The “first annual” Uptown Charlotte Jazz Fest was met with a lot of enthusiastic fans from the Carolinas on a hot evening that had the music to match. Its always hard to tell how a new festival like this will do, but based on the turn out and reactions of the fans and artists, this one could be around for a long time. With the skyline serving as a backdrop, the location was easy to get to for everyone. It brought in some of the hottest names in smooth jazz today.
Ken Navarro started the show with a set full of energy as he bounced from acoustic to electric guitar. The Baltimore native started with “In My Wildest Dreams” and followed up with “Smooth Sensations.” There was a great mix on a cut from his latest release in which he played “On My Way To Somewhere.” I liked that one a lot. He finished out the set with the intense “Try Again” while featuring Jay Rowe on keys. It was a perfect way to start the evening.
Keyboardist Alex Bugnon was front and center for his performance in the queen city. “Harlem On My Mind” went over well with the crowd. He talked about going back home to Europe, and hosting the Montreux Jazz Festival. We all had a lot of fun with “The World Is a Ghetto” from his Going Home disc. He was followed on stage by the energetic saxophonist, Mike Phillips. He was all over the stage and into the crowd as well, as he sang and played. He had a lot of fun on the EWI as he did “Thank You For Being A Friend.” He had the crowd on their feet as he rapped a little and then played one that he had recorded with Wayman Tisdale some time ago. He introduced a young lady he had been working with for a while and she sang “Summertime” for us. It was a great choice considering the heat of the day. She was followed on stage by vocalist Maysa. She sang the ever popular “Honey Bee” from her Woman In Love disc, and then followed it up with “Deep Waters.” She is always a fan favorite, and they were glad to have her here. Mike joined her back on stage as the finished the set with some Earth Wind and Fire music.
Norman Brown kept the energy going as only he can. Night had settled in and it was time to take it up a notch. After bringing out “Let’s Take A Ride” from his Stay With Me CD, he settled into what he called his After the Storm medley which included “For the Love of You.” The versatile guitarist showed off his talents with a little Jimi Hendrix, some Wes Montgomery, and then a little George Benson. That was fun to hear. He took it to the front of the stage with “West Coast Coolin” and had a lot of scatting as he really got the crowd into it. He finished up with “Outa Nowhere” as he brought down the house.
It had been several years since Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons had been in the Carolinas. So it was great to see them back again. With a couple of new members since their last visit, the hit the stage running and didn’t look back as they launched “Weekend In Monaco” and “High Roller.” Eric Marienthal took the lead on “Modern Art” which is the title track from their latest release as well as “Aspen.” His sax really sounded great with the group, and it was a nice suprise to see him with them again. After a really good drum solo, they hit “Brave New World” that featured Russ on guitar. The hits kept rolling from the guys as they finished out the night. After a quick encore, the fest was over, and the “first” one was in the books with a lot of happy fans. It’s becoming apparent that Charlotte is becoming a key player in the smooth jazz scene, and I look forward to next year’s show and all it has to offer. This was a great evening of smooth jazz and a fun night for fans.