For the first time I attended the Capital Jazz Festival, which took place from June 3-5, 2005, in Columbia, MD, near Baltimore/Washington DC. Concerts were held in the Merriweather Post Pavilion in an amphitheater like setting with the seated area covered and the lawn behind in the open where people were sitting in their beach chairs and tents creating a special - as one performer put it - "Smoothstock" atmosphere. Unfortunately the weather was a bit unpleasant on Friday evening with some rain when the festival opened with Chaka Khan and George Benson. Saturday the weather was sunny with only light clouds, while Sunday was a hot and beautiful summer day, allowing the music to be enjoyed under perfect conditions. In the wood behind the concert area there was a marketplace area with many vendors offering art, CDs, food and the like. In addition, there were booths promoting upcoming smooth jazz cruises, the venerable Melanie Maxwell acquiring subscribers for Smooth Jazz News and booths of local smooth jazz stations Smooth Jazz WJZW 105.9 (Washington DC) and Smooth Jazz WSMJ 104.3 (Baltimore) whose radio personalities took on the responsibility of announcing the artists between sets. Usually the playing time was 60 minutes, with 30 minutes in between for setting up the next band; this time could be used to check out the marketplace, get some food or just wander around on the premises checking out all those cool folks. Sound-quality in general was good although the venue suffered from booming basses reverberating through the theatre.
The festival was opened Friday night by singer Chaka Khan who started out in 1973 with the band Rufus. She appeared with a competent band and some illustrious background singers (among them Karen Bernod), who provided some beautiful backing vocals and later in the show individually got their short solo spots. Chaka gave us many of their great hits including "Ain't Nobody", a number of Rufus songs reliving those old funk days, some songs from her latest release Classikhan and as encore - you guessed it - "Through The Fire". The set was warmly received and Chaka proved to be in good shape. A highlight of the show was the cameo appearance of the later scheduled George Benson who sang the classic "My Funny Valentine" with Chaka.
The set of George Benson with his great band (Michael O'Neill on guitar, Stanley Banks on bass and Kenya Hathaway on percussion and vocals) was thoroughly enjoyable. George is such a consummate performer with a vast catalog of familiar hits, so giving us a pleasant concert must have been an easy task for him. Songs like "This Masquerade", "Love X Love", "Give Me The Night", "On Broadway" and "The Ghetto" put the crowd in a party mood with George playing guitar accompanied by his trademark scatting. The jazz song "Moody's Mood" was graced by the vocals of Kenya Hathaway, who stepped down from her percussion set to duet with George - absolutely gorgeous. The younger daughter of the late Donny Hathaway showed not only to be a radiant beauty but a great artistic talent as well.
Next day at noon the Sax Pack featuring saxophonists Marion Meadows, Jeff Kashiwa and Kim Waters were on. Their band consisted of Carl Burnett (guitar), Dave Hiltebrand (bass), Clide Davis (drums) and Jay Rowe (keyboards). Their set featured individual tracks from each artist with some group efforts for good measure. Jeff Kashiwa got some crowd participation with his hit song "The Aah Ooh Song" which delighted the audience. Kim Waters is such a polished and smooth player and I always enjoy hearing him. Marion Meadows, who always boasts sharp looks, delivered some beautiful sounds on the soprano sax. This was a good set by some of the genre's best players, putting us in a good mood.
Female sax player Mindi Abair proved that good looks and chops are not exclusive of each other. It was my first time seeing her live and she literally blew me away. With a good number of radio hits under her belt, she created lots of positive vibes in the audience, "Lucy" being one of them. She had a good band with her, bass player Andre Berry stood out with his slapping playing getting lots of appreciation from the audience. Thumbs up for Mindi Abair!
Lee Ritenour and Friends was next, with "friends" meaning old cohorts Ernie Watts on sax, Patrice Rushen on keyboards and Alex Acuna on drums, with rising star Brian Bromberg on bass. This high caliber band, fronted by guitarist Lee Ritenour, brought us a selection from their vast catalog, which will be represented on an upcoming CD called Overtime. Reaching back as far as the fusion sounds of the Captain Fingers album, they played songs from various stages of Lee Ritenour's career with the Wesbound album being a most notable station. Great to see these veteran players going strong. The set was totally enjoyable and thinking about the amount of talent and experience gathered on the stage was mind boggling.
Joe Sample is an icon and a living music legend, having being part of the Crusaders. Appearing in an acoustic trio format with Jay Anderson on acoustic bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums, Joe played acoustic versions of some of his best known compositions like "X Marks The Spot". He even made some trips back in history with a stride piano track from the early 20th century. Despite the acoustic format the set was well received and you could feel the appreciation this artist received from a knowledgeable audience. Besides, one could relax after the high octane performances which preceded this set and go to the roots of jazz, which is never a bad thing.
Singer Ledisi came next with a truly entertaining set. Bordering jazz, soul and r&b, Ledisi is somewhat of a chameleon, and opening her concert with this Herbie Hancock composition was an appropriate choice. Talking extensively between songs, she gave us some insight into her life and motivation as an artist. It was moving to hear that she quit her well paying but frustrating day job in order to pursue a career as a singer meaning some hard times to go through. Her spiritual side was obvious and showed that Ledisi is not trying to make hits but rather express herself as a unique artist. Despite claiming that she is not doing jazz, everything she did was in the spirit of improvisation and soaked in jazz. Her concert was a lot of fun and had some comedy aspects when Ledisi joked with the audience and danced around the stage. It was hilarious the way she complained in a lengthy song about the fact that they don't do soul songs like they used to do. She sang incredibly jazzy and soulful with Al Jarreau coming to mind. Her concert was totally entertaining and enlightening. Catch her if you can!
When night came, it was time to party with Boney James. Coming with a great band laying down a phat sound, Boney could stretch out on sax, delivering his unique brand of playing. What I like about Boney is the way he can play soft and restrained one minute and burst out into the most intense playing the next. His music is sensual and steamy and with the added urban background leads to an irresistible mix. His band got some moments to shine, especially guitar player/vocalist Norris Jones and bass player Sam Sims delighted us with their talents. When Boney descended into the audience he was immediately surrounded by a number of excited females dancing next to him, which he obviously enjoyed tremendously. This concert was one of the highlights of the whole festival for me.
To top the proceedings, next was the ever popular Brian Culbertson. With Eric Darius replacing Michael Lington on the sax, Brian had his regular touring band with him (with father Jim on trumpet) and was ready for a party. Despite being plagued by some technical problems, they managed to bring some first-rate smooth jazz and funk to the proceedings. Always great is the part of the concert when Brian plays the trombone and funks it up with sax and trumpet (reminding me of Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns). Brian has a new CD called It's on Tonight coming out very soon - a song from that upcoming album featuring vocalist Brian Nelson from the group Az Yet, bringing a soulful vibe to the concert. Brian communicated easily with the crowd and delivered a totally entertaining and uplifting set. Too bad that the technical problems caused the mix to be sub-par.
Sunday had Paul Jackson Jr. at noon opening the official part of the festival (after the appearance of this year's "Jazz Challenge Winners" Phaze II). Appearing for the first time at the Capital jazz Festival, Paul Jackson Jr. played some of his best known songs with a first rate band. Grooving on guitar like the funky version of George Benson, he delivered an hour of top notch guitar playing. Hilarious were his "old school" rants between songs and his medley of familiar funk classics at the end of the concert. Glad to see him perform and pursue a solo career despite being one of the busiest sidemen on the scene.
Spyro Gyra is one of the classiest bands around, still going strong after almost 30 years. Original members Jay Beckenstein on sax, Julio Fernandez on guitar and Tom Schuman on keyboards fronted the band with newer members Scott Ambush on bass and the outstanding Ludwig Alfonso on drums completing the band. They drew from their vast catalog and offered a varied selection of songs, with compositions from each member of the band. Great contributions from all and the final delivery of "Morning Dance" concluded a satisfying performance.
Songstress Lalah Hathaway is the elder daughter of the late Donny Hathaway. Her set was truly soulful and rooted in the classic days of heartfelt soul which wants to express something and move the listener. Her voice sounds similar to her father Donny's raspy singing and possesses a very soulful quality. Her set was jazzy and subtle and her band was of a high caliber, especially notable were the great keyboard solos by Peter Horvath. Background vocalist Theresa Jones did an outstanding job as well. With her music owing as much to jazz and soul, Lalah proved to be an excellent part of the festival.
Bass player Marcus Miller, with his colorful band, represented the spirit of jazz and improvisation. Funkin' on the bass, leading his stellar band in the spirit of Miles, with whom he collaborated for years, provided a very entertaining hour of music. Saxophonist Keith Anderson and trumpet player Michael "Patches" Stewart were called by the leader when appropriate and provided an element of surprise. Dean Brown on guitar was great to watch pouring all himself into every note he plays when soloing. A surprise guest appeared in Lalah Hathaway, who sang Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" in a spontaneous performance improvising with the band. Marcus Miller's concert was very well received and he was forced to return for an encore which climaxed in a dixieland performance with the band marching across the stage led by Marcus with his bass clarinet. Classy!
At 6pm the Jazz Attack was scheduled for a special 2-hour performance. The Jazz Attack is a smooth jazz superstar group comprising of Richard Elliot on sax, Peter White on guitar, Rick Braun on trumpet and Jonathan Butler on guitar/vocals. The concert was opened by Rick Braun, who started playing in the audience walking to the stage. They played hit after hit with Peter White's "Bueno Funk" being one of the highlights of the concert showing Peter White's funny side dancing like a ballerina to the slow parts of the song. The deeply religious Jonathan Butler had his spot too getting a chance to get "Falling in Love with Jesus" off his chest before singing his current radio single "Fire and Rain". Richard Elliot provided some ultra soulful sax and brought it over the top with his rendition of "When A Man Loves A Woman" with some help by the incredible singing of Jonathan Butler. And above it all was the cool trumpet of Rick Braun holding things together. To top it all the band had Dwight Sills on guitar, Dave Dyson on bass, Rayford Griffin on drums and Ron Reinhardt on keyboards. A superlative show which is very recommended.
The festival was closed with the appearance of Kenny G, who had his 49th birthday that day. The set was totally polished and professional without any weaknesses. Kenny started out in the audience walking slowly down the aisle and stood on top of a little stage surrounded by his fans. Still looking fresh. Kenny performed many of his most favorite songs supported by long time band members Robert Damper on keyboards, Vail Johnson on bass and John Raymond on guitar. Great new additions were drummer Jonathan Moffett (who played with everyone from Janet Jackson to Madonna), Ron Powell on percussion and Karl Martin on keyboards. Percussion player Ron Powell delivered a great percussion solo which ended in an acrobatic show with a tambourine, while Vail Johnson slapped the bass like only he can. A little birthday surprise was part of the concert as well like a demonstration by Kenny G of his circular breathing technique which he brought to perfection and an unplugged version of "Summertime". Kenny G played beautifully and his familiar songs were warmly received by his many fans in attendance. The set was closed with "Pick Up The Pieces" and "Songbird,� bringing a truly memorable festival to an end.
Pictures by Peter Böhi. Sorry for the lack of pictures from Saturday but VIP seats were sold out and I was sitting too far away from the stage to make useful pictures. If you can help me out please send me your pictures. Thanks!