The 16th edition of the Long Beach Jazz Festival was held over the weekend of August 8-10th, 2003, in downtown’s Rainbow Lagoon Park. Festival goers poured into the park complete with the latest in festival paraphernalia-coolers, canopies, tents, and some pretty high-tech lawn chairs. The festival kicked off Friday night with performances from James Ingram, Kim Walters & Brenda Russell. Saturday’s slate began with a set from the nine-piece Latin jazz band led by percussionist Louie Cruz Beltran that ranged from traditional Afro-Cuban numbers to Latin-tinged jazz standards like Horace Silver’s "Song for My Father." The smooth sounds of Bobby Lyle and Paul Taylor followed, then the light classical guitar stylings of Marc Antoine.
The mid-day set from the great conguero Poncho Sanchez was one of the festival’s highlights. The group’s hour-long set was heavy on material from Poncho’s forthcoming Concord Picante release Out of Sight, mixing classic R&B and soul from the likes of Ray Charles and James Brown with the group’s regular cha-cha rhythms into the kind of boogaloo and shing-a-ling sounds popular in East Los Angeles back in the 1960s. Highlights included Charles’ "One Mint Julip" and Brown’s "Out of Sight," the latter featuring a surprisingly convincing vocal form Sanchez. Another standout was "JB’s Strut," an original written in Brown’s style by band saxophonist Scott Martin. Sanchez and band were so funky that even the food servers in the VIP area were dancing as they were bringing food to their tables.
Rachelle Farrell came out as the last rays of sunlight waned, the vocalist demonstrating an incredible sustain technique and really connecting with the large crowd. Bassist Marcus Miller and an excellent band including Weather Report and Sting alumnus Omar Hakim closed the day. The virtuoso musician’s set included Miles Davis’s "So What" and "Tutu," the second dating from his tenure as Davis’s musical director, along with John Coltrane’s "Lonnie’s Lament" and material originally recorded with David Sanborn and Bob James.
The weather on Sunday was not quite as brutal as the day before; it was possible to actually think during the day. The day emphasized to some extent artists with Long Beach connections. The day began with a performance from the winner of a local talent search, followed by former Yellowjackets saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach. The Al Williams Jazz Society followed, the group’s leader not only a drummer but a legendary area music promoter and the festival’s longtime organizer. Featuring stellar reedman Charlie Owens and guest vocalist Niki Harris, the group’s offerings were among the weekend’s most traditional. Opening with Les McCann and Eddie Harris’s "Cold Duck Time" and featuring such chestnuts as Cannonball Adderly’s "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Duke Ellington’s "Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You," the classic soul jazz played by the Jazz Society connected the contemporary sounds that dominated the weekend back to their jazz roots.
Saxophonist Ronnie Laws took the stage next and acquitted himself very well, fronting a solid band offering old school, guitar driven grooves. Laws played husky and rough at times, soft and smooth at others. An unaccompanied solo on soprano sax interpolating Thelonious Monk’s "Straight, No Chaser" was easily among the most brilliant moments of the entire event. Rounding out the festival were sets by singers Phil Perry and Roberta Flack, as well as one from saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Perry displayed a nice voice with an upper range similar to Al Green. I was disappointed in Ms. Flack’s performance, though most of the crowd seemed to like it. She seemed too content to milk her hits for all they were worth, especially her great "Killing Me Softly," which she kind of debased by turning it into a big production before she really earned it. I don’t object to turning one’s biggest hit into a sing-along, but it would have been nice if she could have gone through at least one chorus before doing so. Kirk Whalum closed the festival on a positive note with his warm, gospel-tinged tenor.
A jazz festival is more than a lineup of bands. A festival is an attitude, a way of doing things and enjoying them. Live music may be the most crucial ingredient, but the ambience of the crowd, the different vendors and outdoor environment are all essential factors as well. The 16th Annual Long Beach Jazz Festival had it going on-a good mix of different artists, a fun crowd, good food and a great location. I’m sure that the thousands of fans who descended on Rainbow Lagoon are joining me in counting down the days until next year’s festival.