It was the perfect time of year in Las Vegas to throw an outdoor party: warm, sunny weather and no wind. And what better picnic accompaniment than mellow, smooth jazz? (Opening photo by Carolyn Proctor.)
It was the 11th Annual Las Vegas City of Lights Jazz Festival at Desert Breeze Park in Las Vegas, and Jetsetters Magazine was there.
This was the ultimate outdoor party, with plenty of watchable costumes and hats, tents and barbecues in every shape and size, personal cooking stations, powerful cigars, cell phones, and plenty of porto-potties. This last was a good thing since gates opened for the event at 11 a.m. (the smart jazz fans arrived at ten for a premium parking spot) and the music ran from noon until 10 p.m. One vendor told us there were 10,000 people there, and a park policeman said, "between three and four thousand." In any case it was nearly sold out, a smashing success.
The City of Lights Jazz Festival is a product of Las Vegas veteran concert producer Michael Schivo who, as usual, had assembled some of the best in the business.
His choice for opening act spotlighted the relatively new Lao Tizer Band. This is a young group with energy and charisma in concert that has been described as "a torch bearer for a new generation of Contemporary Jazz artists and fans." Tizer, 25, is a hot southern California pianist and composer who released three independent CDs before he was seventeen.
"I play what comes to me," Tizer says, "what seems natural to me." He's been playing piano since he was eight; you can have a sample listen on his website, www.laotizer.com. Lao Tizer believes in the power of touring and books shows according to how he can connect with the audience.
Following the Lao Tizer Band was an ensemble of three outstanding jazz musicians: Nick Colionne on guitar, Marcus Johnson on keyboard, and Bobby Lyle on piano.
Noted for playing jazz guitar on the funky side, Nick Colionne has been touring all over the world since he was fifteen with the likes of the Impressions, Natalie Cole, Curtis Mayfield, and The Staples Singers. He credits much of his style to the influence of jazz greats Wes Montgomery and George Benson, even tracking a tribute "Mr. Montgomery" on his CD "The Seduction". "Just Come On In" is Nick's newest CD.
Marcus Johnson, keyboard player and leader of Three Keys Music, a hot new contemporary jazz label, completed his formal education with a law degree and Masters in Business Administration from Georgetown University and is self-taught on the keyboard. His music is an elegant blend of hip-hop rhythms and contemporary jazz stylings inspired by Quincy Jones, Joe Sample, and Thelonius Monk. His appeal to both smooth jazz aficionados and the hip-hop crowd is rooted in what he calls "instrumental R&B." He explains, "People hear the instrumentation and they're ready to label it contemporary jazz. The two should not be confused."
Bobby Lyle, songwriter, producer, arranger, and gifted pianist has enjoyed a successful three-decade career touring nationally with names from Sly and the Family Stone to George Benson to Al Jarreau. Bobby Lyle's latest CD is a two-disc blend of smooth jazz classics and acoustic piano compositions.
"Combining smooth AND straight ahead jazz in the same package has never been tried before," explains Bobby. He credits Johnson's label, Three Keys Music, for having "the vision and courage" to present him this way.
Together Colionne, Johnson, and Lyle made a strong impression on a crowd distracted during the sunny afternoon by food, arts and crafts booths, and the camaraderie of friends. After all, what could be more irresistible than shopping for hats, African art and eclectic jewelry while being serenaded by some of best live jazz musicians in the world? And if you didn't happen to schlep in your own cooking paraphernalia unlike other festivals, especially those with food booths, bringing your own cooler, fried chicken, portable grill and even alcoholic beverages was allowed you couldn't help but be enticed by the smells emanating from G&G's Barbecue and Pat's Southern Fried Catfish. The former served up pork ribs, chicken, and hot links, and both sported long waiting lines.
Pretty, young Mindi Abair, whose music has been described as "sensitive and strong", successfully faced this non-musical competition. Mindi grew up in a totally musical environment, touring with her saxophonist/keyboardist father until she was five. For her, music wasn't a choice, it was something she always did. She graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and developed a distinctive voice on saxophone.
"I just love the sound of the saxophone full, rich, with an edge," she says. "It's not about playing five million notes and scales. I'd rather play one note that makes you cry."
Also a burgeoning songwriter, her first CD, "It Just Happens That Way", released in 2003, features contemporary jazz laced with R&B/soul rhythms and pop melodies, all seminal musical influences for her. Regarding touring with other musicians, including the Backstreet Boys, Mindi says, "Working with other musicians let me explore those different areas until I could focus on my own music as both a writer and performer."
Mindi Abair's sound is easy on the ears and her looks are easy on the eyes. "I like bringing a little glamour to a genre that doesn't ordinarily have a lot," she says, "and I'm proud to be doing something that a woman doesn't usually do."
When youthful Brian Culbertson began his set at 5 p.m., the crowd was still energetic and enthusiastic. A writer, arranger and producer as well as multi-instrument musician, Brian's music has been described as "soulful and energetic." His talent was apparent at an early age when his final 7th grade piano recital consisted of entirely original compositions. He's enjoyed a successful run of chart-topping CDs and number one singles, and is one of the most in-demand artists for production and writing collaborations in the business.
"I was ready for something a little different," Brian says of his seventh solo effort, the CD "Come On Up". "This CD is definitely more contemporary. There's more pop, more R&B influence, with a bit of urban mixed in. It's upbeat and really fun."
Brian's high-energy stage presence and eclectic sense of humor makes him popular on the jazz festival circuit, and at City of Lights he didn't disappoint. Appearing with Brian Culbertson was bright, young Scandinavian saxman, Michael Lington. Definitely on his way up, Lington's scored three back-to-back top ten hits in the last two years.
After the sun went down, the mood changed not better or worse, just different. Darkness accented with balmy evening breezes and colored stage lights made the ambiance somehow more romantic, a perfect setting for Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, and Norman Brown as BWB.
Accompanied by bassist Michael Manson, the three core musicians set out to perform their own Smooth Jazz hits in an improvisational style defining the art and soul of today's contemporary jazz.
Rick Braun, whose latest CD is "Esperanto", has enjoyed a two-decade career as trumpet man and producer. As a sideman, he's toured with Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Natalie Cole, Tom Petty, and War. As a producer, he has delivered hits for keyboardist David Benoit, guitarist Marc Antoine, Avenue Blue, and saxophonist Bryan Savage, and has received honors as "Best Producer" and "Best Brass Player."
"I always had this love of music; it always came fairly easily to me," Rick says. At an early age he played along with Herb Alpert records.
Saxman Kirk Whalum's warm, passionate sound was birthed in a Memphis Baptist church. Beginning on drums, he switched to saxophone in Junior High because he was "impressed" with the shininess of the sax. After finding his way to Los Angeles in the 1980s he soon became an in-demand session player, scored movie soundtracks, recorded and performed with Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Barbara Streisand, and Quincy Jones, and for seven years toured with Whitney Houston. Seven Grammy nominations and one Stellar Award (Best Gospel Instrumental Album) later, Kirk balances charitable commitments with his music. His 2003 Warner Bros. release "Into My Soul" highlights the homegrown soul influences of his native Memphis. Kirk says it's "an honor to pay homage to the city and sounds that have so greatly influenced my music all these years."
Kansas City-born guitarist Norman Brown catapulted to fame in recent years since the release of his debut album "Just between Us"." International jazz press has labeled Brown "God's gift to guitar playing and "one of the brightest talents to dazzle the fret board since George Benson." Norman's energetic guitar style is a contemporary blend of Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny and George Benson, with mixes of jazz, pop, funk and R&B. Norman's latest CD is "Just Chillin'".
Bring your beer coolers, chairs &
tents; hey pass me a drumstick
& some potato salad!
(Photo by Carolyn Proctor)
By 7 p.m. the festival's drink concession was out of wine and Bacardi Ray, and only beer and shots were left. No one seemed to care, enraptured by BWB's two-hour and fifteen-minute set punctuated with rhythmic voice and percussion measures.
To the odor of smoking meat wafting on the air, BWB performed a rousing version of Country Joe McDonald's "Hold On, I'm Comin'". Kirk Whalum played a cut from his most recent CD, "Into My Soul". One of their closing numbers was Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On".
"It's been a very mellow crowd," says Steve Wahl of the Clark County Park Police. He and his partner are conspicuously uniformed in yellow and black shirts over black shorts, and move about on bicycles. "The only complaints we've had was on parking."
Desert Breeze Park is located approximately 20 minutes Northwest from the Las Vegas Strip. It's a great location for an outdoor venue. This park has a lot of trees (shade is a premium in southern Nevada). There were a number of general admission gates and speedy cooler check points. Those with VIP tickets (sold out early this year) were able to enjoy a VIP bar and "executive" restroom facilities.
"City of Lights is perceived by many veteran festival goes as one of the best West Coast parties, and there's a certain synergy at this event that I haven't experienced at others like it," says producer Schivo. "Our fans over the years have generally come from Arizona and California because they can drive here, but this year, we had people from 28 states and even Africa."
The sound system was such that even outside the concert area there were plenty of grassy expanses for easy picnicking and listening if you couldn't afford an admission ticket.
The Las Vegas City of Lights Jazz Festival was additionally supported by 105.7 The Oasis Smooth Jazz radio in Las Vegas and KJLH 102.3 FM in Los Angeles. Schivo says, "Fans of smooth jazz have a unique passion for the music and a zest for life," and it was evident at Desert Breeze Park. -
By Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Jazz Editor and Las Vegas Correspondent.