It’s 11pm. I’m rolling on 5 hours of sleep and facing down another exhausting day at work but I just got hit by a blast of energy that is so contagious I want to go to the studio at the gym, crank up the stereo to somewhere near deafening and choreograph really fast songs for an hour or two. That’s what the Summer Horns tour is gonna hit you with and I do mean hit you in the James Brown Sense.
This is how it starts. The stage is lit but empty. Guitarist Randy Jacobs walks to the center and throws down one of his trademark seriously scorching guitar solos holding the stage on his own for a few minutes then the band joins him, the cream of the sideman crop and four of our hottest sax players – Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, Richard Elliot, and Dave Koz. And they go straight into one of my all time faves – their take on the Ronnie Laws Cjazz classic “Always There.” For the next 100 minutes or so it never lets up.
It would be easy to look at a set list that consists of covers and have that nostalgia light go off in your head but nothing could be further from the truth with the way these players take on the songs. These are iconic songs that came out at a time when there was a lot of experimentation and playing it safe wasn’t on top of anyone’s agenda- songs that multiple generations of musicians have cited as major influences. This group spins their own ultra-contemporary web around every song they play.
They mine a deep field here from hard funk to flashy fast to amazingly complex. From Chicago’s rock driven horn blast “25 or 6 to 4” through Herb Alpert’s soft-rock smash “Rise” and a truly original and scarily intricate version of “Take Five” with stops along the way through Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone (“Hot Fun In The Summertime”, of course) and a big dose of James Brown (Hit me!!). Each of them had a solo shot too. Koz amped up the energy with “Honey Dipped” and brought guitar hero Jacobs upfront for “Put The Top Down,” Abair sang the bluesy retro rock track “I Can’t Lose” from her amazing Wild Heart album, Elliot debuted a track from his forthcoming release, an elegantly melodic “”Giving It Up” that might have briefly smoothed the evening out until he capped it off with a crazy EWI vocoder solo at the end that had him jamming on some wordplay wiith high tech and often comic voice effects. Albright was absolutely on fire and bringin the James Brown with “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” from his new project as well as a medley that broke out “I Feel Good” hit over to “Sex Machine” and took a side trip to “Living In America.” These songs have nostalgia factor the people who grew up with them and they are so strong and timeless that they hold their own even decades after they were recorded. What is so great about this concert, though, is that if – in a sci-fi sense – someone came out of a cryogenic sleep or beamed onto the planet outta nowhere and missed that era, they would hear these songs for the first time and just think “oh..what fabulous songs!”
There are so many bright moments in this show that even the short list would turn this into a novel. To start, the horn arrangements. They are as tight as the most precision a cappella vocals. Think Take 6 type tight, but with instruments instead of voices. They dig into a lot of musical nooks and crannies here – unexpected notes, unexpected harmonies and unexpected sounds. You’ll hear saxes growl, wail, scream, get as low as you can go and even do part of a song that is no notes, just breaths like a sax driven human beatbox. They throw down some tight TOP/Motown inspired horn section choreography including some very athletic moves, especially on Koz’s part. That guy has some moves and he and Jacobs dropped it so low even my ultra fit knees and quads were cryin’ for redemption. This is a party on the stage with lots of interaction and lots of fun – the kind only musicians that are this accomplished and this prepared can pull off because the musicianship stays at the highest level even when the people playing it are droppin’ it low to the floor.
The four musicians backing them are above and beyond the cream of the crop. The premise was that each of the sax players brought one person from their band but if you have seen any of the big name CJazz players live you’ve seen these guys. Randy Jacobs, the musical director, has presence, personality and moves to match his chops, keyboardist Tracy Carter can play anything and adds a deep soulful vocal to the TOP classic, “So Very Hard To Go.” Florida’s own Frank “Third” Richardson holds down the drums and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. is on bass. These guys all have their solos but every minute they are on stage is a bright moment happening.
Yes, this tour carries the spirit of summer. It is Hot and Fun and in the Summertime. I was in a beautiful historic theatre but lots of these dates are going to be outdoors. It might be muggy or just plain hot but you will want to dance barefoot. Don’t resist that temptation. A friend and I were joking about the people who come to these concerts and literally melt into their lawn chairs and just sit even when the band is bringing on the fire and funk. Even the most hardcore lawn chair melter isn’t going to be able to stay in that chair for this one. A reviewer who saw the show last year told readers that if they only saw one concert all summer this was the one to take in. I wholeheartedly agree. Summer Horns 2014 is gonna light you up! Shannon West