The festival kicked off Friday night with the high-profile trio of Hiroshima, Matsui, and Norman Brown's Summer Storm. Saturday and Sunday were full-day affairs, running from noon to 10 pm and featuring seven acts. Saturday featured a sizable contingent of guitarists, including Cooling and the smooth playing Loeb, while both Down to the Bone and Masekela featured the instrument prominently as well. Down to the Bone were well-received by the Southern California crowd, who succumbed to the band's calls to get out of their seats and dance. Particularly successful was a brief rap interlude that featured a vocal imitation of a DJ scratching a turntable--I've heard of a human beatbox before, but not a human record player. Michael Franks followed with a much mellower set that engaged the crowd in its own way, with the singer delivering many of his cleverly penned hits. Masekela closed the day out with a mix of old and new, some pieces being a bit of both. "Working Underground," from his latest CD Revival, was a tour-de-force, Masekela's powerful trumpet and wailing vocals equally harrowing. "Ha Lese Le Di Khanna," recently re-recorded with Poncho Sanchez on the conguero's Do It! album, was given a lively and slightly lewd workout, while two Apartheid-era songs--"District 6" and "Set Him Free"--were given triumphant and joyous readings appropriate to the era of democracy in South Africa. The 66-year old Masekela intimated in a press conference prior to this set that he only plans to tour for another four years or so, underscoring the importance of this appearance in Long Beach.
The last day of the festival had a distinct rhythm and blues element with the Tribute to Ray Charles, Angie Stone and the gutsy vocalist Barbara Morrison all on hand. Al Williams' Jazz Society is always one of the groups I enjoy hearing each year, and the first half of their set featured a nice mix of original and classic hard bop tunes. When they introduced Barbara Morrison mid-set, though, things went to another level. Morrison was sassy and strong, and showed that not only can you sing very openly about things without being crude, it's actually that much more entertaining when you do. Bob James followed, his intricately melodic playing serving as kind of a change-up. Saxophonist David McMurray played some nice flute on "Angela (theme from 'Taxi')" to close their hour on stage. Next was Rachelle Ferrell, joined by her "Stank" (her word and adjective tense) band. Ferrell limited herself to keys and her acrobatic vocals, saying earlier backstage that if she brought out the guitar it would be too easy to get lost in the instrument's possibilities. The Al Jackson Orchestra came next and treated the crowd to an hour of Ray Charles' best-loved numbers. The seventeen-piece band featured some outstanding personnel, including saxophonist Ricky Woodward, trombonist Isaac Smith and drummer Paul Kreibich. Filling in on vocals for the late Charles was the soulful Obie Jessie, while three of Charles' former Raylettes were on-hand to recreate their parts. The festival ended on the good foot with Angie Stone, who mixed driving funk numbers in with quieter pieces featuring gospel-derived harmonies.
The music of the 18th Annual Long Beach Jazz Festival included deep blues, R&B, joyous South African rhythms, smooth jazz, bop and Asian-inflected sounds. Not only was there a little something for everyone, but the different styles and approaches seemed to support one another. Fitting for a jazz festival held in Long Beach, the most diverse city in the U.S., according to data from the last Census.