The Al Williams Jazz Society is a vital part of the Southern California jazz scene, especially here in Long Beach. In addition to being a fine drummer, Williams has been an important promoter here since the 1980s and is a driving force behind this festival. Any Jazz Society performance is an important event for the opportunity it provides to hear the great reedman Charles Owens, a master of flute, tenor and soprano saxophones and one of So Cal's best kept secrets. In a reprise of last year's successful performance, the group was joined on stage by the powerful and charming vocalist Niki Haris.
Kem's intimate and silky R&B vocals were well received by the festival crowd. Vibraphonist Roy Ayers is one of the architects of funk jazz, and a longtime favorite of Southern California fans. His set eschewed his recent material in favor of such hits as "Searching" and "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby," the latter naturally updated to include local references to Long Beach and L.A. George Duke's set provided a nice balance of all the things that Duke does well: an epic fusion workout from the Snapshot era, a couple of soulful ballads including a version of "Sweet Baby" that included both a James Moody-esque humorous vocal excursion and some passionate vocals from Lori Perry, and a set ending funk workout that closed with a rousing version of the Parliament classic "Mothership Connection" that got the crowd up off their seats and throwing their hands in the air. Duke was backed by a fine band that included the bluesy guitarist Ray Fuller.
Poncho Sanchez, making his sixteenth Festival appearance, capped off the night and the weekend. His last release, Out of Sight, is a Latin tinged celebration of classic R&B and one of the last recordings to feature the late Ray Charles. With the spirit of both in the air, he seemed a fitting closer for the event. But the Festival itself is the real star. In addition to the great jazz, fans were treated to a lively marketplace featuring art, great food, and CD signings from the many artists present. The weather was perfect this year and everything combined to make this year's event a truly memorable one.