After a long, hard and cold winter, I was ready for spring. I was ready to hear some sweet sounds played by live, (and I mean live in every sense of the word) musicians. I was ready for onstage magic to happen. To put it another way, I was ready for the Berks Jazz Fest.
Berks is the unofficial start to the jazz festival season. People come from nearly every state, and several countries, just to experience the great music and the friendly, laid back vibe of this two week festival. The music runs the gamut of the jazz genre; there’s straight ahead, fusion, smooth, contemporary, world music, and everything in between that falls under the jazz umbrella.
Boney James opened the 2014 Berks Jazz Festival., in a way that only he can do. Not surprisingly, it was a sold out show. Boney is one of the brightness stars, and gifted artists in the smooth jazz world. Not only can he get people in seats, but he can get them out of their seats up and dancing too. He is still riding high from the success and popularity of his latest album, 2013’s The Beat (Batucada.) We were treated to music from that hot release, like “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” and the title song, as well as some Boney favorites like “The Total Experience,” “Let It Go,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Sweet Thing.” Even though the set list was long and extensive, and he and the band gave us two music packed hours, there is always that one more song that you want Boney to play. Boney and his band: Norris Jones, Omari Williams, Mark Stephens, and Smitty Smith were in top form. It’s an amazing thing when you can move an audience of nearly 2000 people with the power of your music. That speaks volumes of the performer. Say it with me, Go Boney! Go Boney!
Chieli Minucci and Special EFX, with special guests Steve Oliver and Vincent Ingala, were next on my concert agenda. This ground breaking band is celebrating their 30th anniversary with the 2013 release of Genesis. They’ve endured not only through the changing musical scene, but through life’s losses as well. What does that say about a band? This band is very tight, both in their music, and in their longevity. Special EFX is founding member Chieli Minucci, and long time band members Jay Rowe, Lionel Cordew, and Jerry Brooks. Among the songs played were “Since We’ve Ended as Lovers,” a crowd favorite; always powerful, always emotional, “Kickin’ It Hard,” and from Genesis, “Crazy Eights.” Saxophonist Vincent Ingala joined the band for several tunes, his as well as theirs. He’s only been on the professional smooth/contemporary jazz scene in a big way since 2011, but he is making a name for himself, and impressing fans with every performance. We heard “Can’t Stop Now,” “Vintage Vibe,” and “If I Could Fly.” Steve Oliver joined the band and turned out a stellar performance. I miss seeing Steve and his unique musical style here in the Mid-Atlantic region. We don’t see him much in this area anymore. It was great hearing some of his popular tunes like “High Noon,” “Chips and Salsa,” and “Global Kiss.” Steve and Vincent joined the band for one of my favorite Special EFX songs, “Daybreak,” and they absolutely killed it.
After that, it was time for the highly anticipated Midnight Jam, hosted by Berks Jazz Fest favorite, Gerald Veasley. The crowd starts to line up outside the Jazz Base way before the 10pm shows have ended. They know this is the place to experience the magic that happens when live music is done right by people who know how to play it. The Midnight Jam is a two hour rotation of artists, moving in and out of the gig. With Gerald at the helm, we were all on a fantastic musical journey. The line-up was an A list of artists: Veasley (bass), the awesome Brian Bromberg (bass – another Berks Jazz Fest favorite), Richard Waller III (drums), Bobby Lyle (keys), Chris Farr (sax), Art Sherrod Jr. (sax), Paula Atherton (sax), Philly’s own Andrew Neu (sax -another Berks’ son), Karen Briggs (violin), Jay Rowe (keys), and Emedin Rivera (percussion.)
Saturday arrived and day two promised to be a full day of great music. First up for me was Chuck Loeb & Friends: Phil Perry, Andy Snitzer, Everette Harp, and Bobby Lyle. We were in for a treat. Each of the artists played from their extensive catalogs: Chuck Loeb, “Going Through Changes,” which he wrote with the late, great George Duke, Andy Snitzer’s “Marseilles,” Everett Harp’s “All Jazzed Up and Nowhere to Go,” and Bobby Lyle’s “The Cat.” Lyle played the organ and played it well, proving that the organ is not just for church. Jazz is one of the few genres where you can take any instrument and make it sound cool. When Phil Perry came onstage and began to sing “You Send Me,” you could almost feel the crowd melting. And when he performed “When I Fall in Love,” he had the crowd by the heart. He takes his time with his songs, he doesn’t rush it. He lets it develop and simmer, and the crowd loves it.
The next concert was another one of the “only at Berks” collaborations: Eldar & Brian Bromberg featuring Chris Farr. This group came about from Bromberg and Chris Farr playing together at last year’s Midnight jams. They asked Eldar to join them this year. Eldar is a keyboardist who originally hails from Kurdistan, but has made his home base in NYC. This stellar international group opened with the Duke Ellington classic, “Caravan.” By the time they settled into their set with “Witch Hunt,” I was deep into it. The problem I have with attending so many great concerts is that sometimes I get caught up in the music and I forget I’m supposed to be taking notes for a review. Nevertheless, they put on quite a show. And, I’ll mention for the record that anytime Brian Bromberg is anywhere near a bass, I want to hear him play.
Listen up boys and girls! If you want a lesson on how to put on a high energy, old school show, complete with horns and percussion, then just check out Brian Culbertson in action. If you want to know how to bring a crowd to their feet, just put BC on stage and let him go. Brian gets it done. From the minute he stepped onstage, he owned it.
Brian is touring to support the 20th Anniversary of his Long Night Out album. This 13th album is called Another Long Night Out. This is an interesting concept. Brian re-recorded the music from his first album, Long Night Out. Over the course of 20 years, things happen, life happens, you grow, and you change. He may feel he is a different person musically that he was 20 years ago, so, he revisited these songs. It’s about keeping the music fluid and evolving. There was something else he had to say with these songs, so he gave them an update. He wowed us with several songs from this latest release including “Beautiful Liar,” a song he wrote when he was 17, and “Fullerton Ave.” We also got to hear some BC classics like, “Serpentine Fire,” “Our Love,” “Secret Garden,” and “Back in the Day, as well as many other songs in this performance packed show.” Along with his killer band; Rodney Jones, Jr. (bass), Adam Holly (guitar), Marquel Jordan (vocals, sax, percussion), Chris Miskel (drums), Mike Stephens (trumpet), and Eddie Miller (keys), the Brian Culbertson experience delivered.
The second night’s Midnight Jam session, once more under the leadership of Gerald Veasley, was just as good as the first. Because the musicians change nightly, the vibe of the jam sessions change to reflect that. There was lots of talent in the house that night including Andrew Neu, Chris Miskel, Marquel Jordan, Jay Rowe, Bobby Lyle, and Richard Waller III. There are “moments” that happen at these jam sessions that are indescribable, and must be experienced live.
Even though I have seen many of these artists perform before, it does not get old for me. And, as excited as I am about seeing them, it can be equally as exciting to see someone for the first time. Such as the case with the Raul Midon and Spyro Gyra double bill. Raul is an extraordinary multi instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. I was blown away watching him play his guitar with his left hand, and play a bongo drum with his right hand, all while singing, not only in English, but in Spanish too. Amazing! Songs like “Sunshine, When You’re With Me I Can Fly,” “Was It Ever Really Love?”, and “Mi Amigo Cubanos,” totally moved the audience.
My last concert of the weekend was the reigning heavyweights of the contemporary jazz world, that formidable band of bands, Spyro Gyra. Spyro is celebrating their 40th anniversary as a band. (That’s right. I said 40 years!) In the ever changing music world, this is a huge milestone worthy of recognition. This should not be taken for granted. By no means is it easy for a band to stay together for 40 years. Some of the players may have changed over the years, but the soul and spirit of the band remains constant. When you have a band with such a long and successful history, it would be easy to rest on your laurels, but that isn’t the case with Spyro Gyra. This band is constantly challenging themselves creatively, even with songs they’ve played for many, many years. They find ways to remain creative, and set their goals higher. Their latest release, The Rhinebeck Sessions, is a fine example of that. They did not write music for this release. They went into the studio for three days and just jammed. The result became their latest album. We got to hear some of this great music, including “Not Unlike That,”, “Wishful Thinking,” and “Odds Get Even.” Great solos and features for all of the band members; Jay Beckenstein, Tom Schuman, Julio Fernandez, Scott Ambush, and Lee Pearson. And, of course, some Spyro favorites; “Catching the Sun,” “Morning Dance,” “Daddy’s Got a New Girl Now,” and one of my personal favorites, “De La Luz.” Kudos to this band to be able to remain true to themselves, and still draw us in for 40 years.
This festival runs for 10 full days, so there is enough variety in musical acts that you can experience jazz in all of its’ forms if you like. You can see take a chance on something new and you can see your old favorites as well. There is no wrong way to experience Berks. Next year, this wonderful festival will celebrate its 25th year, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. They did let us in on a little secret though – Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center Jazz will grace the stage and open the 2015 festival. (#nottooshabby) I encourage you to go on the Berks Jazz Festival website and submit your suggestions for who you’d like to see for the 25th anniversary year. I also encourage you to download the Berks Jazz Festival app; it puts everything you need to know about the festival right on your phone and makes it a breeze to keep track of your festival schedule and events.
Get your tickets early music lovers. I’ll see you next year in Reading.