Under the gracious auspices of festival promoter, John Ertl, SwimTeam Inc., and the luxurious Osthoff Resort on the shores of Elkhart Lake in southeast Wisconsin, “Jazz on the Vine”
is a not-to-be-missed annual event for jazz enthusiasts. In a most gracious, relaxed atmosphere, it’s a fun weekend of good food, wine tasting, and world class music in a beautiful setting.
The vine part of “Jazz on the Vine” is several vintners who set up tasting tables at the back of the tent, who bring their spectacular wines from Chile, Australia, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, and New Zealand, as well as from domestic wineries in California, Washington, and Oregon. Guests enjoy sipping rare wines and sampling fine cuisine as they listen to the musical styling of the talented jazz musicians.
Under a beautiful, big, white tent on the resort grounds, there was a sold-out audience of about 2,000 people. Friday we had gorgeous weather and Saturday the spring rains made us appreciate the cover of the tent.
Opening the 7th annual festival Friday night was an outstanding concert by Eric Darius. His band began playing and we could hear the saxophone but couldn’t see him. A spotlight picked up Darius walking up the aisle from the back of the tent. Once discovering Darius, the audience leapt to their feet cheering in the first of many standing ovations. As he made his way to the stage, the back of his white shirt sparkled in the spotlight – there was a handsome, sequined emblem, reminding us of the star that this gifted musician has become. All the while, he played “Just Like That” from his new album. Also from his new album Going All Out
Darius and his virtuoso band played “Because of You,” a cover of Ne-Yo’s big hit. Darius plays with the breathing of a singer, to the point it feels like he is singing the song but with his sax! Among the other songs he also played were “Chillin’ Out,” “Just For The Moment,” “Breathe,” and Alicia Keys’ hit “If I Ain’t Got You .” My favorite was his new song “Feeling’ Da Rhythm,” Darius shows off his roots with this hot Reggaetón tune – it literally sizzles as Darius plays like he has caught on fire! Eric set the bar so high, it was hard to believe this was only the first show of the festival. Eric has grown over the past few years into a savvy, fan-oriented performer. He’s become more comfortable introducing each song and reacting to the audience. The show was beautifully paced with many high energy grooves and slow jams, which prompted many couples to get up and dance in the aisles. This talented, high energy saxman simply blew us away with his superb show. Try to catch him live. He’ll be touring this summer with Norman Brown’s Summer Storm, and at Catalina this October.
We barely had time to catch our breath from Eric Darius’s outstanding show, when next came the genre veterans Spyro Gyra. Featuring alto saxophonist, songwriter, and founding bandleader Jay Beckenstein who sounded AMAZING, Scott Ambush (bass), Julio Fernandez (guitar), Tom Schuman (keys) and a newcomer to the band, featured in the new release, Trinidad native drummer Bonny B who brings a calypso, Caribbean flavor to the music. This jazz fusion band from the early 1970s is among the most prolific and successful groups of the genre. Their interesting music, which has been influential in the development of smooth jazz, combines funk to R&B to fusion to jazz to Latin. They are skilled instrumentalists and amazing live performers. They are playing better than ever – even more energetic, creative and relevant than 30 years ago - from the extensive and inventive improvisation with each song, changing up some of their hits with a swing feel, and playing cool new tracks from the new CD Down the Wire
. It was a thrill to hear their most successful hit singles are "Shaker Song" and "Morning Dance" but with a 21st century facelift – fresh and brilliant. Quite honestly, this is the most impressive show I’ve heard from them in decades. They are playing like they’re reborn. WOW!
Closing Friday evening, we were treated to the world premiere of Three Brothers on Tenor, or 3BT, Wilton Felder, Ronnie Laws, and Gary Davis. These three soulful, jazz innovators combined their individual styles along with guest vocalist, Tecora Rogers, bringing soul, funk, blues, and contemporary jazz in a 90-minute show-stopping performance. Each artist took the lead for about a third of the show, playing their hits. Wilton Felder sounded great playing “Street Life” adeptly supported by the soulful, Chicago based jazz/gospel singer Tecora Rogers
. Sounding simply amazing, Ronnie Laws dazzled with his signature style. It’s like he plays every note around
the melody and you still get how brilliant it is. Gary Davis performed well-known songs like “Summertime,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and EWF’s “Can’t Hide Love.” They opened and closed the show with a large group, everyone jamming on stage together.
Saturday afternoon, Alex Bugnon opened with a show that was truly astonishing. The stellar band included long time partners in music, bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report, Michael Brecker,) drummer Poogie Bell (Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford,) and guitarist Ron Lawrence (music director for Boney James.) I’ve heard Bugnon play many, many times. But somehow, today, he transformed his performance to new artistic heights. Bugnon has enhanced the level, quality, and complexity of playing to include intricate, classical elements in his piano style, all the while maintaining his signature funk, groove, R&B, gospel, and jazz. It’s no wonder; he began his music career playing classical. And I can see why he’s come full circle now. He is dexterous and agile, with delicate fingering, and breathtaking runs and arpeggios. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – so transformative was the music, it was like discovering a brilliant new artist! Forgive me if I gushing too much but this was like a new discovery for me. I enjoy experiencing an artist’s growth and development; it’s exciting to take the journey with them. Bugnon will be performing through the summer; try to catch him live. And he’ll have a new record coming soon which apparently will reflect what I’m trying to describe, so watch for that. The Poogie Bell Band and Ron Lawrence will also have new CDs soon. Don’t miss out!
As a special preview treat, the music played in between sets was from an upcoming album from Lifeforce’s star vocalist Lisa McClowry. During this interval in the festival, if I heard it once, I heard it 20 times, “Who is
this singing?!!” With people actually paying attention over the loud din of human voices and sets changing, you can imagine that McClowry’s vocals are very compelling. Look for her new CD in June. Of course, we’ll be reviewing it on SmoothViews.com!
Milwaukee native Daryl Stuermer was next up to entertain the sold-out crowd. He has a colorful and varied musical pedigree with diverse career experiences as writer, producer, performer and recording artist. Stuermer went on his first world tour and recorded four albums with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, a. In 1977, Stuermer went to New York City to audition for the role of guitarist/bassist which began the 20-year relationship with Genesis. When Phil Collins formed his own group in 1982, he selected Stuermer as lead guitarist. Citing Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix as influences, he understandably rocks the house for a very full set! The audience reveled in Stuermer’s driving, electric guitar. It was full of powerful, energetic, and, yes, melodic music. He’s backed by an incredible band, which includes the famous Russian-born keyboardist, Kostia. The interplay with Stuermer and Kostia was especially entertaining. This jazz festival performance was utterly superb.
Right after dinner, the Kyle Eastwood Band took stage and oh! What a pleasure it is to hear! Wisconsin audiences are no strangers to the Eastwood Band straight ahead, ensemble jazz style, with varying flavors from funk, to post bop, cool chill, world ambient, and hip-hop breakbeats. One is transported to a French jazz club. With Kyle on electric and upright bass, he was joined by Doug Webb on sax, Jim Rotondi on trumpet, Joel Taylor on drums, and Hans Zermuelen on keys. Throughout the set, the tight horn and rhythm sections were outstanding. With sounds of swing, groove, and funk overtones, The Eastwood Band played several songs from the Paris Blue album including “Cosmo,” “Marrakech,” “Big Noise (From Winnetka,)” and the post-modern jazz modalities of title track. We were also treated to songs from the brand new album Metropolitain out in June, including the piano driven title track, the beautifully melodic “Song For You,” and, in the style of The Meters, “Hot Box.” The crowd really loved Kyle Eastwood and his stellar band. Many could not keep in their seats and were dancing in the aisles.
Kyle Eastwood’s upcoming record, Metropolitain, is due to be released in June 2009 in the US. It was recorded in Paris with some of his contemporaries he admires most: drummer Manu Katché, trumpeter Till Brönner, French star vocalist Camille, and pianist Eric Legnini. Co-produced by Erin Davis (son of Miles) and Kyle’s long term writing partner Michael Stevens, the new album’s forward thinking style and stars represents the cream of today’s jazz musicians. A worldwide tour will follow in late 2009.
Closing the evening and the festival was an excellent show from acoustic guitarist Peter White and saxophonist Mindi Abair. Performing some of their popular songs, including “Who’s That Lady,” “Bueno Funk,” and “Promenade,” from White, and, “Bloom,” “Save the Last Dance,” and “Smile,” from Abair. Performed as a duet, Abair’s “Everytime” was exceptional. The musical arrangements from these two artists are such a lovely yet unique coupling. As you might expect, the warm acoustic guitar sounds of incomparable Peter White paired with the distinctive melodic quality of saxwoman Mindi Abair was pure delight. As a special surprise, wearing an amazing long coat, guitarist Jim Peterik of LifeForce made a special appearance for Abair's encore "The Joint!" What an entertainer Peterik is! All in all, it was a very satisfying way to end a fully enjoyable jazz festival.
To close this review, it must be mentioned that there are a few more stars to this show. But they were in the background, working their magic to make the concert such a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable experience for everyone. Our hearty thanks go to John Ertl of SwimTeam, Inc. as well as Laura Whitman and Abbey Heise of The Osthoff Resort.