(Click Photos.) The gale force winds that blew out of the Red Rock National Recreational area west of Las Vegas the night before the 10th Annual City of Lights Jazz Festival were no where to be found on a bright and sunny Saturday that saw over 10,000 jazz fans perched on the grounds of the Desert Breeze Park with their picnic baskets and lawn chairs.
The only wind howlilng today was from the melodious wind instruments, and the velvety jazz vocals. Everyone thinks of Paris as the city of lights, but Vegas can account to that claim in both the power of the Strip wattage, and the power of the jazz performers that makes this festival better each year. The City of Lights Jazz festival has steadily increased in size and scope, bringing fans as far away as London, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans.
The mid afternoon headliner was what made this jazz festival special for me. Kim Waters has built a solid fan base over the last six or seven years. Waters started his musical training on the violin, but luckily for us, he switched to the saxophone later in his career. Waters performed his set with trusted mate, guitarist Chuck Loeb. Word has it that Waters still plays the violin.
It is hard to believe that the throaty, gutsy sax that Water displayed was actually influenced by Lawrence Welk, with a Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderly twist thrown in. Now that is cross-generational culture. Between the violin lessons and the performance we witnessed in Vegas, Waters also toyed with rhythm and blues, actually cutting a couple of albums, before switching to contemporary jazz.
The hot spring sun pressed the jazz press core in the VIP section (the best seating for only a few bucks more that general admission made all the difference) to seek a quest for beers and the spicy Thai food served by vendors stretching behind the General Admission crowd, or you could hit the VIP booze section.
It was enjoyable to see a man mastering his music, and Waters has performed in the past with the late vocalist Phyllis Hyman and pianist Cyrus Chestnut. He also cut an album with Isaac Hayes. Waters has recorded some hits, including, 'Waterfall', a long twenty minute lament that kept everyone's attention at the festival; and he had a hit with 'In the House', which he performed with Loeb on this fun Vegas jazz event. Probably his biggest hit to date is the CD "Someone To Love You" that was on the contemporary jazz charts for over eight months, but years ago. This is the first time that Waters and Loeb performed at the City of Lights Jazz Festival, but hopefully they return next year.
Prior to Waters, Bassist Michael Manson energized the festival fans. He was followed by keyboardist Bob Baldwin, accompanied by vocalist Phil Perry and sax player Marion Meadows. Baldwin played like it was a snapshot of life itself, performing with passion, creativity and uniqueness. Baldwin is a spiritual player that is united in his music. His debut album was a masterpiece, released in 1990, and called "Rejoice!" He also has an exceptional indie release called "City Sketches 1: Welcome to the Games" that is not as Gospel slanted as his debut, but the indie cut pays homage to the Olympic Games, where he performed in the Olympic Village.
It was wonderful to see his Nevada debut with his latest album "Standing Tall" that mixed the '70s funk with contemporary keyboard licks. It was an uplifting rendition of cuts that he had performed with singer Will Downing and Meadows at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 as part of the New York smooth jazz radio station CDs 101's jazz series, one of the few recorded responses to the tragedy. He also had recorded 'America The Beautiful' and 'God Bless America' on that CD. Waters and Loeb, meanwhile put out their own homily to the shattering skyscrapers with the "American Spirit" CD - with both CDs recorded on the Shanachie Label.
Baldwin had a #7 Billboard hit with 'Reflections of Love', which he performed for us; it was cut before Atlantic Records closed their jazz section. He has been with Shanachie ever since, with his first waxing with them in 1997 with "Cool Breeze". He has a viable success (he has a business degree) selling his CDs on the internet, going so far to name one of albums "Bobbaldwin.com". He received a lot of free advertising when the deejays announced that a song was from "Bobbaldwin.com" What a genius marketing idea.
I don't know if he played anything from Bobbaldwin.com this day, and I had not lugged my laptop to the festival to download any of the album, but the sunny, breezy atmosphere reflected the notes spilling off the stage. I am certain to pick up both Waters and Baldwin CDs soon.
Baldwin has been blessed with superb pitch, a genetic anomaly given to him by his jazz pianist father who performed with Art Davis, Keter Betts and Max Roach. His mother's cousin was Blood, Sweat and Tears first keyboardist. So he had in-house musical training from the day one. Masters of the art form start early.
Baldwin is serving as the first ambassador of jazz as the musical director for the upcoming Brazilian American Jazz Festival. Or you can find out his travels at, where else,"BobBaldwin.com".
Another hit at this year's festival was Brenda Russell, who I saw first at the Barbados Jazz Festival a few years back. She is a world-renowned performer, singer, songwriter, arranger and producer. She has toured with Dave Koz, and performed with Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle and Kirk Whalem, and many others. She is a tremendous talent, all on her own.
The sun left the mountains to the West of the stage in a solid slate sheet of coolness, when the coolness of Richard Elliot's sax hit the Desert Breeze Park temporary band shell. Eliot performed with acoustic guitarist Peter White, sax player Steve Cole, and electric guitarist Jeff Golub - as the last act of the night.
Elliot has produced over 13 albums of jazz (11 with Blue Note, the last two with GRP) throughout his exuberant 17-year career. He hit the scene with the debut album "Initial Approach" in 1986, and hasn't looked back since, with each disk getting more airplay, promotion, and funding. He played numerous cuts this evening from his latest GRP CD, "Ricochet".
He seems to write and play about things he loves in his life. An example is that as a private licensed pilot, he scored a modest success with "Take To The Skies". Maybe he will be a Nellis Thunderbird pilot, with his Fairchild Metroliner parked at the Vegas military airbase, rather than with the photoged Blue Angels depicted in his flight of fancy jewel case on that album. Vegas is an Air Force town! He needs the Metroliner for his extensive tour dates, including the tour de force "Guitars and Sax" schedule (www.richardelliott.com).
I profoundly thought that Kim Waters on sax had a more versatile and creative touch than Elliot's renditions, but that is what separates jazz fans - their own personal tastes. Local Vegans are just happy to have jazz at all, in a town that was once the hotbed of jazz and swing. Most of the major jazz clubs have closed down, including the Blue Note Jazz Club. The Four Queens no longer offers Monday night jazz.
And even the local musician's union (now defunct) was ineffective in promoting jazz artists in a not so long ago haven for jazz. Michael Schivo deserves credit in his endeavours to bring his 39 years of concert promoting to the populace with this year's City of Lights festival hit, in cooperation with Las Vegas Events, Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority, Clark County Parks and Recreation, and 105.7 The Oasis. Partial proceeds from the jaz fest benefit the Clark County Parks and Community Services donation fund for scholarships.
For more info on next year's festival, logon to www.yourjazz.com or call the jazz hotline at 702/228-3789. For hotel rooms for next years City of Lights festival, logon to www.yourjazz.com
By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.