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review by:
Bonnie Schendell &
Mary Bentley

photos by:
Kat Sarracco

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Weekend One

In the sports world, March is synonymous with one thing – March Madness, but in the jazz world, March can only mean that it’s time for the first festival of the year to get under way.  We’re talking about the Berks Jazz Festival held every year in Reading, PA.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival.  It began in 1990 as a small weekend festival with several acts. Twenty years later, the festival has grown to 10 full days and over 120 musical performances.   People come from all over the country and across the globe to take part in the festival.  While the music is always top notch, this festival offers a lot more than that.  There is a unique emphasis on music education that we have never seen at other festivals.  Throughout the ten days of the festival, there are many opportunities for students of music, and, for budding musicians to have hands on learning experiences from some of the most talented musicians in the world.  There are music clinics, workshops, critiques, and classes.   By far, one of the more popular educational opportunities is Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp.   The boot camp, now in its 6th year, continues to increase in popularity.  The boot camp is an intense three day event, at the start of the festival.  This year, there were about 100 students of all ages and skill levels registered.  Gerald Veasley always assembles an A-list of talented musicians to instruct during boot camp.  Besides Veasley, this year’s instructors are: Chris Farr, Adam Nitti, Richard Waller III, Anthony Wellington, Michael Manring, Brian Bromberg, Bakithi Kumalo, and Stu Hamm.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.  I ran into a boot camp participant from my area who was attending for the first time.  He loved it and said he’d definitely be back next year.  Some of us Smoothviews staffers had the opportunity to sit in on Brian Bromberg’s clinic.  It was standing room only.  What bass player would miss an opportunity to learn from a master craftsman like Bromberg?    

Now, on to the music.  For us, the festival started with trumpeter Chris Botti and his band on Friday night.  Botti is a very generous performer who had no problem letting his band share the spotlight with him.  And who could blame him?  With Billy Childs on keys, Andy Ezrin on keys, James Genus on bass, Mark Whitfield on guitar, and Billy Kilson on drums, this is one of the tightest and talented bands around.  Botti was joined on a few songs by singer Lisa Fisher, longtime backup singer for the Rolling Stones, who sang powerful renditions of “The Look of Love,” “The Very Thought of You,” and an upbeat version of “Good Morning Heartache,” which made it seem like a whole new song.  It was a nice surprise.  Anyone familiar with Botti knows that he is a Miles Davis fan.  Chris and the band performed one of Miles Davis’ classic jazz tunes, “Flamenco Sketches.”  Botti also performed what has become one of his signature songs, the hauntingly beautiful “Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso.”  He closed the show by once more featuring his band and turning the spotlight over to his amazing drummer, Billy Kilson.

Our next show was the Denis DiBlasio Quartet featuring Randy Brecker on trumpet.  Denis DiBlasio is a Berks Jazz Fest regular, having played here many times over the years.  This show gave us an opportunity to hear the difference in styles between the more contemporary Chris Botti and the straight ahead bebop sound of Brecker.   This is an example of the musical diversity this festival offers.  There is truly something for everybody.

After a good night’s sleep, a leisurely breakfast at the West Reading Diner, and a little shopping on Penn Ave, we were ready to hit the concert scene.  The afternoon show was a multi-headliner event.  It began with keyboardist Greg Karukas, who was making his third appearance at the Berks Jazz Fest.  He was accompanied by the Berks Jazz Fest Horns.  Adding a horn section to a band at least doubles the performance level.  Karukas played some new material, as well as familiar favorites like: “Severna Park,” “Girl in the Red Dress,” “Night Shift,” and “I Meant What I Said.”  The crowd was really into the music, and Greg and his band performed well.  The audience was especially appreciative of saxophone player Brad Collins, who is not only a talented player, but a talented music teacher with the Baltimore school system for 27 years.  His students should be impressed and inspired.
Greg Karukas was followed by Kim Waters with special guest, Maysa.  This was our first time seeing Kim at Berks without his partners in crime, otherwise known as the Sax Pack.  The crowd seemed to enjoy him, especially when he played his familiar hits, like “Waterfall.”  It’s a great tune, and we get the impression that Kim really likes playing it.  You can’t help but move when you hear it, and, it always gets the crowd going.  When Kim introduced Maysa, she received a very enthusiastic welcome from the audience.  Maysa has a new release out called A Woman in Love, and she graced us with several tunes from that release including “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” and “Honey Bee.”  Generally, we tend to cringe a little when we hear musicians performing covers and remakes.  Let’s face it.  Unless you’re bringing something fresh and different to the song, what’s the point?  But when Maysa sings her songs, in her signature style; with the richness of voice, the control, the range, and the scatting, it just does something to you.  Thankfully, she sings and doesn’t scream, but make no mistake, she can belt it out, (and she does), where and when she needs to.   Maysa could sing the 1000+ page Health Care Reform Act and it would sound great.  This is our third time seeing Maysa at Berks as part of other people’s shows, and it amazes and astounds us why this woman has not been given her own show at this festival.   We’re not sure what they’re afraid of, possibly the damage once she blows the roof off the place?  But, we’re putting it out there:  give Maysa a show and let her do her thing. 

With the afternoon shows wrapped up, we headed to dinner, and then prepared for the evening shows, beginning with Jason Miles.  For several years, Jason Miles has put together some great package shows for Berks.  This year, he brought us the Grover Washington Tribute Show.  This show was especially significant because Grover was based in Philadelphia, which is not too far from Berks.  He’s played at this festival before.  More importantly, Grover and his music were special not only to his fans, but to so many musicians we listen to in the smooth and contemporary jazz genres.  His influence is still felt by many of today’s musicians. That is a great tribute unto itself.  So, Jason Miles once again assembled top notch talent for this show, about half a dozen musicians, including the legendary percussionist and songwriter Ralph McDonald as part of his band.  He also had Jeff Golub, Randy Brecker, Chante Moore, Gerald Albright, and Ada Rovatti helping to bring the music of Grover Washington Jr. to the forefront once again.  We thought the scaled down personnel worked well for this show.  It created a more intimate environment, and you got to see the musicians each play more material.  It wasn’t just playing one song than walk off.   We should also mention that Grover’s family was in attendance for this show; a very nice tribute indeed.

Brian Bromberg, another Berks Jazz Fest favorite, played the late show.  His band included Tom Zinc (keys), Alex Milstein (bass), Will Kennedy (drums), and Gary Meek (sax.)  Also, Chuck Loeb (another Berks Jazz Fest regular) and Jeff Lorber sat in with the band.  Special guests included Cindy Bradley on trumpet, Marion Meadows and Michael Lington on saxophones.  Putting this group in the last time slot proved a wise decision because they kept the music going past midnight.  When you get musicians of this caliber together, this is what you get.  They just want to play.  And play they did.  Songs included “Elephants on Ice Skates,”  “Mr. Miller,” which was a tribute to bassist Marcus Miller, “It Is What It Is,” and, surprisingly enough the “Theme from Sanford & Son,” a tribute to Quincy Jones.  When the band began playing this, the audience chuckled a bit, but once you get past the fact that it’s a TV theme song, you realize that it’s a nice jazzy piece of music.  Do you want to know how talented this group is?  This show was performed with almost no rehearsal time. 
Following the late show, we moved over into Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base.  Another show had just ended, and they were setting up for a late night jam session.  The students in the Boot Camp were going to perform that night.  There were bass players everywhere, patiently waiting their turn to play.  Playing was limited to a few minutes each to give everyone who wanted a chance to play.  We were blown away by a young bass player, who’s playing was more advanced than you would expect of one so young.  He was great.  It all seemed so natural to him, and he was very comfortable playing.  We later found out that this talented young man is the 13 year old son of Heads Up founder Dave Love. 

So much music (and shopping) in one day can wear a girl out.  We slept well that night and after Sunday morning breakfast at the Wyomissing Family Restaurant, we were good to go again.  Welcome to “Acoustic Sunday,” the theme for the afternoon’s concerts.   The opening act was Tuck & Patti who played their style of music to their devoted following.  This duo has been around for awhile, and has graced the Berks stage in previous years, so the Berks crowd was happy to receive them.

Earl Klugh rounded out the afternoon concert with an exciting performance by him and his band.  This was our first time seeing Earl Klugh perform, and we enjoyed it immensely.  For us, it was the surprise of the weekend.  Earl’s band consisted of Lenny Price (sax), David Lee (keys), Ron Otis (drums), and Al Turner (bass.)  The set list included the classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes “featuring Lenny Price, and “Wind and the Sea.”  Earl Klugh is one of those solid, talented performers.  He’s not flashy; he just does what he does very well.  We were a bit disappointed, however, because he did not play one of our favorites, “Desert Paradise” from Peculiar Situation. We are a forgiving bunch and can see how that may have been an oversight, but we’d like Mr. Klugh to correct that for next time.  (Of course we’re kidding.  He’s Earl Klugh, and he can play whatever he wants.)

The evening ended with a premier concert by trumpet great Winton Marsalis.  Though we would have loved to stay and hear him play, unfortunately, the real world calls.  We had a long drive ahead and had to work the next day.  Winton is a fantastic musician and I’m sure the show was outstanding.

Next weekend we’re back in Reading for the conclusion of the 20th anniversary Berks Jazz Fest.  We hope this work week goes by quickly.  We can hardly wait.  Why must work always get in the way of our enjoyment?

Weekend Two

As diehard smooth jazz fans, one weekend of music is never enough.  So, back we went to Reading, PA for the final weekend of the 20th Anniversary Berks Jazz Fest for another 3 days of terrific music and great friends. 

Friday night started off with Rick Braun & Friends.  The friends included David Benoit, Richard Elliott, and Selina Albright, daughter of Gerald Albright, and were accompanied by the Reading Pops Strings and the Berks Jazz Fest Horns.  The arrangements for this show were done by maestro David Benoit, who has added conductor to his list of talents.  It was a welcome addition, added much flavor and filled the songs with volume, enrichment, and another dimension.  It was especially felt on Benoit’s classic tune, “Kei’s Song.”  David also gave us a great rendition of “Freedom at Midnight,” complete with a Schroeder moment!  Rick Braun, who is getting more and more comfortable singing, belted out “My Funny Valentine,” and dedicated it to all the Moms who made their kids do things they didn’t want to do, and thanked them later.  It was beautiful and touching.  Richard Elliott’s most poignant moment came when he played “Your Secret Love” backed by singer Selina Albright and the Reading Pops Strings.  Selina Albright amazed the crowd with her powerful voice on two songs, one of which was an original composition written with her Dad.

Immediately following Rick & Friends, we raced across town to hear the “Bloke and a Blonde” show from the dynamic duo, Peter White and Mindi Abair, backed by Mindi’s usual band.  After all of these years playing together, Peter and Mindi are so connected and in sync with each other that it never seems like separate artists on a package tour.  They are an extension of each other’s music.  A perfect example of this was the acoustic version of Mindi’s tune “Everytime,” where it was Mindi singing, accompanied only by Peter.  They are like a married couple finishing each other’s sentences.  It was a high energy, fun-filled show to a nearly packed house.

The night wasn’t nearly over even though the clock struck midnight.  There was much more music to be heard in the Jazz Base for the Midnight Jam session hosted by Mr. Entertainment, Nick Colionne.  These jam sessions are always a treat because you just never know who is going to pop in.  From headliners to side musicians to local musicians, it’s always a surprise.  This time we had Nick Colionne, Rick Braun, David Benoit, Eric Darius, Andrew Neu, Rob DeBoer from Four80East, Tim Gant, Drew Davidson, Chuck Loeb, Jamey Tate, Rayford Griffin, Third Richardson, and so many others that it was difficult to keep track of who was coming and going.  The Jam wrapped up in the wee hours.

After a few (very few) precious hours of sleep, and breakfast at our hotel, we headed to lunch with some of our good friends from Chicago and PA.  As you can see, besides music, eating is also a favorite pastime, and there is no shortage of fabulous places to go in Reading. 

The afternoon started off with a great show featuring saxman, Shilts, Four80East, and guitarist, Matt Marshak.  Shilts took the lead with his own hits and a Down to the Bone medley.  Four80East, from Canada, made their first appearance at the Berks Jazz Fest and were very well-received by the crowd.  Matt Marshak has been making a big splash of late, playing more festivals and getting more crowd recognition.  His music has grown over the last couple of years and he is much more comfortable on stage.

The second afternoon shift was held by Nick Colionne featuring Eric Darius.  This show was energy to the extreme!  These two artists just fed off each other and never let the crowd take a breath.  Both played several of their individual hits, but we have to recognize a couple of tremendous highlights.  Eric’s version of the Alicia Key’s song, “If I Can’t Have You,” just wowed the audience.  With so much emotion and power in his playing, this was his moment to shine.  Dapper as always, Nick had the crowd laughing with his bluesy “Dirty Dishes.”  Nick never ceases to amaze us with his sheer talent, fast fingers and humor.

The late show featuring Euge Groove, was almost sold out.  Euge played the hits from his new CD, “Sunday Morning,” and old favorites including the audience participation song, “Born to Groove.”  One significant highlight was when “Slow Jam” morphed into “Amazing Grace” and then further into “God Bless America.” 

As the clock struck midnight, the jam session began again.  Hosted again by Nick Colionne, tonight’s musicians included Gerald Veasley, Andrew Neu, Jackiem Joyner, Chris Miskel, Tim Gant, Rob DeBoer, and a host of others.  They played into the early hours of the morning, leaving their fans craving more.

On the last day of this 10-day Festival, we dragged our tired, but happy bodies, out of bed and headed out to the West Reading Diner for breakfast, where we ran into other equally happy but exhausted friends.  It was a bittersweet day knowing that we had three final concerts and would then be saying goodbye to our friends.  But before we got all melancholy, there was great music to be heard, so we trudged on.

The first concert, we dubbed “The Junior All-Stars.”  It featured Oli Silk, Jessy J, and Jackiem Joyner.  These up and comers had never played together before, so seeing this show was a treat. Jackiem has really matured in his playing since seeing his debut at Berks a few years back.  He has style and flair.  It was our first time seeing Oli Silk, who really impressed the crowd with his light-hearted, up-beat tunes.  Jessy J played some great songs that reflected her Latin roots and was just having a great time with them.  These three will be taking this show out on the road this year, so keep your eyes open for a chance to catch them somewhere in your neighborhood.

Late afternoon was 6-string heaven with Guitarzzz featuring Chieli Minucci, Paul Jackson, Jr., and Chuck Loeb.  They also had Jay Rowe on keys, Brian Dunn on drums, and Terry Brooks on bass.  For guitar lovers, this was just amazing to watch.  These three guitarists are so different and have such unique styles.  We were treated to “Just Us” from Chuck Loeb, “The Workout” from Paul Jackson Jr., and all three on “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” which started off with a new, slower three guitar intro.  It was all just perfect. 

The grand finale concert was none other than the funkiest guy out there, Boney James.  The band included Mark Stephens on keys, Smitty Smith on bass, Rob Bacon on guitar, and Third Richardson on drums.  The show started nearly 30 minutes late because drummer, Third, was learning the entire show backstage due to a travel mishap with regular drummer, Omari Williams.  Omari made it after the first two songs, but it just goes to show the caliber of these musicians who can step in at a moment’s notice and play seamlessly for each other, if necessary.  Boney gave us a ton of hits including “The Total Experience,” “Send One Your Love,” “Butter,” “Stone Groove,” “Stop, Look, Listen,” “Boneyism,” “Let It Go,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Sweet Thing.”  Whew!!!  So much music!  Boney has performed at Berks many times and never, ever offers up anything but 100% of himself.  He was so gracious with fans and so giving of his time after the show.  It was a very fitting ending.

So as another year of Berks ended, we bid adieu to Reading, PA, to all of the musicians who wowed us for 10 days, to the staff who put together this amazing festival year after year, and to the 300+ volunteers who give up their time to make this successful.  The team effort that goes into this does not go unnoticed.  Until next year….