27th Annual Berks Jazz Fest, March 31-April 9, 2017

By Val Vaccaro [photos by Barry Chapman - BazPix Photography]

2016 Berks Jazz Fest "Jazz Meets James" tribute to James Brown-music director Nick Colionne [Photo by BazPix]

This year's acclaimed Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest runs from Friday, March 31 to Sunday, April 9, 2017 in Reading, Pennsylvania. The 2017 Berks Jazz Fest once again brings its magical combination of over 50 major ticketed concerts, plus over 50 local shows which include a diverse array of smooth, contemporary, and traditional jazz, R&B, blues, funk, rock, and other music, along with educational and art events.

There will be great performances by a multitude of renowned artists including: Gerald Albright, Patti Austin, Jonathan Butler, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun, Norman Brown, Richard Elliot, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Lorber, Keiko Matsui, Paul Jackson Jr., Fourplay (Bob James, Nathan East, Chuck Loeb, and Harvey Mason), Gerald Veasley, Nick Colionne, Steve Cole, Four80East, Matt Marshak, Marion Meadows, JJ Sansaverino, Brian Bromberg, Michael Manson, Eric Darius, Jason Miles, Jim Brickman, Eric Marienthal, Anat Cohen, Randy Brecker, Selina Albright, Karen Briggs, Shemekia Copeland, Vincent Ingala, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Pat Martino, Snarky Puppy, Troker, the Reading Pops Orchestra with Minas featuring Orlando Haddad, Patricia King, and Andrew Neu and many more.

Celebrating its 27th year, the Berks Jazz Fest continues to be successfully run by John Ernesto, Festival Manager with a talented team of Berks Arts Council staff members, supporters, and over 400 volunteers. From March 15 to March 25 there are also noteworthy pre-festival concerts. The concert venues this year are mainly in the city of Reading - including the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading hotel, Santander Performing Arts Center, Building 24, the Miller Center for Performing Arts, the Crowne Reading hotel, and others. Berks Jazz Fest retains its friendly, small town appeal with its venues, hotels, restaurants, outlet shopping, unique stores, historical architecture, the Pagoda atop Mount Penn overlooking the city of Reading, the Reading Public Museum, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts and more, for over 45,000 happy fans from the U.S. and other countries who visit the area during the 10 day festival.

Rick Braun - Around The Horn

The new Rick Braun album Around The Horn is another slice of great smooth jazz, despite all the years in the game, Rick comes up with one more fresh, funky and smooth album, this time covering some current pop hits by people like Coldplay, Alicia Keys, Charlie Puts and Selina Gomez. Don't worry, he stays firmly in the realm of smooth jazz and jazz-funk with his impeccable, silky smooth horn playing, supported by a number of first rate guests, like Lindsey Webster, Peter White, Til Brönner and John Stoddart, who also co-wrote a couple of songs. This album is "all killer, no filler". Very recommended!

What We're Listening To ** January 2017

Daniel Chia - In The Moment (2017)
Debut album by young saxophonist Daniel Chia, produced by Paul Brown, delivering a string of groovy and smooth tracks, featuring guests Darren Rahn, Paul Brown and singer Melina. Picture perfect smooth jazz!

Akira Jimbo - 21 (2017)
This is the 21st studio album by Japanese drummer Akira Jimbo, featuring his band with Otmaro Ruiz on keys and Abraham Laboriel on bass, plus guests Allen Hinds on guitar and Richard Elliot on sax, providing some great jazz-funk and fusion. Very recommended!

JB Project - Brombo III !!! (2017)
JB Project are drummer Akira Jimbo and bassist Brian Bromberg, this is their third release, it features keyboardists Patrice Rushen, Otmaro Ruiz and Jeff Lorber, plus a horn section. With a great selection of jazz-funk tracks, among them covers of Herbie Hancock's "Actual Proof" and Billy Cobham's "Stratus", you get the good stuff. Check it out!

KIYO*SEN - Trick Or Treat (2017)
KIYO*SEN are keyboardist Kiyomi Otaka and drummer Senri Kawaguchi, they provide an exciting string of jazz-funk and fusion tracks, showing their superior skills. These girls are kicking ass!

Roy Ayers - Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981 (2003)
My nod to the past goes to this great selection of unreleased material from Roy Ayers' Ubiquity period. Jazz-funk at its best!

What We're Listening To ** December 2016

Oli Silk - Where I Left Off (2016)
Keyboardist Oli Silk delivers a groovy, funky album boasting his sparkling keyboard playing, with some great guest players like Peter White and Steve Cole, personal highlight is the Joe Sample classic "Burning Up The Carnival" doing the original and Joe ample justice. Don't miss it!

Marc Antoine - Laguna Beach (2016)
A nice selection of mostly laid-back songs led by the acoustic guitar of Marc Antoine, running the gamut from funky to jazzy to latin, always pleasant, groovy and entertaining. Not your typical smooth jazz fodder, instead an honest musical statement by a bunch of great musicians. Recommended!

Peter White - Groovin' (2016)
Competent, conservative, covers. That sums it up!

Tony Saunders - Uptown Jazz (2016)
This is the third release by bassist Tony Saunders and it is a winner. Infectious melodies and upbeat vibes keep the head bopping. The album features guests like Gerald Albright on sax, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach on trumpet and flute, Mic Gillette and Tom Politzer of Tower of Power, as well as Rock Hendricks, Paul Hardcastle Jr. and Sakai. Very nice!

Judy Roberts - Circle Of Friends (1995)
This classic album by pianist/vocalist Judy Roberts is one I always like to come back to. In an acoustic trio setting plus sax/flute, she delivers a string of great songs, featuring her sensitive piano playing and flawless singing. Her renditions of the witty "My Attorney Bernie" and "Comes Love" always put a smile on my face. Thumbs up!

Damien Chazelle: Jazz in La La Land

By: Ryan Nelson

Jazz musicals have been staples of Broadway, Hollywood and even radio since the 20th century. Director Damien Chazelle pays homage to the jazz musical genre with La La Land, a 2016 film that has received several accolades and is believed to be a strong contender for the upcoming Oscar nomination season.

As a musical genre, jazz has played an important role in Hollywood both as a plot device and as a versatile soundscape. Some of the best jazz films are not musicals; they are actually biopics such as Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood, or Round Midnight, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Jazz biopics often portray music both as a blessing and as a burden, and this is something that Damien Chazelle understands very well.

Chazelle is not only a filmmaker; he is also a jazz musician who understands the blessing and burden dichotomy, particularly in terms of performance. Jazz virtuosity is rarely a product of raw talent; the best performances are cathartic due to their intensity. Chazelle attempted to reach this level of performance in high school when learning jazz drumming, but he accepted failure. His 2013 film Whiplash deals with this sentiment, which is also explored in La La Land, a film that is receiving serious Oscar buzz.

The subject of jazz in Chazelle's films will particularly appeal to musicians and fans who subscribe to Downbeat and who enjoy the bebop revival of the last few years as much as they enjoyed the time when swing and big band jazz made a comeback in the 1990s. In La La Land, Ryan Gosling stars as a struggling jazz pianist who is passionate about performing and pleasing audiences of a genre he feels is not getting the attention it deserves. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a struggling actress who is as passionate as she is unsuccessful at her chosen craft.

The beauty of jazz as it is perceived by those who are passionate about it drives La La Land in a sublime manner. The musical score and choreography are magical and serve to depict the hope that drives performers to keep going in the face of certain failure. Interestingly, the stars at the center of La La Land do not find everlasting love together; however, their artistic dreams do come true as they wonder what life could have been like as a couple.

Chazelle has mentioned that young jazz purists these days may feel disenfranchised, and that their practical dreams become harder to achieve as they get older. This does not mean that their inner passion will dwindle or that jazz will one day evaporate; it will live on thanks to artists such as Chazelle.

Anthony Caceres releases a fresh Christmas single

By: Ryan Nelson

If you have been in a retail store recently, you have probably have heard Christmas music played over the speakers, the same songs you heard last year, and the year before, and so on. You might be wondering: "Is there simply no more room for a new Christmas song?" Well, don't despair: a new song by Anthony Caceres might be able to give you some needed holiday cheer.

Caceres is a jazz singer and his song, "A Very Special Christmas" is a smooth jazz number with a yuletide focus that has gotten a great deal of love. Stacey Zering, writing for music publication No Depression praised the song for how it stands out compared to other seasonal songs.

"'A Very Special Christmas' distinguishes itself from the deluge of holiday music by taking a personal approach to season's greetings; it is basically a love letter wrapped with a bow," Zering said.

Zering continued, "The track is sweet without any artificial flavors; the feelings here are honest and real.

If you're looking for a new Christmas song to bring into your seasonal rotation, give Anthony Caceres' "A Very Special Christmas" a shot. It is available for purchase through iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby.

It seems that Caceres upbringing and musical inspirations have been pivotal for him in developing his style as well as this song. He comes from a very musical family. He is the grandson of swing violinist Emilio Caceres, who worked with the likes of Harry James and Jack Teagarden. He has also performed alongside the Four Aces, Freddie Jones, and Bill Mays, among others. His vocal stylings on the song were influenced by singers famed for their voices, such as Harry Connick, Jr. and Chet Baker.

Listening to the song, it's hard not to be taken with not only Caceres' vocals but also his lyrics. "Before I met you, I was living for myself" he sings as the song opens, giving a nice vulnerability to the proceedings. His voice is also one of utmost sincerity; you feel like he is singing from his heart, not from words on a page.

It also doesn't hurt that the backing arrangement, with groovy bass, a peppy guitar melody from Greg Petito, and steady drums, helps create a warm, comforting atmosphere. This song feels like a blanket is being draped over you, while you're safe inside away from the bitter cold and snow outside.

Gardner & Fuller - Original Demos

With Gardner & Fuller's Original Demos, listeners are invited to immerse themselves into the compositions and production of outstanding songs created by the songwriting team of Cecily Gardner & Scott Fuller, featuring the silky vocals of the late Warren Wiebe.

In 1989 Gardner & Fuller traveled from their San Francisco base to attend a special music seminar at the heralded Santa Monica club "At My Place" in Los Angeles. The gathering featured David Foster and a vocalist David had just discovered by the name of Warren Wiebe. While Warren delivered one riveting performance after another, Foster talked about a song he'd written for Chaka Khan called "Through The Fire" but lamented that he couldn't remember how to play it. Cecily Gardner leaned over from her seat near the stage and mentioned that Scott could play it. David invited Scott Fuller to the stage and together they performed this classic composition with Warren singing it in Chaka's key.

Soon after that evening, Cecily and Scott invited Warren up to the Bay Area to sing on several demos of their songs. In spite of obvious personal issues Warren was dealing with in his life, he performed incredibly and the weekend spent together endeared Warren to them forever.

This special collection of Gardner & Fuller's original demos includes the songs Warren Wiebe contributed to as well as many other exceptional compositions from Cecily and Scott's impressive songwriting portfolio. It's always fascinating when the songwriters are also the performers, as the listener is hearing the creation as close to the version that was conjured in the composer's minds. Cecily's splendid vocals along with Scott's superb keyboards, programming, arrangements and production make this release another treasured jewel to enjoy and infinitely revisit.

Released in a limited edition of only 1000 copies.

Lindsey Webster: The Unlikely #1 on the Charts

By: Ryan Nelson

If you are a fan of smooth jazz, you might know a thing or two about Lindsey Webster. The young vocalist has been making waves this year, as her single, "Fool Me Once" topped the Smooth Jazz Songs chart earlier this year, becoming only the second vocally-driven song to do.

Webster has been well-versed in music for most of her life. She grew up in Woodstock, NY and attended a school that focused very much on the arts, including music. Her first foray into music was playing the cello. After ten years of formidable cello-playing, she attended high school at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It was there Webster found her voice, by literally, developing her singing voice.

Since 2009, Webster has been performing professionally with her husband and music partner, Keith Slattery. They and a slew of other musicians have performed over 600 shows together. Many of these shows have been around New York City and New York state.

Webster's years of effort paid off. Her second album, "You Change", released in 2015, contained the song "Fool Me Once" which topped the Billboard Smooth Jazz Songs chart earlier this year, a spot it held for four weeks. This beats out the previous record for a vocally-driven song on that chart, Sade's "Soldier of Love", which held that position for three weeks in early 2010. Additionally, of all the songs to have topped the Smooth Jazz songs chart since its inception in 2005, only those two are vocally-driven.

Since receiving the honor of topping the Smooth Jazz Songs chart, Webster has spoken very humbly and graciously. She said, "The fact that I'm on a Billboard chart, let alone at No. 1...let alone in a mostly instrumental format, has been a huge turning point for me."

Webster also spoke of her appreciation for fellow chart-topper Sade. "Having the only other vocal No. 1 since queen Sade is an amazing thing, almost incomprehensible," Webster said.

Additionally, she expressed her appreciation for Slattery and the rest of her band for their work in helping bring "Fool Me Once" to the top of the charts.

"Without him and our band turning what was just an idea into a beautiful song, we would not have what is now a No. 1 hit on Billboard!" Webster said.

Despite her impressive achievement with "Fool Me Once", Webster has not shown any sign of slowing down. In fact, she has already released her third album, "Back to Your Heart", which was released by Shanachie Entertainment earlier this year. The album demonstrates the power of Webster's voice and the progress she continues to make.

Webster's achievements have shown that success in music is possible with work ethic and overall passion. It is very likely we will be hearing about her topping the charts again soon.

Simpson Is Joined By An All-Star Line Up Including Boney James & Peter White

"The melody is still king," declares chart-topping keyboardist, composer, prolific studio musician and producer Brian Simpson. A master at crafting unforgettable melodies and timeless anthems, Simpson's soulful approach to the music has made him first call for many including Janet Jackson, Teena Marie, George Duke, Stanley Clarke and Dave Koz, for whom he has had the distinction of being musical director for close to two decades. Brian Simpson's newest masterpiece, Persuasion, is the perfect amalgamation of influences that are close to the pianist's heart: Jazz, R&B, Funk, Soul and his late father Bill Simpson, to whom the CD is dedicated. "My dad listened to jazz with such a keen ear. I learned to enjoy the beauty of a great jazz solo and how to discern the musicians with great phrasing from listening to music with him."

Persuasion is Simpson's seventh recording as a leader and fourth CD for Shanachie Entertainment and features all original music. Front and center throughout the CD is Simpson's eloquent touch, sophisticated harmonic sensibility, bluesy overtones and R&B stylings. His approach is simple. "I'm following in the footsteps of those that laid the foundation of contemporary jazz music," says Simpson. "Fusing jazz and R&B is just what contemporary jazz is all about." Joined by an all-star ensemble, Simpson takes his mission to new heights and aligns himself with an all-star cast of friends including contemporary jazz stars saxophonist Boney James, Peter White, bassist Alex Al (Michael Jackson, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé), composer/guitarist Steve Oliver, saxophonist Steve Alaniz (Bobby McFerrin and Nancy Wilson), guitarists Darrell Crooks (Gregory Porter, Ledisi, Boyz II Men, Will Downing) and Kendall Gilder (Jennifer Lopez), percussionist Ramon Yslas (David Sanborn, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Patti Labelle), and drummer Omari Williams (Boney James, Ruben Studdard, Rick Braun, Jessy J).

10th annual Capital Jazz SuperCruise

The 10th annual Capital Jazz SuperCruise sailed from Miami, FL, it took place October 23-30, 2016 and was supposed to sail to San Juan, St. Kitts and Great Stirrup Cay. Due to the damage done by hurricane Matthews, Great Stirrups Cay was replaced with Nassau, Bahamas, but since we were here for the music, this was no big deal for me.

As opposed to earlier reviews of this cruise, this time I went for a diary approach and listed my personal activities and impressions of the proceedings. There were tons of other shows going on, mostly comedy and neo-soul, which I more or less ignored and didn't cover below. To get a general idea what a Capital Jazz Cruise offers, check out last year's review.

For this anniversary cruise which was supposed to top everything that preceded it, the SuperCruise sailed on a bigger ship, the newly built Norwegian Getaway which accommodates almost 4000 passengers, a step up from the smaller Carnival ships that had been used before. Unfortunately, this was not without problems. The biggest one was the fact that the size of the venues available on the ship didn't match the number of attendees, so we had to make reservations to control the flow of people. After having embarked the ship, long lines of SuperCruisers were building up in front of the screens where one had to reserve their favourite shows - a thing considered by many to be a nuisance and not serving the party spirit. People showed up well prepared with lists of artists they wanted to see, only to find out after having stood in line for hours that many shows were already completely booked and therefore unavailable to them. In addition, the reservation system did seem to have a few glitches. In the end, many people only could get tickets to 1-2 major shows, which caused a lot of anger and frustration. Many wanted to speak to a representative, so the lines in front of the box office desk were long, and the noise from all the chatter in the room was almost deafening. I saw lots of unhappy cruisers around me!