Over the years the talent performing at the two day event has led the Kettle Moraine Jazz Festival to gain the reputation of a must-see festival for smooth jazz fans in the Midwest. This year’s offering was no exception. The line up featured a wide sampling of smooth jazz headliners including; Alex Bugnon, Chieli Minucci and Special EFX, Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, Dotsero, Craig Chaquico, Spyro Gyra, and Jeff Lorber Fusion.
"The artists like this event as well, they like the venue, the people involved in producing it and especially the fans" boasts event publicist Dave Amoroso, continuing "word gets around and other artists want to be part of it". Spyro Gyra and Craig Chaquico were among the acts performing at the very first KMJF back in 1998, and have returned multiple times. Over the years the event’s bill has been a who’s who of smooth jazz.
Opening the evening and making his debut appearance at Kettle Moraine was Swiss-born pianist, Alex Bugnon. Bugnon engaged the crowd throughout his set, sharing songs and stories. "Harlem On My Mind" from his Tales on the Bright Side was a crowd pleaser and Bugnon’s take on the Michael Jackson hit "Thriller" caught the audience by surprise.
Chieli Minucci and Special EFX took the stage and provided the highlight of the evening when their special guest, violinist Karen Briggs (Pictured) joined them on the third song and stayed for the remainder of the set. Briggs gained international recognition as the "The Lady in Red" performing with Yanni on such memorable projects as "Live at the Acropolis". Briggs performs on the new CD by Minucci and Special EFX Without You. The set featured a sampling of Special EFX tunes while introducing some of Briggs compositions. Notable among them were Briggs’ "Scheherezade’s Groove", "Celebration", and Minucci’s popular "Cruise Control" a perennial hit with the fans. Minucci included cuts from the new CD including one co-written with his son entitled "Wonderboy". Briggs’ violin brought a wonderful new dimension to Minucci’s music and the festival.
The high energy continued when the powerful team of Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, billed as R-n-R, took to the stage. They brought their tightly-crafted stage show to the Kettle Moraine fans and pumped up the party atmosphere already as dense as the early evening dew. The show alternately featured cuts from solo albums and their cooperative release "R-n-R". A touching rendition of "My Funny Valentine" performed by Braun was dedicated to the mothers in the audience. He explained that this was the first song he played for his mother, an early supporter of his musical efforts. R-n-R continues to be real crowd pleasers.
Late Friday night had brought rain to the region but the large tent over the fan area kept the seats dry and by early afternoon the sun had returned. The heat for this day was provided by the first two acts. Dotsero is a Colorado-based band with a long history of delivering powerful live performances. The band lived up to the statement made by co-founder and saxophone player Steve Watts; "we like to give them (the fans) a performance they will remember". They did just that, bringing their high-energy, funk-filled form of jazz to those fans that ignored the dreary weather and got there early. Dotsero is also known for their skilled musicianship and the crowd interaction. Steve Watts led the band through a number of Dotsero tunes and switched naturally between soprano, tenor saxes and the EWI, or electronic wind instrument. Steve left the stage and went into the audience to deliver a dynamic soprano sax solo that seemed to get stronger the further into the audience he ventured. Brother’s Steve and Dave Watts were backed by a tight rhythm section and the music was all high-energy. The set was capped by an emotional rendition of "God Bless America" in honor of the victims of 9/11 and their surviving friends and family on the anniversary day of that incident.
The crowd had been whipped up for the next act. Guitarist Craig Chaquico is a veteran performer with over thirty years of rock and roll, new age and smooth jazz performances under his belt. He took up where Dotsero left off. His years with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship have marked him indelibly and his performance was filled with references to his songwriting success, and rock and roll life-style. The fans were treated to another debut at this festival as Chaquico introduced the "Beamz", a LASER activated, computer controlled music generator that is intended for use in music therapy and music education. The skit used to introduce the technology jokingly alluded to aliens and the "Area 51" program as the origin of the instrument. Chaquico then gave a proper demonstration of the device and employed it during the performance of his chart-topping cover of the Kenny G hit "Songbird". One could imagine the usefulness of this simple device to engage young musicians. With little transition, Chaquico delivered what the crowd had been awaiting, the Starship songs! Rolf Hartley, a good friend of Chaquico and a vocalist with killer stage presence, posing as a stage hand, in a routine that has taken many forms, joined Craig for a searing version of "Jane" and "Find Your Way Back". Leave it to the ever-entertaining Chaquico to go back to the future, with the Beamz and the Starship tunes.
With the crowd fully charged up, the vibe shifted only slightly as Spyro Gyra took the stage. Spyro Gyra counts their CDs in decades as well as their years as a band. Founder Jay Beckenstein looks every bit the baby-boomer himself as he and fellow band mates Julio Fernandez, Tom Shuman, Scott Ambush, Bonny B. took the stage. The audience was surely expecting the classic Spyro Gyra tunes and was not disappointed. They opened with: "Quote From Mr. Z", the Tom Shuman composition off his new CD Reflections Over Time, referring to pianist Joe Zawinul, co-founder of Weather Report. "Catching The Sun", a Beckenstein composition followed and then "Shaker Song", billed as a ‘re-worked version’ by Beckenstein. A soulful tune by Fernandez, "Unspoken" went over big but was upstaged by a deeply emotional rendition of Charlie Mingus’s tune "Goodbye Pork-pie Hat" penned to honor Lester Young, featuring Beckenstein on soprano sax. The set included a tune each by bassist Ambush and drummer Bonny B. before closing with "Funkyard Dog" a Fernandez composition. Just when you thought there would be no "real" Spyro Gyra moment that evening, the encore, brought the classic "Morning Dance" to the fans delight.
Jeff Lorber Fusion found the audience fully engaged in the fusion jazz atmosphere, and in the mood for the return of a more "fusion" oriented Lorber. Lorber delivered a mix of songs including numbers from his new CD Now Is The Time. He and close friend and collaborator Jimmy Haslip, noted Yellowjackets bassist, worked with saxophonist Eric Marienthal and drummer Will Kennedy to deliver on the ‘Fusion’ aspect of the evening. Tightly executed renditions of "Watersign", "Chinese Medicinal Herbs", "Dr. Moi" and other songs brought the festival to a fitting jazz focused end. Lorber for his part reminded the audience why he and the Jeff Lorber Fusion have been closely associated with the jazz fusion scene over the years.
Winding up Saturday evening with Jeff Lorber Fusion was a great move by the programmers. The powerful jazz/rock set brought the event to a raucous close and sent the fans home with yet another solid jazz festival experience. Kettle Moraine Jazz Festival is a fan-friendly, music-centered event that provides premium sounds, rain or shine, with wonderful food, drink, arts, crafts and hospitality for all who venture to the scenic grounds of Riverside Park in West Bend.