Encore Artists Star at Festival
Woodstock wasn’t the only place for flashbacks this weekend. The Long Beach Jazz Festival, in the city’s comely Rainbow Lagoon Park, had its share of deja vu as many of the performers on the three-day bill made their third, fourth or even fifth appearances in the fest’s seven-year history.
Among Friday’s three acts, Keiko Matsui was there for the third time and headliner Dianne Reeves was there for the fifth time. Saturday saw repeat performances by pianist Ramsey Lewis, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and singer Barbara Morrison. Perennial favorite Poncho Sanchez, who closed last year’s Sunday edition, provided this year’s second day finale. Could there be too much “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” at work here?
Maybe not. It was the veteran fest performers who carried the Saturday show; first-timers Gato Barbieri, Bobby Caldwell and Oscar Brown Jr. delivered the weakest sets. Most disappointing was Barbieri, whose overtly macho tenor fell as flat as a well-worn barroom come-on.
His rough-hewn attack hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years. His familiar, gravelly tone was applied to simple lines that built predictably into screams and caterwauls, broken only by simple trills and his own vocal exclamations. There was little subtlety in his play, and his set, coming at the hottest part of the afternoon, would have been a total wash had it not been for fine play from keyboardist Bill O’Connell and bassist Nielson Matta.
Occasional arrangement turns--as when Barbieri’s sultry “Granada” ended with lines from “What a Difference a Day Makes"--added spotty interest but did little to redeem things. Barbieri toyed with “Brazil,” paying little attention to the melody while inflicting it with his trademark raucous gimmicks.
The day’s hit was third-timer Ramsey Lewis’ quartet with its fine blend of jazz-funk and straight-ahead standards. Still a satisfying soloist, Lewis built improvisations from simple statements into harmonically rich, rhythmically enticing lines. He set a funky tone with his own “Apres Vous” before taking a more mainstream tack with “People Make the World go Round,” “My One and Only Love” and a sparkling solo turn, “Body and Soul,” that referenced both Art Tatum and the stride masters.
Longtime Lewis associate Henry Johnson provided sharp, contrasting solo work on guitar, standing out during “Someday My Prince Will Come” and delivering tough rhythm work on the funk numbers. Bassist Chuck Webb and drummer Ernie Adams were equally astute while second keyboardist Michael Logan created orchestral effects with a synthesizer perched on the end of Lewis’ grand piano.
Lewis’ best-received numbers were, of course, “Wade In the Water” and “In Crowd,” an encore that found drummer and festival promoter Al Williams sitting in on congas. Despite the heat, the crowd took to its feet to groove on the soulful presentation.
Tenor saxophonist Whalum’s quartet followed with a strong set that was big on humor, drawn from vintage television and movie themes he interspersed throughout. Whalum, who plays with the melodic sensibilities of a vocalist, is one of the better saxophonists in the jazz-funk genre, with good tone, plenty of technique and the smarts to put both to good use.
He showed a tough, backbeat style on “Out Of Hand,” then showed hard-nosed post-bop chops during a drums-and-sax-only passage of “Brashear Intuition,” a tune he wrote for trumpeter Oscar Brashear. The only drawback to Whalum’s performance was his penchant to cut tunes off abruptly after only a short turn.
Singer-composer Caldwell’s band seemed out of place with its soft rock and ballad presentation. Though such numbers as “My Flame,” with Caldwell on acoustic guitar, and “What You Won’t Do For Love” were crowd-pleasers, the set seemed a break between more serious matters. Keyboard player Tollack Olsted beefed things up with some ambitious harmonica stylings during “Don’t Lead Me On.”
Earlier in the day, Oscar Brown Jr. proved better at composing a lyric than delivering it, despite fine support from trumpeter Bobby Bryant’s combo.
Barbara Morrison, working with electric guitar and bass, repeated some tunes from last year’s set in her confident, Sarah Vaughn-inspired manner. She’s one local favorite who is worth having every year.
Likewise, Poncho Sanchez brought a familiar flavor to the end of the evening, working his congas hard during Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” just as he had the year before. Still, the Sanchez octet is the most pleasing Latin unit in Southern California, and among the best in the country, and its work here, as always, was tightly rhythmic and spiced with assertive solos from the horn section.
Dianne Reeves is another perennial Long Beach favorite and for good reason. Her golden-toned delivery and the autobiographical details she brings to a lyric are completely absorbing. Though her range Friday seemed slightly diminished from past performances, her energy did not as she spun stories of her childhood and her grandmother to a rapt audience.
An overly stylistic vocal delivery would cloud Reeves’ narrative approach. Thankfully, she sings without overwrought embellishment; her clear enunciation guarantees that every word registers.
Keyboard player Keiko Matsui followed her usual format, playing a number of impressionistic, New Age-style pieces before strapping on a shoulder-hung keyboard to rock. Husband Kazu Matsui added breath-filled, moody touches with the shakuhachi flute during “Walls of the Cave,” a piece dedicated to Native American Chief Joseph, but the net result of the set was the feeling that we’d heard it all before.
Guitarist Norman Brown, reviewed here earlier this summer at the Taste of Orange County festival, succeeded best with covers: Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Though a promising guitarist, Brown continues to look too much toward George Benson for inspiration.
The festival continued Sunday with George Howard, Joe Williams, David Benoit, Tania Maria and others scheduled to appear.