fourplay, Eric Darius, Brian Lenair and Matt Marshak.
Stay With Me
Saxophonist Michael Lington pulls it all together on his fourth CD, a work that should lift him from the fringe and put him on stage with the top-tier of smooth jazz talent. What makes this CD so good? Lington’s a passionate player, who’s had some tasty hits before, of course, but here he picks 10 songs that all work together, gets top producers and writers such as Paul Brown, Brian Culbertson and concentrates of making 10 pop-jazz songs that could all make the charts if given a chance. And it couldn’t hurt that he’s now on Dave Koz’s Rendezvous label, which Lington calls a “musician’s label.”
All you have to hear is the first single and the lead song, “Show Me,” to see that Lington’s shooting for the top. Its guitar intro and sax hook of the year make a bold statement. Just as good is “A New Day,” a slow-tempo groove with another memorable sax hook. The most interesting song here is “Apasionada,” which was written by Michael and Daniel Sembello. Michael Sembello is best known for his “Flashdance” hit “Maniac,” but this song sounds like a movie theme you’ve had bouncing around in your head for a long time. It’s an anthem, much like Gato Barbieri’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry).”
Elsewhere, “Pacifica” is a sunny Rippingtons-like slice of pop, “Two of a Kind” is slow funk featuring guitarist Chuck Loeb, “Call Me Late Tonight” is a tasty ballad featuring Paul Brown on the mixing board and on his guitar, and “Hey You” has a late 1970s vibe and Paul Jackson Jr.’s guitar. Lington closes the CD with a straightforward reading of Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” which is just good enough for a classic song.
Smooth grade: A
The title is ironic now, since this CD was originally to be a collection of all vocal tracks, but the singer/guitarist dropped three songs on the early version and included two songs produced by Paul Brown, “Arizona Sunrise” and “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” the latter of which is quickly climbing the smooth jazz charts. Also added was “Take You Out,” an instrumental cover of a Luther Vandross song produced by Rex Rideout and Bud Harner that’s also included on an upcoming tribute CD called For Ever, For Always, For Luther. The three instrumentals show why Benson, at 61, remains the most copied contemporary jazz guitarist of his generation. The three instrumental songs are that good.
For the rest of the album’s seven vocal tracks, Benson worked with songwriter-producer Joshua Thompson, who has collaborated with such R&B mega-stars as Joe, Alicia Keys, Babyface and Aretha Franklin. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, which include “Cell Phone,” “Black Rose,” “Six Play” and “Missing You.” After all, Benson’s had some of his biggest hits with vocal songs such as “Turn Your Love Around,” “Give Me the Night” and “This Masquerade.” And, really, the vocal songs are pretty darn good. In fact, Irreplaceable may the kind of CD that gets Benson airplay on several music charts.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a classic smooth-jazz CD by Benson, it may be better to shop for the three instrumental songs. But if you’re a fan of both Benson’s – the guitarist and the singer – “Irreplaceable” is a good choice for your player.
Smooth grade: B
THE BENOIT/FREEEMAN PROJECT
The Benoit/Freeman Project 2
Ten years after releasing the first Benoit/Freeman Project recording, pianist David Benoit and guitarist Russ Freeman, of the Rippingtons, are back with a triumphant recording. What makes this 10-song project so good is that, in addition to every song being burn-worthy, it keeps a Southern California laid-back groove throughout while still managing some delightful surprises. Also working in its favor is the interplay between Benoit and Freeman: Benoit has never sounded better or jazzier, and Freeman’s mostly acoustic renderings show that, when he wants to, he can sound every bit as pretty as Peter White or Earl Klugh. Far from being a CD in which the two veterans decide to stretch and try some new things, this CD instead is a present of smooth-jazz candy for their longtime fans.
One of the CD’s surprises is “Two Survivors,” a cover of an old country tune featuring the lovely vocals of country megastar Vince Gill. Another surprise come from the movie-theme-like “Moon Through the Window” and especially “Waiting for the Stars to Fall,” two heart-tugging gems enhanced by the symphonic sound of the Nashville String Section. The strings add grandeur to the CD, especially on the calming “Via Nueve.”
The first single, “Palmetto Park,” sets the tone with Benoit’s subdued intro leading into Freeman’s joyful acoustic guitar picking. Trumpeter Chris Botti adds some spice to “Club Havana,” and vocalist David Pack contributes smooth vocalese to “Montecito.”
A keeper from beginning to end.
Smooth grade: A
When Wayman Tisdale released his first CD almost 10 years ago, he was still scoring points and grabbing rebounds as a professional basketball player. Music seemed like something he wanted to try on the side. With the release of Hang Time, Tisdale’s fifth and strongest CD to date, it’s clear that music is where his heart is and that he’s long-since earned the right to be called a serious musician.
On his debut for Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, Tisdale shows that the chosen instrument, the bass, is just fine for the lead instrument. He plays it like a guitar – like Brian Bromberg and Nelson Braxton of the Braxton Brothers and says he wants his bass to sound like a “melodic vocalist.” He succeeds wonderfully. Hang Time features a mix of 12 funk, old-school-cool and up-to-date R&B songs that boast collaborations with Koz, producer Jeff Lorber (“Creative Juices,” “Everything in You,” “Off Into It”), longtime friend and gospel music producer Tracy Carter (vocal arranger for Oprah Winfrey talent-contest winner LaShell Griffin) and Pieces of Dream co-founder James Lloyd, who wrote and produced the title track.
Tisdale loves the great R&B songs of the ‘70s. As he did with his No. 1 song “Can’t Hide Love” from his last CD, Face to Face, Tisdale reaches back into that for two cover songs: the McFadden and Whitehead dance classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and Smokey Robinson’s seminal “Crusin’,” where you can really hear how Tisdale makes his bass sing. On the Koz collaboration “Better Days,” Tisdale picks the melodic lead on the bass in time with Koz’s sax. On “My World,” a ballad featuring a charming passage mimicking a children’s playground sing-song challenge, Tisdale plays all instruments as well as the bass: acoustic guitar, keyboards and drum programming. The CD closes with “Glory Glory,” a song Tisdale originally wrote and sang on for a gospel CD he released in 2003 called 21 Days.
This is a slam dunk.
Smooth grade: A
Kickin’ It Up
Saxophonist extraordinaire Gerald Albright stays true to his urban-flavored jams and smooth slow jams with his latest, which is already getting the attention of smooth-jazz radio with its fast-rising hit called “To the Max.” Similar to that song is the equally upbeat “4 on the Floor”; a killer hook and melodies Albright’s refined from years of playing make this one of the best car songs of the year, whether you’re cruising down Highway 1 in California or navigating the twisting coastal roads between Marseille and Nice in southern France.
Albright gives us many musical moods. He goes adult contemporary with a cover of John Mayer’s hit “Why Georgia,” which was suggested by GRP executives. He gets downright nasty on “Walker’s Theme,” dedicated to the late sax god Junior Walker. And he goes off into adult-contemporary R&B with “Condition of My Heart,” a Brian McKnight ballad here with vocals by Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men. Albright also slows it down on a cover of the classic R&B ballad from the 1970s, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” And very touching is “Father’s Lullaby,” a song Albright wrote in tribute to his father, who died recently.
Albright gets production help from some big names in the genre, such as Jeff Lorber and Rex Rideout. The result is an urban smooth jazz CD where nothing goes wrong.
Smooth grade: B
Foreplay has always been misunderstood by much of the card-carrying legion of jazz critics, who misinterpret the band’s easygoing groove as background music. But while Foreplay has always remained true to its name – seductive rhythms to get you in the mood – on its new CD, its seventh in 13 years, more than ever the band combines those seductive sounds with some real playing that fans can feast on. It’s no surprise that Foreplay puts the talents of its leaders out front, since the band boasts the talents of superstars Larry Carlton on guitar, Bob James on piano, Nathan East on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.
Journey includes nine original songs and one cover, Sting's "Fields of Gold,” which opens the CD and substitutes Carlton’s acoustic guitar for Sting’s vocals. Carlton gets a workout over a – yes – seductive backdrop. Journey is Foreplay’s “jazziest” CD to date, and this is reflected in songs such as “147 4th St.” and “Overlabor,” both of which showcase James’ jazz piano playing and the improvisational nature of the recording. It’s all done in Foreplay style, however, so longtime fans will no doubt embrace the jazzy turn of events.
There are some classic Foreplay moments: “Roil” is quiet number with vocalize; “Cool Train” throws out a shuffle beat and a bass lead by East; and “From Day One” has a surprising twist about three-quarters of the way through, as when you think it’s over the band comes back for about two more minutes in a new musical direction. And East lends his vocal talents to "Play Around it" and the title track "Journey," which also features Bike Johnson on background vocals and shaker.
Not as consistently good as other Fouplay efforts, but this one is a Journey worth buying a ticket for.
Smooth grade: B
Night on the Town
It’s tough for new artists to create a buzz in smooth jazz these days, so it’s refreshing that the very loud sound coming from Florida is courtesy of a 21-year-old college student named Eric Darius. It was guitarist Ken Navarro who “discovered” Darius’ saxophone at a nightclub and produced his debut CD. Navarro’s band also plays on the CD.
Darius’ music is bright and groove-oriented (he’s even called one song “In the Pocket”), much like fellow saxophonists Kim Waters and Walter Beasley. There so much radio-friendly stuff here, an embarrassment of riches, that you wonder if he’s set himself up for disappointment with future CDs that won’t match his debut. The first single, the title track, is already making a statement on smooth-jazz radio. Like Waters’ biggest hits, it offers a sax line that just doesn’t quit and a melody that comes and goes so fast you’re left drooling, waiting for the next hook to come back. But Darius doesn’t always play that frantically, as he shows on the more softly stated songs “Heads Up” and “Let If Flow.”
Like many young players, Darius has a fondness for the ‘70s, and covers “Love T.K.O.” by Teddy Pendergrass and “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. It’s reassuring to hear these familiar songs lovingly interpreted by a new generation.
What sets Darius apart from other young sax players looking for a break is his uncanny ability to recognize a hook and shake it all day long. For Darius, the important thing is creating memorable pop-instrumental songs where the overall vibe is the thing, not necessarily the playing. The playing is top-notch, too, but the listener is No. 1. It’s worked pretty well for Kim Waters.
Smooth grade: B+
Brian Lenair is a new name on the R&B saxophone scene, and he shows his chops on this 14-song CD, featuring nine songs that he wrote. His first single, “Gone Ridin’,” is a toe-tapping, soprano sax ride that sounds a bit like Kim Waters. It’s a good song. The challenge for smooth sax players with R&B leanings is making their sound stand out from others, but it’s a challenge not too players are willing to take. Lenair is in this group, but that doesn’t mean the music here isn’t worth listening to. It’s just that you know what’s coming – some funk show-stoppers, afterglow ballads and plenty of background vocals.
Lenair draws inspiration from others before him, especially on the throaty sax work on “Forever.” It’s a good song. Likewise, he channels Dave Koz on “Love,” another winner. Over 14 songs, however, it all starts to sound a bit too much alike, and can make for a tough listen all the way through. There are some good moments here, but Lenair needs more hooks and a lot more originality. He also shouldn’t be afraid to solicit help from top smooth jazz producers and writers, but that’s easier said than done. Everybody wants these guys.
Smooth grade: C
This Time Around
Independent artist and electric Matt Marshak was named best smooth-jazz artist by New York radio station CD 101.9 during a search for new artists, so does that mean his sophomore CD is worth your time? It is, although because it’s an independent CD there are a few rough edges which, depending on your tastes, will either be welcomed or skipped over.
Marshak writes most of his material, which is largely funky with pop and rock overtones and clear, crisp production. In the true independent spirit, Marshak’s first two tunes – “Good Evening” and “Tell Me Why” – are smooth in spirit with some quirks, like a “Good evening” spoken refrain and some “funky” unidentifiable sounds, that separate them from standard fare. There’s other good stuff, like his easygoing scatting and vocals on “Autumn Breeze” and “Nu Day,” the latter which sounds like it belong on Steve Oliver’s next CD. “Quietly” is quintessential smooth tune, with Mario Cruz’s soprano sax shining things up, while Marshak’s cover of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” is soulful and the Larry Carlton-esque guitar lead is stunning.
What you’ll either enjoy as sidebars or skip over as breaking the overall smooth vibe are the two vocal tunes and a couple of rocking guitar songs in the middle of the CD that are usually put at the end of a project like this one.
Smooth grade: B
People magazine calls saxophonist Dave Koz one of the world's hottest bachelors.
Dave Koz has been named on of People magazine’s 50 Hottest Bachelors in the issue that hits newsstands on June 18.
It was back in April when Koz announced in Advocate magazine that he was gay. Koz becomes the second high-profile smooth jazz musician to be singled out by the magazine in the last two months: The April 30 edition called trumpeter Chris Botti one of the country’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
Koz joins some pretty select company in Friday's issue, including actors Orlando Bloom and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as rap star Pharrell Williams of the group N.E.R.D.
Koz, 41, would be a good catch. His second No. 1 song from his album Saxophonic, following “Honey-dipped,” is called “All I See Is You.” It’s been at the top of the smooth jazz charts for three weeks. Koz is currently on the Dave Koz and Friends Smooth Summer Nights Tour.
Trumpeter Rick Braun’s upcoming CD will only be available at his Web site and at live shows.
Sessions: Volume 1 is the first album to be released on Braun’s new Internet-based record label, which Braun started earlier this year after he broke ties with his label, Warner Bros. The album was recorded live in the studio in an attempt to capture the energy of a live show and features 11 songs from Rick’s catalog, in addition to a new song called “TGIF,” which features saxophonist Dave Koz and keyboardist Rick Braun.
Songs include "Groovis," "Marty's Party," "Notorious" (with saxophonist Richard Elliot), "Night Walk," “Grazing in the Grass” and "Philadelphia" (with guitarist Jeff Golub). Rick’s studio band on the album consists of Jimmy Roberts, Mitch Foreman, Randy Jacobs, Andre Berry, Rayford Griffin and Luis Conte.
Look for Sessions: Volume 1 to be available later in June, but you can pre-order now at rickbraun.com.
Sessions: Volume 1 Songs
1. Cadillac Slim
2. Notorious (featuring Richard Elliot)
3. Philadelphia (featuring Jeff Golub)
5. Grazing in the Grass
6. Missing in Venice
7. Love Will Find a Way
9. TGIF (featuring Dave Koz and Brian Culbertson)
11. Marty’s Party
Here's an early holiday treat. Peter White will tour with Mindi Abair and Rick Braun this holiday season.
It’s going to be a very merry holiday season, indeed, as trumpeter Rick Braun joins guitarist Peter White and saxophonist Mindi Abair on a Christmas tour this holiday season. It’ll be the second time around for Peter and Mindi, who toured last season as part of the first Peter White Christmas tour, but this year will mark the first time all three have gathered on stage for a holiday show together. At this point, only one show has been confirmed, December 10 at the Inter-Media Art Center in Huntington, New York, but new shows are expected to be announced in the near future. Peter and Rick have both toured in the past with the Dave Koz & Friends: A Smooth Jazz Christmas tour.
Joe Sample is now working on a solo-piano CD.
Pianist Joe Sample will revisit the past – his own with the Crusaders and selections from legends such as Fats Waller – on an all-new solo-piano project of jazz standards called Soul Shadows. In fact, “Soul Shadows” is actually the title song of a Crusaders song written by Sample and Will Jennings in the mid-‘70s. You may remember that Sample re-interpreted “Soul Shadows” on a 1997 album called Sample This, where he also revisited songs from his past, but in a band setting. Sample’s most current CD is from 2002, The Pecan Tree, which featured the #1 hit “X Marks the Spot.” Soul Shadows will be released on the PRA/GRP label in August or early September.
It's not coming out until later this summer, but you can listen to selections from Everette Harp's new CD right now.
Smooth jazz saxophonist Everette Harp has a new album coming out later this summer, but he'd like you to get a sneak preview now. Harp has placed samples of seven of the 12 songs on All For You on his website, everetteharp.com. Each sample is about a minute long, and the songs include “Kisses Don’t Lie,” “Just Like Old Times,” “When Can I See You Again,” “Time of Our Lives,” “I Remember When” and the album’s first single, “Can You Hear Me.” The album, his debut for the A440 Music Group label and the first since 2000’s For the Love, includes guest appearances by keyboardist George Duke and guitarists Norman Brown, Earl Klugh, Paul Jackson Jr. and Dwight Sills. Everette co-produced the album with veteran smooth jazz producer Rex Rideout.
Jazz Under The Stars #2, promoted by Michael Schivo Presents, will feature sax master Richard Elliot, with longtime smooth jazz great, keyboardist Jeff Lorber, on Saturday, July 3rd, at Spring Mountain State Park. The park is located just outside Las Vegas
Dave Koz and Friends heat up July in Vegas at The Sunset Station Hotel. Dave's special guests include Jonathon Butler, Wayman Tisdale, and Rick Braun. The actual date is Friday, July 9th.
On July 31st, The City Of North Las Vegas hosts their annual All About Jazz concert at Aliante Park. The concert will feature two up and coming recording artists, The Steven Lee Group featuring saxman Rocco Barbato; and saxello-saxophonist and composer, Rocky Gordon, and his band, KGB.
Also, don't miss Al Jarreau at The Boulder Station Hotel, August 14th, followed at the same venue by smooth guitar great, Norman Brown, September 25th.
George Benson was the one packing the seats and commanding center stage at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 13, but it was hard to keep eyes and ears off of keyboardist, musical director and overall band cheerleader David Garfield for more than a split second.
Garfield’s appearance at the 14th Annual FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Fest, one of the 50 or so dates he does annually with Benson, added frenetic energy and real jazz chops to a memorable, smooth jazz heavy opening weekend. Whether he was running lightning fast piano solos (be-bop style on “Mambo Inn,” tropical Latin on the 10 minute showstopper “On Broadway”), scampering back towards the percussion and drum kits playing tambourine, calling out changes with a wave of his arm or encouraging the crowd to clap along, Garfield was always in motion. He’s always finding freshness in a routine he knows very well; he’s four years into his second tenure as Benson’s MD, after an original run from 1986 through 1990.
The pace continued after the show in the lobby, as he stuck around to sign copies of his latest, just released solo CD, Giving Back, an eclectic mix of the smooth stuff, fusion and R&B-tinged vocals featuring an impressive lineup of L.A. based musical talent from the city’s studio scene Garfield has been a part of for two decades plus: The Brecker Brothers, Lee Ritenour, Paul Jackson, Jr., Airto Moreira, Eric Marienthal, Michael O’Neill (his Benson bandmate) and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who also plays with Garfield in the L.A. club band Los Lobotomys.
Even as he was gearing up for this year’s dates with Benson, the album’s first single, “Desert Hideaway,” featuring Gerald Albright and June Kuramoto, was the #1 most added smooth jazz single the week it was released. That’s just the tip of the iceberg this year for his independent label, Creatchy Records. Garfield not only runs the company, but also produces the artists he signs, including a new ensemble called Potato Salad, whom he discovered as they were promoting themselves as a “David Garfield cover band.” The group’s debut album, partially recorded live at The Baked Potato in North Hollywood, will be released this year.
The Creatchy catalog now has 20 releases, and its stable of artists, including several by the keyboardist’s own band Karizma, enjoy a loyal following worldwide, from Australia to Japan to all points European. “Running the label myself takes a lot of work, and it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to practice and write songs,” says Garfield, who moved to L.A. from St. Louis thirty years ago, while still in his late teens. “There’s not always a lot of creative time when you’re taking care of business, but I’m very committed to our success. Even though it looks like a lot of hard work when I’m up there with George, I actually like the break it gives me from being totally in charge. I can enjoy being in a supporting role and the different level of responsibility that brings.”
Garfield’s handful of 80’s recordings as a solo artist and with Karizma were so popular in Japan that a big conglomerate there gave him money to start Creatchy Productions and produce eight CDs for other artists - which he fulfilled with projects by Karizma, Phil Perry, Los Lobotomys, Michael Landau and Brandon Fields. It took him a a handful of years to get around to another solo project, but when he did, it was a doozy; Tribute to Jeff, a Quincy Jones like all-star affair dedicated to the music and memory of the late drummer Jeff Porcaro, featured 78 musicians, including pop rockers Don Henley, Eddie Van Halen, Michael McDonald and Richard Marx. To date, it has sold over 50,000 worldwide. Garfield is currently remixing the album for a re-release entitled Tribute to Jeff Revisited, with additional vocals by Phil Perry and Alex Ligertwood.
“Everything in the Creatchy catalog is still selling around the world, including those records I did in the 80s, and that’s proof that American jazz is a great form of expression,” he says. “We’re now a full fledged record company, not just a label, the difference being that I’m responsible for all the manufacturing and marketing. I’m always learning more about the business end of music, but the best thing has always been getting to work with my heroes, like Chick Corea, Horace Silver and of course, George Benson. I love listening to their stories and learning from them. One thing I know after all these years is, you never stop learning.”
BERKS JAZZ FESTIVAL
The one place Garfield was nowhere to be found that night at the Sovereign was the lower level green room, where I snagged a few sacred moments with George Benson after his bandmates left to change for the show. Offering an abundance of the kind of stories the keyboardist is talking about, the down to earth star was eager to share historical anecdotes about Count Basie, segregation for black musicians and his own love for chief influence Charlie Christian. After holding me rapt for twenty minutes, Benson also kindly said, “You write good things about jazz, keep it up.”
The entire festival had that sort of mix of casually wonderful moments and titillating excitement. Over the years, I’ve been to countless well-run and well-attended West Coast festivals, and have been on two smooth jazz cruises. To me, the combination of strong organization, friendly people, hospitality and extreme community involvement put this right at the top of fest experiences for me. All this, combined with a commitment to put the profits back into the community’s arts programs, have made this a globally significant festival that now stretches for ten days. Philadelphia’s smooth station KJJZ is intimately involved in promoting the event.
The city of Reading, just over an hour East of Philly, becomes jazz central for ten days, and my hosts — festival organizers and marketing folks Mike Zielinski and John Ernesto (from the Reading Eagle newspaper) and Connie Leinbach from the Berks Arts Council — became fast friends. I was treated to lunch at the 80 year old institution The Peanut Bar and to a minor league hockey game played by the Reading Royals, as well as a tour of the newspaper’s offices.
My schedule limited me to one weekend, and I chose the first at the expense of some certainly phenomenal jam sessions and shows on the second. So apologies to Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Jim Brickman, Jeff Kashiwa, Joe McBride, Kim Waters, et al, who I would have loved to see!
Opening night at the Sovereign featured another knockout performance by Brian Culbertson (one of the genre’s most popular artists locally) with special guest saxman Michael Lington, but this was expected. I enjoyed the great surprise of Culby’s opening act, keyboardist/producer Jason Miles, whose Maximum Grooves band (featuring the incredible Andy Snitzer and singer Cassandra Reed) rocked and funked steady. Miles is an East Coast guy who doesn’t do many live shows, but hopefully the title of his new Coast to Coast CD will prove prophetic.
Other irresistible first weekend shows were George Benson’s and afternoon delights by keyboardist Bob Baldwin (who I had lunch with later that day) with Phil Perry (whose gospel-tinged renditions of R&B classics added feisty electricity to the Lincoln Plaza Ballroom), and Steve Oliver (at first unfamiliar to some new smooth fans, but not anymore) with the ladies’ favorite Chris Botti. Botti goes a bit too artsy at times, but Oliver was, as always, pure pop delight with his mix of melodic guitar and catchy vocalese. Heartthrob Peter Cincotti brought a unique audience to the room a night later.
Aside from all the hospitality and the great music, I enjoyed hanging out at the famed Outlet Center (Reading is known as the Outlet Capital of the World), and watching 5 inches of snow fall just days before returning to 85 degree weather in SoCal. In another publication, I reported that the event takes place near Amish country, but as Mike Zielinski pointed out, no one from that culture attended the festival or actually lives that close to town. This city and Berks County loves its jazz and puts on a wonderful event. I look forward to a repeat visit in 2005.
What I’m Listening To:
1) Joe Kurasz, Soul Searching (Ren Music) – An immediately enjoyable indie gem featuring a mix of funk, smooth jazz and the tastiest Hammond B-3 lines this side of Joey DeFrancesco, a few sparkling piano pieces and a sensuous cameo by Gerald Albright.
2) Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (Blue Note)
3) Jazz For Couch Potatoes (Shanachie)
4) Will Sumner, Coast Drive (Ocean Street)
5) Starsky & Hutch, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (TVT Soundtrak)