READING, Pa., April 24, 2015 – Sandwiched between early evening and midnight, the Gerald Veasley Jazz Base jam session was a muscular and energetic “Jazz Attack” featuring Rick Braun, Peter White and Euge Groove.
Braun, the dynamic horn player, launched the evening’s hard driving session from the 15th row in his signature Frank Sinatra style, sporting distinctive attire with a gray, stingy brim hat, matching jacket and black patent leather shoes.
As the featured artist in the closing weekend of the festival’s 25th anniversary event, he joined lead guitarist Peter White and set the tone by announcing that, “This is one of the leading jazz festivals in the world.” He described how proud he was to be participating in the Berks Jazz Festival, given that he’s a product of Allentown, Pa., a neighboring city less than an hour east of event host Reading.
Rick Braun cranked up the volume with new music from his 16th album, “Can You Feel It?” His performance underscored one of the more obvious themes of this year’s festival; namely, that this year’s best performances were delivered by musicians offering fresh new music and viewing the Berks as a spring rite-of-passage into 2015’s schedule of smooth jazz festivals taking place across the country.
The other dominant theme in this year’s Jazz Fest is the importance of collaboration. Case in point: Euge Groove invited a fresh new American Idol contestant named Elliot Yamin to join the group as lead vocalist for over half of the concert. In turn, Yamin contributed some original music to the set from his new CD, entitled “Let’s Get to What’s Real.”
For those not familiar with one of his old partners in crime, Euge Groove added an extra layer of energy and excitement by reminding the sell-out crowd packed into the Crowne Plaza ballroom that he and Rick Braun actually played together when they served as backup musicians for the Tower of Power well over two decades ago. In total, between 1970 and 1993 Steven Eugene Groove sat in on 13 Tower of Power studio albums after replacing Richard Elliott in the horn section.
“I got my education at the university of the Tower of Power after graduating from the University of Miami School of Music,” said the flamboyant horn player, who adopted the stage name “Euge Groove” after returning from a tour in Europe in 2006. During the performance, he dug deep into his new vinyl record offering, “Got 2 Be Groovin.” He even gave away a copy of the album to the most energetic dancer, who attempted to jump up on stage as the group closed out the evening with a dance party session.
Joining the group’s final number was Booby Lyle on keyboard. Lyle is in town for a “Remembering Joe Sample” tribute to that legendary Jazz Crusaders pianist. The gig will include original band mate, Wilton Felton and contemporary legends like Rick Braun, Everett Harp, Nick Samples, Jeff Bradshaw and Doc Gibbs on the final Saturday evening of the festival, WDAS-FM Night.
Bassist Gerald Veasley kicked off the evening at his signature Jazz Base with an intimate jam session, “Honoring the Masters of Fusion” along with pianist and composer Alex Bugnon, guitarist Chieli Minucci, sax player Chris Farr, and drummer Rodney Holmes. Of course, Veasley set the tone by breaking into an eclectic set that featured jazz-fusion visionaries such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Pat Metheny.
The highlight of the fusion master’s session was a drum solo by Rodney Holmes that was notable for featuring a menagerie of squeaky animal toys ranging from stuffed pigs to alligators, all of which he deftly stuffed between his drums to make a series of sound effects no one has ever seen or heard a drummer produce before—all to the wild delight of his laid-back audience.
As for delight—well, I couldn’t say the same for the midnight “Sweet Desserts Jazz” program set up between the roped-off hotel swimming pool and the east lawn area. The general seating for this performance offered a cool but comfortable late evening vibe. Unfortunately, the acoustics left a lot to be desired, particularly when compared with the earlier ballroom performance of the Jazz Attack crew.