Special Report by Clifford Beck
Hot. Of all the music and sights I saw during the CJF weekend, what stuck in my mind was the heat. It was hotter than hell during that weekend. But the music made up for it. That, and a lot of water.
Read on for Clifford Beck’s recap of performances by Brian Culbertson and the Funk Experience, Spyro Gyra, Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, Alton Merrell, B.K. Jackson, Wayman Tisdale, Four80East, Down to the Bone, Joe Sample and Randy Crawford, and Ken Ford.
We didn’t attend the Friday night concert with Justin Young, Boney James, and Brian McKnight. Hopefully someone can chime in later about their performances. We did attend the the Capital Jazz Challenge Competition at the Hilton Columbia on Friday night. There were six finalists this year. Every single one of them played their ass off, with a few standouts I really enjoyed.
Alton Merrell on keyboards didn’t win but, in my uneducated opinion, he should have. A humble master of his instrument, he didn’t overpower with a lot of volume and simple chord changes. This cat is a piano player. And I mean that in a good way. What sealed the deal for me was when he closed his set with “Spain.” Yeah, that “Spain,” Chick Corea’s “Spain.” Did no one else in the crowd, except for the judges and maybe a few more then me, realized what they were seeing and hearing? Taking nothing away from B.K. Jackson, the sax player who won the competition, I would have voted for Mr. Merrell hands down. B.K. Jackson is a 16 year old saxophone player out of Tampa Bay. Simply put, we are going to be hearing great things from this kid. He is a absolute marvel on the sax, playing on a level years beyond his age.
Saturday. Ken Ford playing electric violin started off the festival playing a hell of a energetic set with more funk than I’ve ever seen in a violin player. Lots of energy,and showmanship. Spyro Gyra surprised me. I was expecting somewhat of a laidback set from them, but that wasn’t so. Upbeat, tight and a great crowd pleaser. I look forward to seeing them live again. We then walked up to the Symphony Woods Stage to see Plunky. This was my second time seeing Plunky. The first was years ago at a festival inside Washington D.C. He was great then,and even better now. The man’s got vocal skills to equal his horn blowing,and when he played “Drop,” the crowd went crazy. Nice set.
I’ve seen Wayman Tisdale before and, as usual, he started his set nice and tight with what could be considered a signature tune of his as well as Earth, Wind & Fire’s, “Can’t Hide Love.” He played a great set, but it looked like Wayman was hurting. His medical issues seemed to be bothering him. and he walked off the stage using a cane limping. Regardless, he performed great, didn’t hold back, and was backed by a hell of a tight group. He put on a nice performance. Again, hopefully someone can chime in on the performances of Dianne Reeves and Chris Botti. We didn’t stay for their performances,and left the Festival just before the wind picked up, the sky opened up,and it poured buckets of rain.
Sunday.Four80East opened up Sunday. I’ve got plenty of their music, but never have I seen them live. I was impressed. They played what I would call a upbeat, laidback set with a bit of funk. Great musicianship and a good rapport with the crowd. These guys put down a hell of a good groove. Ditto for Down to the Bone. They grooved also. Nowhere as laid back as Four80East. These boys came with the jazz-funk. Best line of the day was when Paul “Shilts” Weimer referred to the crowd on the lawn as “You crazy bastards” because they were right under the sun.
RnR. Rick Braun & Richard Elliot. I remember Rick touring with Sade back in the early nineties and Richard Elliot used to blow the funk with Tower Of Power. They played a hell of a set. They also bought the funk. Obviously they are good friends as well performers because it showed, even when Richard Elliott threw a large bucket at Rick Braun. Their band was nice and tight and both of them got a chance to open up a and bit together and separately.
Joe Sample played a very nice acoustic trio set with his son Nicklas on upright bass,and a nice drummer by the name of Johnny Vidacovich from New Orleans on the trapset. Joe played about four cuts, then invited Randy Crawford out on stage. This woman has a voice that I could listen to while drinking a nice single malt,and enjoying a great cigar. I had to settle for just a lot of ice water but Randy sung her songs with a feeling I’ve always enjoyed. Second best line of the day was when Randy offered congrats to Hillary for running a great campaign and called Bill a rat husband.
This brings me to the last act of the festival, Brian Culbertson and the Funk Experience. Simply put, I was blown away. This cat brings a 11 piece band with him that is so tight it ought to be against the law. And totally bought the house down. Think Earth, Wind & Fire with Larry Dunn out front. Think Parliament, and/or Bootsy with the keyboards out front. If Brian Culbertson could enter a time machine and go back to the seventies and play with Bootsy, Parliament, EWF, Brick, Wild Cherry, The Commodores, Graham Central Station, any of the funk-jazz groups from back in the day, he would already be gone. I almost didn’t recognize Sheldon Reynolds, formally of EWF, on guitar. He’s lost a lot of weight from what I remember. Still, he grooved,and damn,it felt good to see and hear him play. I would suggest that you do not download Brian’s new album. Go buy the CD. When you see who produced this project, and who contributed, all you will say is ‘damn’! I would also suggest if your say in a mile radius of where Brian and his Funk Experience will be playing, I suggest you suck it up, by the ticket, and hit the road. You will not be disappointed. I assure you.
As usual, a great overall Capital Jazz Festival. Good food, good friends, Plenty of vendors to separate you from your money, and most of all the music. And the heat. Damn, it was hot. But it could have been worse, it could have been raining.
Looking forward to next year already.