March is synonymous with the start of spring, and the promise of warm weather. For jazz lovers, spring is the start of the jazz festival season. If it’s March, it must be time to kick off the First Energy Berks Jazz Fest. For two weeks in March, Berks County, PA is a Mecca for lovers of smooth and contemporary jazz music. Every year, the Berks Arts Council presents an amazing array of talent representing the best musicians that smooth and contemporary jazz have to offer. This year’s festival line-up included: The Yellowjackets, Peter White, Jaared, David Sanborn, Chris Botti, Jason Miles and the Miles To Miles Project, Boney James, Pieces of a Dream, Stanley Jordan, Jeff Golub, the Heads Up Super Band (Joe McBride, Gerald Veasley, Kenny Blake, and Keith Carlock), Al Jarreau, Victor Wooten, Joyce Cooling, Groovin’ For Grover (Gerald Albright, Richard Elliott, Jeff Lorber, and Paul Taylor), The Sax Pack (Jeff Kashiwa, Kim Waters, and Steve Cole), Chuck Loeb, Spyro Gyra, Michael Lington, FourPlay, and various other local and national musicians who contributed to the success of this year’s festival.
Over the course of the two weekends we attended a variety of shows. There were numerous highlights and noteworthy events. For us, one of the highlights was watching musicians at each others' gigs. We’ve observed that good musicians appreciate good musicianship. There were many opportunities at the Berks shows for the musicians to take in each others’ performances. So when someone as talented as Jimmy Haslip takes the stage to play his bass during The Yellowjackets’ show, it’s no wonder that other bass players were there to experience it. And, as we held onto every note David Sanborn blew at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, the musicians in the audience were just as captivated as we were; so much so that they didn’t want to leave, even though they had their own gigs to report to. When you have a special 15th anniversary concert with an all-star line-up that includes Jason Miles, Maria Muldaur, Paul Brown, Kim Waters, Jeff Kashiwa, Walter Beasley, Deodato, Marion Meadows, Paul Jackson, Jr., David Mann, Jay Beckenstein, and Jaared, you just know that every musician not playing elsewhere, will be in attendance. When Joe McBride, Gerald Veasley, Kenny Blake, and Keith Carlock perform as the Heads Up Super Group, (a Berks Jazz Fest favorite) you’re in for a good time. Who can blame other musicians for wanting to be at that party, even if they’re guests and not performing?
During the Peter White featuring Jaared show, Peter, Jaared (sax), and the other band members (David Sparkman [keys], Donald Patterson [bass], and Lamont Peebles [drums]0 played a cover of “The Closer I Get to You,” Jaared wowed the crowd with an outstanding saxophone solo that brought the crowd to their feet, and gave us goose bumps. Peter gave the audience quite a full show, playing fourteen songs, in addition to an encore that started off as “What’s Goin’ On,” but quickly morphed into improvisations of George Benson’s “Breezin,” James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” and Jaared chiming in with Grover’s “Winelight.”
Chris Botti, backed by longtime band members Mark Schulman (guitar), John Ossman (bass), and recent members Billy Kilson (drums), and Frederico Pena (keys), played Saturday night of the first weekend. Botti’s performance was mesmerizing, especially hearing his rendition of “When I Fall in Love,” which he dedicated to “the greatest musician ever – Miles Davis.” Billy Kilson brought the house down during his extended drum solo on “Why Not?”
The David Sanborn Group (Don Alias [percussion], Ricky Peterson [keys], Nicky Mordoch [guitar], Gene Lake [drums], and Richard Patterson [bass]) also played the first Saturday night. Sanborn brought back an old favorite, “Benny.” We were thrilled to hear “Tin Tin Deo” performed live for the first time, and moved by Sanborn’s heartfelt version of “Smile,” as well as a kickin’ live rendition of last year’s “Comin Home Baby.”
The Jason Miles, Miles to Miles Project played on Sunday afternoon. It was the first time seeing this incredible gathering of seasoned musicians. Jason wove stories about his friendship and working relationship with Miles Davis in-between the songs. Together with Jason, the roster of musicians on stage for this show was top notch, and they included Josh Dion (drums), James Genus (bass), Aaron Heicke (sax), Barry Danielian (trumpet), Sherrod Barnes (guitar), Bernie Worrell (keys), David Sanchez (sax), and Tom Harrell (trumpet).
Experiencing the Heads Up Super Band for the first time was another highlight. Their performance was a tribute to Ray Charles. The incomparable Joe McBride led the group in several Ray Charles favorites, including: “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got a Woman,” “I Believe,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “Unchain My Heart,” and “What I Say”. They were joined by back-up singers, and, the ever-present Berks Jazz Fest horns (Bill Miller, Rob Deiner, Chris Heslop, and Mike Anderson), who made appearances throughout the festival. The admiration and affection between bass player Veasley and keyboardist McBride is clearly evident, and it shows in their playing. This foursome is a great combination. (Note to the folks at Heads Up. Take this show on the road!)
Another highlight... hearing Grover’s music performed with such incredible passion by four top-notch musicians. Though Groovin’ for Grover has been on tour for some time, this tour is special to the Berks Jazz Festival community. Grover was homegrown talent and an integral part of that community. Both the musicians and fans at the festival hold him in great reverence.
Watching and listening to Chuck Loeb play and switch effortlessly back and forth between his electric and his acoustic guitars was a treat for us all. Connecticut drummer Josh Dion accompanied Chuck on vocals, singing a soulful version of “Georgia on My Mind” and received a standing ovation.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying the Sax Pack (Jeff Kashiwa, Steve Cole, Kim Waters) who were joking on stage by playing the theme to “My Three Sons.” Steve set the mood with his song “Everyday.” Kim’s hit song “Waterfall” sounded even better when Steve and Jeff joined him on stage to play it with him. Jeff enticed the audience to sing along in “Hyde Park.” The Sax Pack paid homage to legendary sax player John Coltrane by performing his “Impressions” as their encore. And, just when you thought three saxes on stage were enough, they added a fourth. Marion Meadows joined the group and added his sweet soprano to the group, culminating in a mega sax explosion.
An astounding highlight of the festival was the all-star line-up for the 15th anniversary concert. There were many great performances during this show, including guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. taking us “back in the day”, and playing “Walkin’,” and “It’s A Shame.” (Trivia – We learned that Paul Jackson, Jr. is the guitarist on American Idol.) Jay Beckenstein joined the all-star band for a song before he had to leave to prepare for his own show. Deodato showed up in just the nick of time and performed his classic hit, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was fabulous.
How Spyro Gyra can take songs that they’ve been playing for 20-25 years and rework them so they sound fresh again is mind-boggling! Nobody does that as well as Spyro Gyra. “Catching the Sun” and “Morning Dance” never sounded better. Highlights of this show included listening to Ludwig Afonso keep the beat going for his band mates; hearing once more the live versions of two favorite Julio Fernandez compositions, “South Beach," and “The Crossing”; listening in awe of Tom Schuman’s creative genius when the band played “Dizzy,” and “Schuu’s Blues”; appreciating the incredible musicianship of Scott Ambush on bass, while the band played “On Liberty Road”; and Jay Beckensteins’ hauntingly beautiful rendition of “In My Life.”
The Sunday jazz brunch featured sax player, Michael Lington. This was the first experience of a real Michael Lington show (without Brian Culbertson). Michael’s rendition of “Harlem Nocturne” was outstanding.
At 15 years old, the festival has matured into a world-class musical event showcasing some of the best local, regional, national, and international talent of the smooth and contemporary jazz world, and for this we have to thank the members of the Berks Arts Council, festival General Manager John Ernesto, Production Manager Gary Spencer, Marketing Director (and Berks Jazz Fest Horns sax player) Mike Anderson, Publicity Director Mike Zielinksi, Production Solutions, photographer R. Andrew Lepley, the volunteers, and the Berks communities of Reading and Wyomissing – who graciously extend themselves to festival patrons every year, and everyone else involved for putting on a fantastic show. Just when you think they couldn’t possibly top what they’ve done the previous year, they do. Makes you wonder what’s in store for next year.
- Mary Bentley and Bonnie Schendell