Smooth Jazz Festival Augsburg 2012

The annual "Smooth Jazz Festival Augsburg" 2012 was held for the 5th time, which is an important milestone for the festival. After some less successful editions in Bregenz and Munich, the festival now found its permanent home in Augsburg, Germany which is a nice town in Bavaria with 265'000 inhabitants and a historic center of town. Thankfully, festival organizer Christian B�ssner never gave up and relentlessly kept up his work to promote and establish this festival, providing smooth jazz artists an opportunity to perform and bring this great art form to European audiences.

This year, smooth jazz fans from all over Europe came to Augsburg in droves to see a great lineup of players, who were backed up by a top-notch band of German session players (Lutz Deterra - keyboards, G�nter Asbeck - bass, Martin Feske - guitar and Andy Pilger - drums). The festival was held at the historic Parktheater im Kurhaus G�ggingen, which has proven to be the perfect venue for this event with its nice park, extensive catering area and garden to hang out between concerts. In addition, the partnering hotel this year was the Hotel Steigenberger Drei Mohren in the heart of town, a freshly renovated historic building providing superior accommodation and easy access to the shopping areas, as well being the perfect starting point for sightseeing tours.

Friday night was opened by John Stoddart, longtime member of Kirk Whalum's band who also has a string of solo albums under his belt and is increasingly recognized as a soulful singer and pianist. He did several of his own songs, depicting the ups and downs of relationships, most notably "Angel" dedicated to his wife, providing lots of soulful singing and occasionally some great piano playing. During his cover of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day", the audience was invited to sing along, while Kirk Whalum guested on sax during one song. His set was well received and provided just the right warming up for the things to come.

Next was saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who proved to be in a league of his own. His trademark playing is soulful and always from the bottom of his heart, he opened the show with "Big Ol' Shoes" dedicated to his hero, Grover Washington, Jr., later doing an instrumental version of "Autumn Serenade" from his current CD Romance Language, during this song he was strolling in the audience doing some great improvisations. Having been touring with the late Whitney Houston for 7 years, he did his tribute to the lady with a heartfelt version of "I Will Always Love You", which was a highlight of the show. His set was a great mixture of originals and covers, running the gamut from slow to jazzy to funky, providing a truly entertaining set.

The evening was closed by saxophonist Eric Darius, who kicked up things a notch with his energetic and enthusiastic playing on the alto sax. He was jumping around on the stage with endless energy, playing "In the Moment", "Going All Out" and "Slick" from his growing catalog (being on the scene for around 10 years by now). He did a welcome tribute to Herbie Hancock with the classic "Butterfly", Joey Sommerville joined the band for this one, doing some great solos on the trumpet. Eric did go out into the audience as well, serenading the ladies with his horn playing, spreading joy and fun. His set was the highlight of Friday evening, and the audience was screaming for an encore well past midnight, so everybody on the evening's bill joined for the final track, bringing a great evening to a close.

Saturday night was bringing more great music to us. The first set featured trumpet player Joey Sommerville who just found the right groove and mood to kick off the evening in style, having the audience in the palm of his hand, he delivered a great show that - as he made clear at the beginning of the concert - had something new, old, borrowed and blue, which was the right setting for an entertaining show. Joey alternated between trumpet and flugelhorn and also sat behind the keyboards once in a while. Among the tracks played was a great cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan", "Swag" (from his current The Get Down Club CD), a nice Doobie Brothers cover of "You Belong To Me" and, my personal highlight, his own composition "Moonshadows", which was a slow burning and heartfelt song. He finished his show with an uptempo blues track.

Next was guitar player Nils, who originally hails from Munich, Germany, but now lives in Los Angeles for many years. He performed already at "Smooth Jazz In The Cube" last year where he was such a crowd pleaser that he was invited again. Nils has a total knack for this cool, laid-back southern California L.A. groove, which explains why he had three number 1 hits in the past. He kicked off his show with "Georgy Porgy", later he did his hit "Summer Nights", his playing on the guitar was pure bliss. To increase the heat, he did "Get On The Dance Floor" from his brand new release City Groove. As en encore he played Carlos Santana's "Europa", which provided more excellent fret work, bringing a great show to an end.

Japanese keyboard player Keiko Matsui, just having flown in from Tokyo for this event, provided my personal highlight of the whole festival with her outstanding set. She was supported by a local saxophone player (next to the house band) who did a good job, it was a joy to watch this petite lady play the keyboards or - most of the time - the grand piano with her expressive style, she played a selection of songs from her vast catalog, among them "Forever, Forever" and "The Road�". She even went into the audience with her keytar, and played a little percussion as a surprise. She did a beautiful solo piano version of "Deep Blue", before all the players of the evening were re-united for a rousing finale.

This was another great smooth jazz festival, and I applaud Christian B�ssner for pulling it all off. Next will be the Mallorca Smooth Jazz Festival which will take place May 3-5, 2013, before the next Smooth Jazz Festival Augsburg will be held September 13-14, 2013.

[Images @ Flickr]