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Taking a Holiday at the New San Diego Jazz Festival


Taking a Holiday at the New San Diego Jazz Festival

From La Costa Resort and Spa

Melina Paris

When a radio station changes its format, live music events the station sponsors can suffer some collateral damage. When people who are passionate about music mobilize, live music prevails.

This past Memorial Day weekend we saw just such an occurrence. A few years ago, award winning San Diego smooth jazz station KIFM switched music formats and the annual jazz festival they promoted in the historic Gaslamp Quarter ended.

Quickly to the rescue, the Payne’s of Payne Pest Management in association with Brad Laughlin are bringing you the new San Diego Jazz Festival. Willie and Kathy Payne are determined to bring live jazz back for you to enjoy in our beautiful San Diego setting. Brad Laughlin promotes the Arizona and Las Vegas Jazz Festivals as well. Between the Payne’s passion for music and Laughlin’s know-how, the new San Diego Jazz Festival was born at the serene La Costa Resort in Carlsbad on Memorial Day weekend. The tradition is renewed!

By the looks of it, keeping to tradition works. Attending Saturday’s festivities I had the privilege of seeing a great lineup of artists starting with the R&B/Latin soul/jazz group, DW3. Now we’re talking smooth here.  Eric Mondragon, William Mondragon and Damon Reel, who make up this trio, harmonize beautifully together. It turns out members of DW3 are related to the Latin and R&B band from the 1970’s, Tierra. Melodic grooves certainly run in this family. These three are great musicians who had the audience on their feet throughout most of their performance.  Engaging showmen that they are, they interact with the audience, dance a little and play great music. They performed a wonderful cover of Luther Vandross’ “All My Love” and original numbers, including the romantic “On the Floor” and “Would You Mind?” which showcased a powerful guitar solo.

Following DW3 were the classic soul and jazz stylings of Kim Waters and Phil Perry. Kim Waters is a smooth saxophone player with great poise. He paces his notes through songs with the self-assurance of the seasoned musician he is. He touches his audience through his affecting technique, letting the notes offer unexpected expressions from his horn.

Phil Perry was born to sing, and that is the plain truth. Merging the talent of these two jazz titans resulted in the purest musical manifestation. Waters, in an all cream suit, opened the set by playing two lingering and harmonious numbers. He then introduced Perry to the stage and the audience reacted with great enthusiasm. When Perry opened with “Distant Lover” the concert goers were thrilled. Perry has the gift to move an audience with his voice, so sweet, it’s like icing on a cake. When he went into The Isley Brothers “Living for the Love of You” this audience became his backup singers right on cue. Following that classic we were treated to a number by Waters called “The Ride“ where he seamlessly showed us his range, from smooth all the way to straight ahead jazz. A friendly seat neighbor made the comment, “This is real jazz.”

Next up was a wonderful highlight of the concert with Eric Darius and Larry Braggs. Eric always creates a high energy show and Larry, also a part of Tower of Power, brings his own brand of vocal might to the stage. Besides the talent of these two artists, they had what amounted to a small orchestra performing with them: two more horns, (sax and trumpet), two guitars, keyboards, drums, bass and percussion player. This place was jumping! Eric came in with a strong start looking crisp in white slacks and a pastel blue shirt. He moved into the perfect number for a summer day titled “Kingston’s Flavor” in a nod to his Caribbean roots. Extending this number out nice and long the percussion player initiated a call and response with the audience echoing his beats. Soon enough Larry came on stage to start things up asking, “Does everybody know something about James Brown?” leading into, “I Got the Feeling”.  Eric was all over this number. The band, lined up swaying back and forth in time. With Larry, his big voice channeling James Brown, their performance socked a whole new form of electrified energy into this venue. The audience was charged up and ready for more. After a soothing version of Marvin Gaye’s, “I Want You”, they played Tower of Power’s, “What is Hip” escalating the groove and the mood.

They followed with Alicia Keys’ “All I Want Is You”.  Rich Antonio, on electric keys was actually administering backup to Eric’s horn by producing an element that sounded like his keyboard was scatting. Yes, the keyboard was scatting; live on stage with reverb as Eric fanned Antonio with a jazz fest tee shirt.

By the way, this year’s tee shirt, in complimentary fashion, pictures a silhouette of Eric Darius playing his sax. From there, Darius was off and running into the audience. He got up close and personal with his horn and played for attendees face to face. Musically, visually and viscerally it was a feast for the ears. More than a set; this was a complete and invigorating show.

Coming next were, Jonathan Butler, Sheila E. and Elan Trotman. This concert happened to be the debut of Butler’s Soul of Summer Tour featuring Trotman and Sheila E. Together this diverse group of artists brought some very cool and interesting vibes combining Butler’s South African roots and Trotman and Sheila E’s Caribbean and Latin flavors respectively.

Trotman opened with a groove called “Heaven in Your Eyes” tranquilly gliding us into the twilight. Jonathan Butler’s 1980’s hit “Sara, Sara” followed to the audiences delight. Butler joined in with some “ahh yeh, ahh yeh, ahh yeh’s” on the next number “The Wave” off Trotman’s new CD, Tropicality. It’s a cool summer groove bringing a happy feeling.

Introducing Sheila E. to the stage they went into their interpretation of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” Their version, slower than Marley’s original, was performed with a melodic jazz guitar reminiscent of Earl Klugh, eloquently highlighting higher chords. It was quite a pleasant surprise and so nice to listen to under the sun.

Something that was expected though was delivered in top form, Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life” Performed with Trotman on sax and of course Sheila’s dynamic drum solo, this audience was dancing with joy. It was the perfect finale.

Eight times Grammy nominated Ledisi brought us into the evening next with her rich and strong vocals. This woman has energy. Wearing a vivid cobalt blue strapless dress, she commands your attention as she literally bounces around the stage. Opening with “Think of You”, she likes to get the audience to sing along with her, encouraging us between delivering song verses. Shortly into her second number “Raise Up”, about the inspiration the title implies, she seemed to be even more energized, coquettishly expressing “I’m sorry, I’m not smooth jazz.” She loves to sing and her style reminded me of the exuberant spirit of Patti Labelle.  On “Joy”, her funky roller skating song, the band went deep into a continuous cool vibe of lighthearted funk while Ledisi scatted and displayed her vocal range with finesse (She studied opera at UC Berkeley and grew up in a musical family from New Orleans). This cheerful animated artist loves to converse with the audience. Before the end of her set she was sharing advice from her mother with us, “Have faith, love yourself by any means necessary, be careful of what and whom you allow into your personal circle.” She continued later, “I could just be cute and sing but I have a purpose to let you know.” It’s clear; Ledisi also has a purpose to sing with contagious joy.

To close this evening out was the consummate musician, keyboardist and trombonist, writer arranger and producer Brian Culberson. Whew, what a show!  He opened saying he has lots of music for us, and did he. Opening with “So Good” and leading into “Always Remember” from his CD Bringing Back the Funk, every instrument comes through clearly. It’s funk, it’s jazz, it’s bebop, it’s amazing and we witnessed it- live. Along with his keys and trombone, Culbertson shared the stage with two vocalists; Jason Morales and Selena Albright as well as guitar, bass, drums, and a second keyboardist. Honestly, it sounded like even more than that. “Still Here” featured Albright on vocals. It’s a rock ballad yet has classical elements with Culbertson’s meticulous keyboard playing and Albright’s strong voice, both remarkably clean and clear. On Tower of Power’s “You’ve Got to Funkifize”, Culbertson jammed on the trombone once again moving all over the stage as though he were on a mission. At this point, Culbertson seemed to have caught the spirit and took us on a musical joy ride.

They slowed it down for a bit with the classic “Secret Garden” featuring Morales on vocals and Culbertson playing each note on the keys ever so slowly and delicately.  Taking it further he started conducting the audience on the chorus, “if you think I’m gonna take care of you, if you think I got what you need, sho’ you right.”  Magical.

While playing Earth Wind and Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” these showmen snaked their way around the stage and brought the whole venue to its feet singing and boogieing along.

Bringing it all on “Funkin’ Like My Father”, Culbertson shared yet another talent, doing a rap. At multiple times during this show, Culbertson’s fingers and hands were moving so fast on his keyboard it looked as though the keys were singeing his fingertips. Culbertson and band played a one song encore as our goodnight gift.

The entire event was absolutely fantastic.  The weather was perfect, the setting was beautiful and the music was great.  Hurry up and get your tickets for next year’s Memorial Day weekend performance at La Costa Resort and Spa as they are sure to go quickly.