Smooth Jazz Concert Reviews

Our review of various smooth jazz concerts.

Cancun Jazz Festival 2019 – La Fiesta Continues

It came and went so quickly. An event that’s grown in popularity over the past five years, the Cancun Jazz Festival has brought light, electricity, and the strong love of c-Jazz together to dance wildly in the warm sun and under the comfy night sky.

I must say that, for me, this year’s party, if I’m being honest, paled a bit in comparison to the previous years I’ve attended (the 2015 inaugural year and 2017). Those early years brought more of what c-jazzers want, I believe, and the VIP section of the event was made to feel like royalty in so many ways. That feel and experience just wasn’t there this time for me, although the talent remained top tier. Having R&B artist Charlie Wilson close the event was nothing short of pure genius, even if he didn’t wave the c-Jazz banner. This being my first time seeing him, I was pleasantly surprised— no, blown away — by his live and totally electric presence. It was more like witnessing a broadway soul musical than a concert performance (he actually did state that he doesn’t “do concerts”).

Other artists like Brian Culbertson (most of whose performance was unfortunately rained out), Euge Groove, Nick Colionne, Bob James, Candy Dulfer, Marcus Miller, and Rick Braun were their usual electrifying selves. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was also a special treat for the ladies, commanding such a presence as to call for an encore — one of only two such requests during the event.

Still, something special was lacking this time. It may have had a lot to do with the fact that the event was sold out (I believe for the first time), and the resort and planners/organizers weren’t quite ready for that. Ground transportation around the resort was lacking, reservations now have to be made for restaurants (not sure if this was a change made last year by the resort or not) where one once only had to walk in, grab a plate, and do the buffet thing at will — or simply register at the greeting desk and have a seat for service. The VIP concierge experience also left much to be desired.

That said, the party crowd seemed to immensely enjoy such events as the lip sync and costume contests. They were truly very fine experiences.

Going forward, I personally feel that more emphasis should be placed on treating the Cancun Jazz festival attendees as if this were the only event on the promoter’s schedule — not next year’s event or another sponsored event happening in a month or a year later.

Cancun Jazz was at its best when it was the only game in town and the sole focus of all of the excitement and hype. Hopefully, things will change for the better for future presentations of this otherwise spectacular 4-day blissful vacation. — Ronald Jackson

One final note to festival goers: The resort is nestled in the middle of plush forestry. Therefore, going forward, don’t be surprised to see an iguana, monkey, or raccoon or two casually passing, crawling, or dashing past you. You can help control this “traffic” by not eating out on a patio and leaving food in areas accessible to the little critters! Be vigilant as you enjoy yourself!

Photos by Ronald Jackson


Delaware Loves Jazz
Paula Atherton & Willie Bradley
P.S. DuPont Middle School
Wilmington, DE, May 4, 2019, 3:00 pm

The experience of co-sponsoring a great concert is truly exhilarating, as we at The Smooth Jazz Ride discovered on this pleasant afternoon in Wilmington, DE. Having sensational and lively saxtress Paula Atherton seduce us all with her riveting live performance, coupled with the very electrifying stage presence of trumpeter Willie Bradley, couldn’t have been more satisfying, and I’m sure the audience would enthusiastically agree.

From the moment Willie stride unto the stage, performing and owning covers like The Isley Brothers’ For the Love if You,” Anita Baker’s “Same Ol’ Love,” Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” (performing a surprise duet with fellow trumpeter Rob Zinn that just jumped off the stage and into everyone’s groove spot), and a few of his driving originals like the title tracks from his Another Day & Time and Going With the Flow releases, the stage was clearly ablaze with brilliance, buoyancy, and an atmosphere that can only be described as contagious.

By the time, Paula literally and sexily danced on, the blazes were still going and now leapt higher as she launched into an stunningly soulful and driving set which included a funky cover of War’s “Low Rider” (found on her new Shake It! album), several sexy original tunes displaying her sensuous and passionate vocals from her new album and earlier releases, and that strikingly thunderous funk for which she has become so noted. Equally as proficient on flute as she is on sax and vocals, we were treated to warming tunes like her tribute the great Herbie Mann with “Herbie,”found on her Enjoy the Ride album. Her finale, “Jb” from her Groove With Me release (any doubt as to whom this groove was dedicated??) just danced all over the stage. In fact, you could just feel and the late Godfather of Soul working the stage in his signature “mashed potatoes” style. That’s the power of the Paula Atherton groove.

As marvelous as these two artists were, I’m sure they would agree with me that they couldn’t have gotten their “punch” across nearly as effectively if not for the strong and tight presence of a killer band which included bassist Kevin Jackson, drummer Carl “C-Man” Anderson, guitarist Lou Giminez, and keyboardist Monty Q Pollard. These powerful musicians threw the entire show into the very top of the stratosphere with professional and fluid chops. Keep in mind that these guys had only practiced together for this set once — the day before the show for about three hours! I know because I was there to witness this extraordinary display of musicianship.

All in all, I, as well as the audience and our co-sponsor Entertainment By Candlelight, were completely in a state of blissful appreciation (there were people dancing in the aisle as testament to this!). This is what TSJR and Entertainment By Candlelight were shooting for; this is what we got — and much more. To say this has to be repeated is a gross understatement. Mission accomplished. More to come at different venues. Keep your eyes and ears open for the next stirring experience! — Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr


Keiko Matsui
Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA
Sunday, Apr. 7, 2019, 7:30 pm

It should never fail to amaze any jazz lover who’s had the pleasure of experiencing the incomparable World/contemporary jazz keys & piano virtuoso Keiko Matsui that she delivers immensely with each performance. On this lovely Spring night, the beautiful, diminutive, and extraordinarily talented Japanese princess brought her multitude of musical charms to the legendary Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA. Adopting the cozy venue as her “home” here in the DC/MD/VA metro area, she makes sure to visit here at least twice a year to mesmerize the audience with her enchanting sound.

Again playing to a packed house, Keiko rolled out a set that was intended to fully highlight her new album Echo. In fact, the set list was mostly comprised of tunes from that album, with the exception of her classic road favorites “Bridge Under the Stars” (from her 2003 Dreamwalk release) “Forever Forever” (from her 1998 Full Moon & The Shrine release), (one other) and the rousing “Moving On” ((from her 2016 release Journey to the Heart).

Joining the pianist onstage were her usual road comrades JP Mourão on guitar, bassist Rico Belled, Jimmy Branly on drums, guest saxman Art Sherrod, Jr.(from our neck of the woods here), and trumpeter Deandre Shaffer, trumpet (another impressive local), and did they ever provide her with spectacular support, much to the audience’s great pleasure.

Support musicians always get a chance to shine — to expose their spirit and soul — when playing with Keiko, so spiritual is her music, and they always rise to the occasion with great zeal.

There were so many musical moments of color, spirit, and character. Cases in point were Shaffer’s trumpet adding that exotic Latin regality to much of the music; Belled’s superior skill and fluidity on all of the tunes, including a strong showing on the title track of the album; the soulful telling beckoning of Art Sherrod’s sax as it solidly complemented Keiko’s passionate and intricate handling of the ivories on the one blues number I’ve ever heard her play, the new album’s track called “Marlin Club Blues” on which she transforms her keyboard into that heavy, soul-laden Hammond B3 sound so identifiable with much of the blues. She was constant poetry in motion as she also danced through “Moving On” with the dexterity and grace reserved solely for the true masters of music; the thunderous, frenzied, and remarkably blinding drum work from Branly on everything; and the intense —often fiery—guitar work of Mourão (his solo on the Marlin number was simply riveting, and you could tell from his body language that he felt every note of that and other tunes on which he was spotlighted.

Yes, to say this was again another Keiko night to remember is a gross understatement. This Echo tour takes on a new and standout life if its own. It breathes, it moves, it sings, it dances, and it touches. Just ask anyone who has attended the show. One of the busiest artists in terms of touring, Keiko has already graced Russia, Uzbekistan, Azerbajan, Ukraine, and several cities here in the States. It just doesn’t get better than this perennial beauty. Loved the world over for her vision, passion, creativity, and extremely warm personality, her music is the ultimate universal embrace.

If you haven’t yet experienced this experience, don’t deny you’re this vivid treat. For Keiko fans, I’m probably preaching to the choir. For those new to her, check her out on this tour and learn what “amazing” really means. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr


Big NY & The Smooth Jazz Allstarz
The Carlyle Club
Alexandria, VA
Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, 7:30 pm

The classy Carlyle Club in Alexandria, VA was the proud host of one of the best shows I’ve seen all year as Christian “Big NY” De Mesones and his Smooth Jazz Allstarz band presented a high-caliber, well-produced, and most entertaining concert that left a packed audience beaming and in good spirits (and, in such a time of concern, stress, and preoccupation with the nation’s political state of affairs, such a pleasant distraction was a huge plus).

The well-oiled band of most competent musicians included longtime De Mesones comrade guitarist Mike Gamble, saxman Rob Maletick, guest trumpeter and Grammy nominee Rob Zinn (who has a wonderful new release on the national scene – reviewed on this site –), vocalist Nia Simmons, the always exciting keyboardist extraordinaire Elliot Levine (who always seems to be having his own private party as he lays out his electrifying riffs), fired up drummer Chris “Biscuit” Bynum, flashy percussionist Curtis McCain, and the colorful timbales of Sergio Rosales. A grade A lineup to be sure.

Along with super guitar, bass, and keys chops, the horn arrangements were of top-tier excellence and brilliance, adding so much color to the set.

Among the most moving, shaking, and electric tunes were the red-hot opening tune “Cinco Cinco Seis,” “Parkside Shuffle,” “The Bullfighter,” a new Latin-tinged track called “Hispanica,” De Mesones’ signature “Latin Jive Redux,” and what turned out to be my favorites of the evening, another new track called “Gone Under” and his R&B/bluesy Sly Stone-like “Good Ol’ Days.” The band finished off the night with De Mesones’ former Groove Skool Band classic “Dekalb & Flatbush.” An apropos way to wrap it all up.

I know Big NY and have experienced his sets on numerous occasions. While he has always been a perfectionist and probably his own worst critic, this concert (as I told him) was most likely his band’s best performance to date, outpacing some really solid past performances. I found the sound system to be better balanced, the set list well-chosen (this one was full of new originals yet to be released).

As an entertainer, the larger-than-life bassist is quite personable and engaging during his live performances (this time, even more than usual, it seemed).

Each individual member of this band also had a moment to put on a muscular display of skill, and not one disappointed. In a word, class.

If you’re ever in the DC/MD/VA metro area (affectionately known as the DMV) around the time this band is scheduled to appear, you do not want to miss it. Local talent bringing originality, showmanship, and clear musicianship. In a class all its own. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr



Brian Culbertson
The Colors of Love Tour
Birchmere Music Hall
Alexandria, VA, Apr. 25, 2018

In all the years I’ve either covered Brian Culbertson for The Smooth Jazz Ride or simply been a fan there to enjoy the funk, I have never experienced the BC I witnessed live and on fire on this night at the famed Birchmere Music Hall. So many plusses and never-before-seen-or-felt props and vibes! Judging from the comments, facial expressions, and other body language of others in attendance, I’d say I was not the only one simply blown away.

First off, as can actually usually be expected whenever Culbertson appears there, the Birchmere was completely sold out – for the third straight night of the show (I attended on the final night). I’m told by those who actually came back for a second or third time (yep, that’s how great of a set it was!), each show had a little something different to offer – so, it wasn’t a canned, over-rehearsed performance by any stretch of the imagination and was, in fact, pretty spontaneous where it could be.

Let’s first examine some of the mind-blowing facts, shall we? I have never ever experienced a 32-song set! Yes! To add to that, the show ran two hours and 10 minutes – no break, and we BC media guests were also offered the opportunity for a personal one-on-one chat with the master keyboardist/pianist backstage after the set before his usual CD signing session with fans. Who does that?? I suppose he was as taken with the Birchmere fan reception as we were with his performance and wanted to stick around for as long as his time permitted him to do so before leaving the area and moving the tour on to burn up some other city.

Now, on to the well-presented show. The set was divided into three “Acts” (Act 1 – Silver; Act 2 -Red; and Act 3 – Blue; not sure what those designations meant, but who cared??). In addition, there were videos (I’ll get into those in a sec) featuring select vocalists who have worked with Culbertson in the past. The icing on this colorful “cake” was the videos featuring the absolutely hilarious comedian Sinbad, there to introduce each Act and leave your sides hurting from uncontrollable laughter.

When showtime arrived, Culbertson strode out — without introduction or fanfare – his glittery jacket glowing in the darkness of the stage, took his place at his piano, lit into the lovely “Love Transcended” from his current album, and it was on.

Now, about those videos. There were these amazing theme-based visual displays on three ceiling-to-stage-floor huge video columns, alternately depicting such mind-blowing colorful images as cottony moving clouds, plentiful hearts, a huge candelabra, groups of brightly flickering candles, and the curvy legs of a woman wearing sexy stilettos, for starters. So many visual stimuli. This was the Brian Culbertson smooth jazz modern day equivalent of the awesome Queen/Pink Floyd rock concert displays of the 70s/80s.

Among the most-eye-catching vids were the image of the object of Culbertson’s affection, his lovely wife of 20 years, Michelle, as he ended a direct tribute to her called “Michelle’s Theme” from the latest release; the display of various flags of the world as he belted out “Been Around the World” from his Funk! CD, with our own flag as the last one — proudly waving and stretching across all three video panels.

Then, there were the previously mentioned videos of vocalists recruited by Culbertson on certain past recordings (Avant on “Skies Wide Open” from Culbertson’s XII CD and Noel Gourdin singing “You’re My Music” from BC’s Dreams CD), and there were the Sinbad videos.

The band was yet another grand attraction with the vocals and sterling sax work of saxman/vocalist Marqueal Jordan (the cat just killed it on such tracks as “It’s On Tonight” and “Another Love”), solid, phat bass work from Joewaun Scott, Tyrone Chase showing off some sharp guitar presence, Chris Miskel holding it all together with some stellar and emphatic drum work, and keyboardist Eddie Miller who knocked it out of the park with his own sterling vocals.

Among the standout moments in the show were a medley with the solid mid-tempo hook-tight “All About You,” “Hookin’ Up,” and “Something Bout Love” and the solo piano pieces that, in addition to “Michelle’s Theme,” included the enthralling, beautiful “Through the Years” — both truly demonstrated what a consummate pianist he really is.

Concluding Act 1 was the title track of the latest release. That track has been sitting at #1 on the jazz charts for 4 weeks now. Surprised? I didn’t think so.

After the first of the insanely funny Sinbad videos, Act 2, the funk set, kicked off with “Feelin’ It” from Culbertson’s XII album, and the red-hot inferno of sound and groove began, the audience barely able to contain itself during the entire segment.

The third Act brought us back to the smooth love groove (but not before another Sinbad moment). This Act included an old school slow jam medley that took everyone down Memory Lane as they all participated in a joyous sing-along.

In a nutshell, this concert was far beyond being dubbed an “experience.” No single word can properly tag what happened in that packed music hall that night. If you are in a town where BC will be bringing this gem of a show, you must be in the “house,” you simply must.

Over the years, I have watched Culbertson grow from a teen who sauntered into this genre with confidence to one who truly owns a piece of it outright. Witness this show and see for yourself what high caliber live BC performances can do to and for you at their highest level – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr and Aira Olave


Willie Bradley
The Carlyle Club
Alexandria, VA
March 18, 2018, 6:00 pm

Willie Bradley is truly one of those artists whose placement on the tiers of jazz musicians is totally wrong and unfair. There. I said it. Let’s face it. There are aspiring artists & up-and- coming artists who need a bit more polish, more powerful material, more stage presence, and more character in their music before they can consider moving up the ladder of success. Yes, there are other extenuating circumstances such as simply not being given a chance to strut their stuff in front of certain kingmakers, there are bad managers, and poor funding. None of these—save maybe not being given the opportunity to properly flaunt his talents before the so-called kingmakers—apply to Bradley, a petit trumpeter who stands 12 feet tall on stage. The power, the personality of his music AND him, the knack for integrating the roots of jazz into all of his material so cleverly, cleanly, and completely speaks volumes.

Impervious to the pressures to change styles and genre in order to make a buck, Bradley—unlike many who have begun to panic and “jump ship” for other, more lucrative genres, leaving smooth jazzers irritated, isolated, and puzzled, has stayed the course. Of course, in their defense, we all know the bottom line is food on the table.

With Bradley, it all goes so much farther than money and food on the table. It’s a matter of perspective and a statement of triumph that the trumpeter is doing what he loves after years of being “imprisoned” by alcohol and drugs. A totally and refreshingly transparent man, Bradley always proudly tells the story of his victory over the demons of his past and his realignment with God, to whom he gives all the credit for pulling him through and placing him on this wonderful path.

Having had the pleasure of playing not only many venues in the States but abroad as well, he also tells the story of how major record companies have had to admit that they could not match the funding he’s raised for his projects and that he’s actually doing better as an indie artist than if he had joined a label. The man’s life is one continuous story of victory. He’s a very humble man who has not forgotten his humble beginnings and rough road to this current place.

To be able to keep his steadfast focus on being the best he can be, Bradley approaches his music in a meticulous, serious yet fun manner. His often funny, always witty interaction with his audience, which is usually riveted to him on stage, has become his trademark.

Joining Bradley this night was keyboardist Gerry Gillespie, guitarist Richardo Johnson, bassist Kevin Walker, and drummer Kenneth Trusty – all solid musicians.

Tonight, often coming off stage to weave and navigate his way through the tables on the floor, serenading the ladies with his clean, clear brassy sound that caresses as well as excites, Bradley again proved that he is one artist who so deserves a place at the table of the big dogs. He is no up-and-comer, no aspiring artist. He is a steely force with whom to be reckoned, a clear star who has packed every hall in which I’ve seen him. Tonight was no different.

While I had hoped to hear more of his recent release, his performance was so powerful that the actual set of covers, including “Grazin’ in the Grass,” What You Won’t Do For Love” “For the Love of You,” “Wishing On a Star,” and “Same Ole Love,” and a few originals (“Going With the Flow,” “Another Day & Time,” and “I’m Ready”) was more than sufficient.

A most entertaining evening offered up by a very engaging artist. If you don’t know this cat, open your ears and your heart, and let him in. His is one of the most compelling stories you’ll hear, and his music is as genuine as you could want. – Ronald Jackson

Photos by Dwynn Barr