This year the 19th annual Long Beach Jazz Festival was held August 11-13 in the georgeous Rainbow Lagoon Park in Long Beach and boasted an incredible lineup of performers. This long standing festival belongs to California's finest and usually draws a crowd of several thousand people spread across the premises on beach chairs and blankets creating a unique festival atmosphere. As always the founder of the festival, noted jazz drummer Al Williams, led through the event as master of ceremonies with his wits and knowledge. But first the traditional prayer to the lord was spoken and the mayor of Long Beach got the opportunity to greet the crowd, both things which give the event a special touch.
Each day the concerts were opened by one of the winners of the Long Beach Jazz Search, a contest which was held during the months before the festival selecting some outstanding groups deserving wider recognition. I always go to these concerts and never have been disappointed, the level of musicianship and above all the enthusiasm of these artists is just great. Friday evening the Christian Hernandez Quartet featuring the leader on guitar played the first show. The players of the band either were teenagers (the bass player Joshua Crumbly just being 14 years old) or in their early twenties, they showed not only tremendous skills for their age but also a deep love for the music of Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane with their mostly straight ahead set. They played several covers, among them were Freddie Hubbard's classic "Red Clay" and "Seven Steps To Heaven". It was great to see that these young people were following in the footsteps of these giants keeping up the spirit.
Piano player David Benoit - having had a short trip to the festival living in Palos Verdes - was next with his unique brand of happy, groovy piano jazz ably assisted by a top-notch band consisting of Andy Suzuki (sax), David Hughes (bass), Pat Kelley (guitar) and Jamey Tate (drums). They provided an outstanding show playing the song "Beat Street" from the current release Full Circle, a groovy "Watermelon Man" with a great bass solo by David Hughes and his classic "Linus & Lucy" among others. I always love David's fluid piano playing and catchy melodies, this concert not only delivered this but also brimmed with energy and fun.
Friday evening was closed by the Rendevouz All-Stars comprising of Jonathan Butler (guitar), Kirk Whalum (sax), Brian Simpson (keyboards) and Wayman Tisdale (bass). Each artists has a catalog of solo albums to draw from so there was not shortage of material. Jonathan Butler played a very heartfelt version of "No Woman, No Cry" while Kirk Whalum played a song from his latest release Babyface Songbook. Brian Simpson delivered his picture perfect smooth jazz hit "It's All Good" with his keyboard around his neck delighting the crowd. The very energetic Wayman Tisdale turned up the heat a notch with his great cover of "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" creating a sizzling party atmosphere. Another welcome highlight of the show was the appearance of Kirk's uncle Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum who at the age of 77 eventually started his career as a recording artist (watch out for his self titled debut album on Rendezvous Records). First crooning in the style of Nat King Cole he later picked up his saxophone and gave us a hot sax battle with Kirk showing us his tremendous talents. Peanuts not only turned out to be a great singer, pianist and saxophonist but also a very nice person to boot. This truly entertaining concert went down very well with the crowd, whenever you have the chance to check them out do so!
Saturday at noon the event again was opened by another Jazz Search winner, this time being the Khay Jhay Band featuring Khay Jhay on guitar, backed by keys, drums and bass. The band played funky instrumental music featuring the leader on guitar, who opted for a more rock oriented sound. They provided another hour of good music which was well received.
After that saxophonist Kim Waters delivered a very polished show with his smooth sax playing. He was supported by his brother John Waters (bass), Greg Grainger (drums) and Alan Smith (keyboards). He broke it down nicely with his famous "All I Want Is To Please You" and gave us a nice rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" proving why he is one of the most successful sax players on the scene.
Singer Phil Perry turned out one of the true highlights of the whole event. This singer is truly outstanding and unique, he pours such a tremendous amount of emotion in every not he sings and conveys the message of the songs in a deeply touching way. This guy is just on a level that is breathtaking and after this concert I regard him even higher. He is not only a great singer, but his scatting and whistling was jazz improvisation at its best. He was supported by a world class band featuring Ray Fuller (guitar), Tony Moore (drums), Melvin Davis (bass), Barnaby Finch (keys) and three background vocalists (one of them being Jim Gilstrap). Songs included "My Imagination", "People Make The World Go Round" (with audience participation), "After The Dance" and the touching "Love Don't Love Nobody" which gave me goose-bumps. An overwhelming concert by a singer of the highest calibre, backed by a dream band who delivered a musical backdrop which was just perfect.
Everette Harp on saxophone was next, in his band were Darryl Crooks (guitar), Michael White (drums), Charles Love (keys), Larry Kimpel (bass) and an additional keyboard player from Denmark whose name I didn't catch, but he was constantly smiling and nodding his head to the proceedings so he must have had a good time. Everette Harp showed his prowess on the instrument with a very varied and entertaining show, even playing the EWI for one song which provided a nice change. One nice song that stuck in my memory was his Stevie Wonder cover of "Where Were You When I Needed You". His stroll around the audience was a highlight of the show as well. His set was very entertaining and showed an artist of the highest calibre.
While each artist usually had one hour to perform (with 30 minutes in between for setting up the next act) the superstar band of Stanley Clarke on basses (acoustic and electric) and George Duke on keys had two hours time to deliver their art. Both being solo artists in their own rights they had also a side career as the Clarke-Duke Project yielding their greatest hit "Sweet Baby" which was delivered during this concert in an acoustic version with George Duke at the acoustic piano. The current release of George Duke is an acoustic album called In A Mellow Tone and the their rendition of "Autumn Leaves" was in the same vein. Another well received song was "No Rhyme, No Reason". Both artists were an important part during the heydays of fusion jazz and this side of them came to the forefront with songs like "School Days" featuring Stanley Clarke on bass and others. They were supported by Phil Davis on keyboards and the absolutely incredible monster drummer Ronald Bruno who is just 23 years old. With this cat on drums the two masters on keys and bass were propelled to new heights showing a mind-boggling level of artistry and musicianship. At the end of the concert it was time for a funky good time and George swithed to funk mode giving us his classic "Dukey Stick", followed by classics like "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself" and more. All in all a band of superlative players with a tremendous amount of experience which provided a truly great and memorable concert.
Brian Culbertson and his great band closed the evening with an extended set. As always they provided 90 minutes of entertainment and sheer fun with a polished and professional show. They opened the show with some funky horn playing featuring the leader on trombone, 23 year old Eric Darius on sax and father Jim Culbertson on trumpet, then it was hit after hit with Brian playing his trademark licks on keyboards often breaking it down in order to build it up again to create great climaxes. His love for old school stuff was evident and his musical director on guitar helped out nicely to bring up some gems from the past. I have seen this band numerous times but despite the fact that they didn't change very much of their show over the years I had a funky good time and enjoyed their set thoroughly.
Sunday at noon the third Jazz Search winners came to the stage. The Reza Saleh Band featuring the leader on bass, backed by a second bass, and the outstanding Jeff Magnus on saxophone next to a rhythm section and singer. The band played mostly in the jazz-funk realm with songs ranging from "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" to "At The End Of The Road" and others. Again this was an entertaining concert with some worthwhile players, especially saxophonist Jeff Magnus who by the way pursues his own career as a solo smooth jazz artist.
First big name artists was guitar player Nils (who originally hails from Germany, but made California his home over 20 years ago) giving us a selection of his very successful album Pacific Coast Highway. His band consisted of Oliver Brown (percussion) - of KC & the Sunshine fame -, Colin Mason (drums), Alex Al (bass), Gladys Jackson (keys and vocals). The band was grooving nicely on numbers like "Georgy Porgy", "Sneakin", "Pacific Coast Highway", "Comin' Home" and more which set the mood nicely for the rest of the afternoon.
Traditionally Al Williams & The Jazz Society feat. Barbara Morrison on vocals had their usual slot Sunday afternoon. Al Williams comes up each year with a different lineup, this year we got the great Dr. George Shaw (trumpet), Andre Delano (sax), Dave Bradshaw (keyboards), Nedra Wheeler (acoustic bass), Anthony Poingsett (percussion) and the leader on drums. They opened their set with a funky version of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island", and a nice rendition of "VSOP" and other songs which ran the gamut from funky to straight ahead. The second half of the show belonged to the mesmerizing singer Barbara Morrison who kicked off her part of the show with "I'm A Woman, I'm An Artist" showing a temendous presence on stage and great command of her voice. This concert was totally enjoyable and I would like to suggest to extend Al Williams' set for the 20th anniversary of the festival, maybe with an array of all-star guests.
Guitars & Saxes are the package of guitar players Peter White and Jeff Golub and saxophonists Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot. Each artist is a smooth jazz superstar in his own right, they were supported by Nate Philips (bass), Ricky Lawson (drums), Ron Reinhardt (keys) and Dwight Sills (guitar). These guys put out a great show with many highlights, Richard Elliot played a very heartfelt version of Luther Vandross' "Your Secret Love", while Peter White delivered his always popular "Bueno Funk". Gerald Albright played his version of "My, My, My" (always a crowd pleaser), later picking up his bass showing his skills on this instrument (after all he took care of bass duties during Anita Baker's Rapture tour). Later the lover of old school funk broke through with Peter White playing "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (with great soloing on guitar applying a fuzzy sound), then they segued into "Oye Come Va" giving Jeff Golub a chance to shine. To kick it up a nod they gave us "Cut The Cake" and "Sing A Simple Song" (with audience participation) ending their set in a happy funk fest.
After that things slowed down a little with singer Howard Hewett of Shalamar fame doing a very intimate and soulful set. It was special to see his son at the drums and his beautiful daughter as background vocalist making this concert some sort of family affair. Howard established a great rapport with the audience and soon felt the urge to step down from the stage and sing right within his fans. I had the privilege to be seated right in front of the stage when Howard stepped on two chairs at the next table and sang a couple of songs right near me. It was truly mesmerizing to see this tremendous singer give all his passion, besides his songs had a lot of meaning and people could relate to them very well. Songs included "Without You" and most notably his Gospel classic "Say Amen" which traditionally closes his concerts.
Latin jazz and Salsa were on when conguero Poncho Sanchez and his band entered the stage. Willing to provide a party and have the people dancing they kicked off their set with a great version of "Watermelon Man", followed by "Afro Blue" and others, featuring all members of the band, most notably the great horn section providing many outstanding solos. Even Al Williams who is an old friend of Poncho sat in on bongos which was great fun, in the end a funky element was employed with their rendition of James Brown's "Out Of Sight". With this great set by Poncho Sanchez another great Long Beach Jazz Festival came to its rousing end.
As two years ago I enjoyed this festival tremendously, I met many friendly people (greetings to fellow music aficionado Darryl "the bar" who took good care of our table at Saturday when the waiters were a little overworked), enjoyed the setting of the festival with the park, the beautiful weather, the cool breeze from the sea and all the vendors and booths at the festival providing a nice diversion during the breaks. I look forward to the 20th edition of the festival which is supposed to be very special due to the 20th anniversary which will be celebrated then.