Big Sam’s Funky Nation (Photo by Joy Childs)
Kevin Eubanks (Photo by Joy Childs)
Rochelle Ferrell (Photo by Joy Childs)
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
When the summer jazz concert circuit begins in May around L.A., thousands of folks flood to them because they know these shows are going to be heavy on the smooth jazz side. Oh, there’ll be a few real jazz artists thrown in for good measure. But for the most part, you can expect “danceable jazz” and pop to define the field of performers.
Not so at the recent Pasadena Jazz Festival. Different-refreshingly wider in scope-it featured an array of performers, many of whom are known for their real jazz pasts. But, given their abundance of talent, these legends’ abilities to display spectacular forays into funk, blues and R&B made this festival one of the summer’s best.
Produced by redwhite+bluezz (rwb) Jazz Club’s resident bassist Byron Miller, and hosted by Fox 11 news anchor Christine Devine, the two-day event boasted the beautiful environs (even several of the artists complimented the area) of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia-and over 20 top acts on two stages. Fans like Kim, Cheryl and Valerie didn’t seem to mind the nearly 90-degree heat on Saturday (it was ever-so-slightly cooler on Sunday) and the cold and damp nights-why would they, with the wealth of talent they enjoyed.
Miller himself put the early arrivals in a festive mood on Saturday with his all-star tribute to Michael Jackson (who, ironically would have been 52 on Sunday). But it was Big Sam’s Funky Nation-a multiethnic nation of funketeering band mates-that stirred up the funk. Between his trombone licks and his nonstop dance grooves — simultaneously at that — Sam Williams demonstrated that he was the true “dancing machine.” If you want to know what New Orleans funk is, you had to see him cross Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” with Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” Not surprisingly, he ended with an enthusiastic second line that saw him scale barriers to join the fans.
Those who watched “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” because of Kevin Eubanks may have long discerned that his brief intros and exits into the commercial breaks sublimated his true talent. So true, so true: After Eubanks riffed on an unusually metered composition, audience member (but not performer) Ndugu Chancler remarked, “That boy just went guitar crazy!” Eubanks himself must have sensed the crowd’s surprise, explaining, “I don’t get out much so I’m gonna just play.” Watching his “just play” unfold, it’s almost certain that his past night gig highly restricted him; here, he plays with such intensity and focus that, facially, he seems to be in another world, playing just for himself-that is, until his Berklee College of Music schoolmate and band mate Marvin “Smitty” Smith does a drum solo on a song dedicated to the world’s smallest animals-“Spider Monkeys”-then he looks up and smiles.
A set by Booker T. (minus the M.G.’s) was like a walk down a Memphis memory lane and a music history lesson: Though his mother was a classical pianist, down on the infamous Beale Street, they were playing something he liked better: the blues. So when Albert King signed with Stax Records in Memphis, Booker T., who was a member of the Stax house band (which played on hundreds of recordings by geniuses like Otis Redding [Booker T. himself played piano on “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay”], Al Green and Sam & Dave), was assigned to be his producer; it was he who wrote the music to “Born Under A Bad Sign,” King’s first Stax album. (This song is where we got the expression, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”!)
So while the band understandably did covers of “Hold On, I’m Comin'” (Sam and Dave) and “Take Me To the River” (Al Green), these, along with major, original groups hits like “Green Onions,” “Hip Hug-Her” and “Soul Limbo” (which inspired a soul limbo line) were funkier, bass-heavy grooves with Mr. T and his rapping drummer providing most of the updated licks.
By the time headliner bassist Stanley Clarke came on, the festival’s time schedule had slipped greatly and many of his fans had packed up and left, unable to bear the cold and damp grassy knolls. But good things come to those who wait-and if you had the foresight to wait around for Clarke’s “School Day” lessons-and for his encore of the “Mothership Connection (Star Child”) to land, you were rewarded by the one artist whose bass mastery spans classical to jazz to R&B to pop-and back to funk.
With slightly cooler temperatures and the crowd better prepared to weather the heat and the cold, the second day saw flute player extraordinaire Hubert Laws play a Sonny Rollins jazz standard, “Airegin” and one by Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Theme for Lester Young).” The player shared the stage with able younger sister/singer Debra Laws on two of her hits: “False Faces” and “Family.”
A show-stopping, jazzy-classical version of “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture” (Peter Tchaikovsky) showed that Laws hasn’t lost any of this classical chops. And singer Rita Coolidge, hearkening back to the early 1970s, when she discovered Al Green, did a less-pop, more R&B and tribute to jazz singer Peggy Lee on “Fever” and on Boz Skaggs’ “We’re All Alone,” bringing her eclectic mix of jazz and R&B to a close with Jackie Wilson’s 1967 version of “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” (Coolidge covered this song in 1977). The smooth jazz entreé on the bill was the celebratory danceable jazz music of Spyro Gyra.
Anybody with even a minor appreciation for a cappella, vocalese had to have been blown away by the multitalented, multiple GRAMMY(r)-winning masters of that genre-Take 6. The casually dressed guys got the crowd involved with an audience-participation version of “Wade in the Water.” Classic songs from their latest CD, “The Standard”-“Windmills of My Mind” and Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven (words compliments of Jon Hendricks-you know-the man who invented vocalese) were sung with vigor and gusto and, as usual, in perfect harmony. Thankfully, fans can enjoy “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” their upcoming Christmas CD (due out on October 5.)
Headliner Rachelle Ferrell treated her ardent sistergirl fans to her multifarious styles and talents-and especially for her 6-year-old niece, who, she said was seeing Aunt Rachelle for the first time. Ranging from an a cappella version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” to a taste of her upcoming CD with Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway and Rahsaan Patterson (“Staring At Your Photo”) and ” Get Your Foot Off my Neck”-this woman, with all her squeals
Overall, the festival turned out to be a cool way-despite the weather-to spend the weekend.