I had a great time at this year's Berks Jazz Fest with took place in Reading, PA from March 11-20, 2005. This festival is unique because it is a community operated festival which originated 15 years ago and since that time has grown from a 3 day event to a festival spanning 10 days featuring over 130 artists covering many different genres of jazz and related styles of music. Concerts are held at different venues across town giving each one the setting it needs. The vibe at this unique festival is easy going and open minded, providing me with a great time among fellow smooth jazz aficionados. I made a lot of new friends and met many people from the industry like Steve Quirk from England (trying to syndicate his Fusion Flavours radio show in the US), Dave Love from Heads Up Records, Melanie Maxwell from Smooth Jazz News and many fellow journalists and webmasters. I also had the opportunity to spend lots of time with fellow smooth jazz writers and contributors to this site Jonathan Widran and Beverly Packard and husband Michael who were so kind to be my hosts during my stay at the festival.
The first concert I attended was the one of Peter White featuring Jaared which was a blast as usual. He had David Sparkman with him�on keys and vocals (who has done an own CD named Livin' For Love available at his site). The concert was very entertaining with Peter White delighting the crowd with his witty stories between tracks and heartfelt playing. Jaared, who�has been�part of Peter White's group for quite awhile, added some great sax playing to the proceedings and complements�Peter's guitar playing nicely. Covers of 70ies soul and funk tracks brought a nice slant to the show, revealing where his musical heart lies. I enjoyed his show so much that I caught his second set later that day knowing that it would be different and so it was - the later show ended with a funk medley containing "Brick House" by the Commodores, which brought the audience to their feet. I definitely was not disappointed!
One of the bigger venues was the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, which was appropriate for the double bill of trumpet player Chris Botti opening for sax legend David Sanborn. Chris Botti's set was very enjoyable, providing us with some sharp trumpet playing. His band is very special with some rock touches and excellent drumming by Billy Kilson creating a lot of tension. Chris Botti successfully has escaped smooth jazz cliches and found�his own attractive style which in a live setting�is quite exciting as opposed to his more laid back studio recordings. After a short intermission, it was time for David Sanborn who was definitely grooving with an excellent band. It was�without a doubt�one of his better performances, and the slapping bass solo was a highlight of the show. His classic song "Lisa" was well received.
Next day the afternoon show was called Miles To Miles after the album led by Jason Miles featuring an all-star cast dedicated to Miles Davis' music. Among the musicians appearing that I was familiar with were Tom Harrell on trumpet, David Sanchez on sax, Barry Danielian on trumpet and Bernie Worrell on keys. DJ Logic handled the turntables giving the proceedings a special touch with his scratching sounds. The music mostly covered newly written songs by Jason Miles who has worked many years with Miles Davis, trying to capture the spirit of the man. In between songs Jason told stories about him and Miles,�which inspired this project which gave it a special touch. The music was groovy and contemporary but definitely not smooth - but Miles wasn't either... I would like to mention especially Tom Harrell who suffers from schizophrenia and has to rely on heavy medication in order to be able to perform. His odd behavior on stage (often standing there motionless with his head down) and his playing, which was great but sometimes suddently stopped, posed quite a challenge to the rest of the band thus unintentionally creating situations the way Miles might have done. This was a superior performance by a great group of musicians bringing us a heartfelt project reliving the spirit of Miles Davis.
In the evening it was back to the Performing Arts Center where Pieces Of A Dream and Boney James were waiting for us. I have been a fan of Pieces Of A Dream ever since they entered the scene, being prot�g�es of the late Grover Washington Jr. Today Eddy Baccus provides the sax playing, sometimes emulating the sound of Grover to an astonishingly real extent. It was great to hear this legendary group featuring James Lloyd on the keys and Curtis Harmon on drums giving us the good stuff we have come to love over the years. Their opening act lasted only an hour (so I hope to be able to catch them someday again for a full concert),�paving the�way for smooth jazz super star Boney James.
Boney was backed by a tight band (with Sam Sims on bass) providing some smooth urban grooves for his sax playing. Boney entertained the crowd with his numerous hits and his stroll in the audience had more than one excited female dancing next to him. Outstanding, great fun and one of the highlights of the festival.
Monday was a night off with Tuesday being dedicated to the concert of Stanley Jordan appearing on the smaller stage of the Albright College Wachovia Theatre. Stanley Jordan appeared solo, with only�his guitar and a broad array of music for us. He improvised a lot, taking us on a musical journey brimming with technical brilliancy. There is no other player I am aware of who plays with the unique "tapping" technique Stanley Jordan uses. Not smooth jazz but definitely inspiring.
Keyboard player Tom Grant, who recently released his acoustic set of standards called Nice Work If You Can Get It, was scheduled for a special event called Jazz Dinner at the Windham Hotel which took place from 5-7 pm during four consecutive days. Tom played songs from his vast catalog on the grand piano while people were having dinner. I really enjoyed hearing Tom in this setting and he was accepting requests and provided a good time for everybody attending. Later, we also had the opportunity to spend some time with him and found him to be a really nice person.
Chuck Loeb was scheduled to appear with trumpet player Rick Braun for a straight ahead set but unfortunately, due to health problems (Rick had pneumonia which prevented him from airtraveling), a replacement had to be found. Fortunately sax players Eric Marienthal and Jeff Kashiwa along with local trumpet player�John Swana came to the rescue to fill the bill. All involved handled the situation very well providing a great set of mostly acoustic jazz, giving the players an opportunity to show their chops. I was aware of the fact that Eric Marienthal is a very versatile player but Jeff Kashiwa blew me away - he is a very accomplished player who can compete in the straight ahead field as well and baffled me completely. Chuck Loeb was always on top of things, leading the set with his masterful and smooth guitar playing and entertaining the crowd with his dry humor. Chuck's wife of 25 years, Carmen Cuesta, who�he met in Spain while on tour with Stan Getz, �provided a nice break singing two songs. A very entertaining set and a revelation for me.
Next evening guitar player and crowd pleaser Jeff Golub was on. His bluesy set entertained the numerous�fans in attendance�with his playing ranging from soft, low sounds to the full screaming of the guitar. A special bonus was keyboard player Philippe Saisse being part of the band adding his hit rendition of "Moaning" to the set. Talent seemed to be present in abundance at this festival.
After this concert we changed venues for the Berks All-Star Jazz Jam which is held every year. This time we had Gerald Veasly (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Tom Grant and Joe McBride (keys), Jeff Kashiwa and Kenny Blake and Eric Marienthal (sax), Chuck Loeb and David Cullen (guitar) and�John Swana (trumpet) on stage with special guests Jeff Golub (guitar) and Mitch Forman (keys) to join the party later. As well for a couple of numbers appeared Bakithi Kumalo (bass) with his wife singing a great version of "My Funny Valentine". The set was directed by Chuck Loeb giving all involved lots of room to jam and stretch out providing us with a great evening of jazz.
On Friday, I saw the Heads Up Super Band with a special program of Tribute to Ray Charles at Gerald Veasley's Jazz Base at the Sheraton Hotel. The blind Joe McBride was perfectly�entitled to lead this effort, giving us renditions of "Georgia On My Mind" and "Hit The Road Jack" among others. The group was supported by a horn section and some great background singers. The intimate club setting made this concert a very memorable one and the positive response of the packed club makes one hope that this program will be brought to more people in the future.
Later that night one of my personal highlights came in the form of sax players Gerald Veasley, Paul Taylor and Richard Elliot, who where Groovin' For Grover. Jeff Lorber was on the keys, providing a funky backdrop and many outstanding solos. We are glad that he is well again after his kidney transplant and firing on all cylinders. The first half of the set was dedicated to individual songs from each one of the headlining sax players, while the second part was dedicated to Grover's music. They gave us their renditions of "Black Frost", "Let It Flow" and - naturally - "Mr. Magic" which brought the crowd to their feet. Superior stuff by some of the genre's best players.
As if we didn't have enough sax previously, there was the next wave of sax sounds due in the shape of the Sax Pack as saxophonists Jeff Kashiwa, Kim Waters and Steve Cole call themselves collectively. Chuck Loeb opened the show with a great set featuring sax player Dave Mann and keyboard player Mike Ricchiuti. They gave us another polished set of great straight ahead and smooth jazz of the highest order. A great surprise was drummer Josh Dion who provided some incredibly soulful vocals provoking shouts of approval from the audience. Watch out for his debut album, which is due shortly. After that the sax pack entertained the crowd with a selection from their catalogs with Steve Cole standing out, providing the most energetic performance. As a suprise�Marion Meadows joined�his three colleagues for the encore.
Saturday, the Heads Up Super Band performed a set in Gerald Veasley's Jazz Base, playing songs from their own catalog. It was a joy to hear these great musicians in this intimate club setting with drummer Keith Carlock (who performed with Sting and Steely Dan) being incredible to watch and Gerald Veasley shining as supreme bass player. The next album by Gerald Veasley which will be released later this year was recorded live at this club and will be aptly titled Jazz Base!.
After that we drove to the Sovereign Performing Arts Center where the highlight of the festival was about to happen: The First Energy Berks Jazz Fest 15th Anniversary Concert, which was a lavish smooth jazz extravaganza. Led by director Jason Miles who put 5 months of work into realizing this project, we had his band, Maximum Grooves, as house band, backing the incredible array of performers during the evening. After the opening track by the band, the first guest stepped up: Jay Beckenstein from Spyro Gyra played a song, next was Marion Meadows, then came guitar player Paul Jackson Jr., followed by Jaared who is such an energetic performer (currently unsigned and seeking a new label). After a break came Walter Beasley, then Paul Brown who played the hit single from his debut album and Van Morrison's "Moondance," Kim Waters and eventually special guest Deodato, who played his classic "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (which has haunted him ever since as he jokingly admitted). Vocal appearances were given by Mike Mattison from the Derek Trucks Band (who sang "Just The Two Of Us" featuring Kim Waters) and Maria Muldaur. The closing song was Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," bringing all together for the rousing finale. Outstanding!
Sunday was the WJJZ 106.1 Smooth Jazz Sunday Brunch, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom and featured popular sax player Michael Lington. People were seated at large tables and after�the buffet,� the show started. Michael Lington provided some great sax playing showing himself to be a great entertainer and crowd pleaser. On drums was Ricky Lawson, underscoring the level of musicianship at this festival. A nice touch was when Michael selected a person in the audience who didn't come with a loved one and played her a beautiful rendition of "Everything Must Change" standing right next to her which gave me goose bumps. He played all his hits including "Once In A Lifetime". Smooth jazz at its best!
The festival ended with the concert of supergroup Fourplay at the Scottish Rite Cathedral featuring legendary players Bob James (piano), Nathan East (bass), Larry Carlton (guitar) and Harvey Mason (drums). In this rather intimate venue�the group had a very good setting to give us an entertaining set of their best songs which encompassed "Bali Run" and "Westchester Lady". It is always a joy to witness the perfect interplay by these supreme artists and the inspired solos of the inimitable Bob James.
Another great�feature of�this festival was the Meet The Artists event after each concert, giving fans the opportunity to meet and greet their favorite musicians. Usually there was a table set up for the artist to sit while fans patiently waited in line for their turn. CD covers, T-Shirts and hats were signed, pictures taken and brief conversations with the artists held. Most had a genuine interest in their fans and took their time to fulfill the various requests. They expressed their appreciation for the support they get, giving us fans the feeling of camaraderie. In addition�to these events, artists were around at the hotels and you were bumping into them all the time. This setting made the Berks Jazz Fest very special to me.
With the Fourplay concert ended 10 days of music. Apart from these concerts were many more I couldn't attend like those by Manhattan Transfer, Yellowjackets and Bob Mintzer Big Band, Spyro Gyra, Steve Smith, Al Jarreau, Victor Wooten, Joyce Cooling, Tim Warfield Sextet, Joey De Francesco and many others. Despite this fact, I came home more than satisfied and must say that this festival is one of the best in the US. Not only because of the incredible lineup, but also because of the friendly people who run the festival. Being a community event with over 200 volunteers giving their free time for the festival makes things special and driven by the love of music. They all did an outstanding job helping so that�things ran smoothly. I thank all of those who have participated in this festival and have done their best to make this event so memorable for me. Special thanks go to Mike Zielinski and John Ernesto. I will be back next year!
Pictures by R. Andrew Lepley, used with permission (thanks, Andrew!).