By most standards that have already been established, the 15th Annual Houston International Jazz Festival was a huge success. Held in Houston, Texas on August 5th, 6th, and 7th, the Festival featured three nights of exceptional jazz entertainment, all of which were highlighted by various themes associated with the international aspects of the event. On August 5th and 6th, Asian and Latin Jazz Night provided the international influences the Festival is most noted for. On August 7th, Smooth Jazz Night was the flavor of the evening. During three successive days of primo jazz music, a cornucopia of star-studded musical entertainment was brought to the forefront of a jazz-challenged city. Because Houston does not always offer widespread support to jazz, the beauty of this year’s Festival can be found in the number of individuals attending the 2005 event. Two noteworthy changes may account for the notoriety observed by Festival officials. For the first time in its 15 year history, the event was moved from an outdoor setting to an inside venue and the addition of Asian Night. Moving to an inside air-conditioned arena was a viable alternative due to Houston’s intense heat during August. In addition, the festival has experienced a rainout for three years in a row. In either case, climatic conditions forced a change for what can be considered a better environment for those attending the Festival as a whole.
For the first time during the 15-year history of the Houston International Jazz Festival, Asian Night became an added feature. To celebrate this influence on an American art form, the highly eclectic group known as Hiroshima brought a Japanese flavor to the Festival. Celebrating 25-years as one of jazz’s finest bands around and while also riding a wave of enthusiasm for their latest Heads Up International release entitled ‘Ôbôn,’ Hiroshima’s influence on the Festival became quite apparent from the very beginning. From the onset of their performance, instrumentalist Danny Kuramoto, kotoist June Kuramoto, taiko drummer Shoji Kameda, keyboardist Kimo Cornwell, bassist Dean Cortez and drummer Danny Yamamoto proved why Hiroshima has sustained their longevity as a band. Although they have changed faces at various times throughout their tenure together, the core group has remained intact for the most part. Shoji is the latest addition to the nucleus, having replaced fellow taiko drummer Johnny Mori on their latest album and on this particular tour. Johnny was one of the founding members of the group. As stated by Danny Kuramoto: "Cultural diversity and sensitivity to the plight of mankind as a whole is the message that Hiroshima likes to project in their music." In their approach to their craft, they combine Asian, R&B, fusion and world music with jazz to elevate the consciousness of America’s most prolific art form and to bring focus to horrific world challenges. Hiroshima does that by incorporating the influences of such traditional Japanese instruments as the taiko drum, shamisen and the shakuhachi into contemporary jazz styling. Over the years, they have become very successful and have amassed a worldwide following. The group’s appearance at Houston’s Verizon Wireless Theater continued a process of illumination, as old and new audiences were thrilled by the elements of Hiroshima’s music. To see June Kuramoto work her magic on the koto (a Japanese harp) was an awesome visual experience, while Shoji Kameda displayed the impact a taiko drum can have on jazz was just as spectacular. Every aspect of the band’s music paints a vibrant and vivid picture that offers a narrative message without being politically incorrect. Everyone within earshot of Hiroshima’s sound could not help but be overwhelmed, because each musical dynamic was approached with sensitivity and heart felt emotion. Having recorded fifteen albums during the span of 25 years, Dan Kuramoto and company proved that longevity has its privileges, especially when Asian influenced music is fused with jazz. Collectively, this was truly jazz’s finest hour in Houston’s Verizon Theater, one with a traditional cultural perspective attached.
On August 6th, timbale player Tito Puenté, Jr. brought the specialty of his music to Houston for a evening of Latin jazz. For those attending the Festival, this was an auspicious occasion. Having experienced the talents of such notables as La India, Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval and the Spanish Harlem Jazz Orchestra during the 2003 and 2004 Festivities, many attendees were expecting entertainment that was just as exciting, if not more. Since the 1940s, Latin jazz has become a worldwide phenomenon under the influences of Machito, Chano Pozo, Desi Arnaz, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie and the "Father of Afro Cuban Jazz," Tito Puenté. In fact, it was Tito Puenté who introduced his son to Latin jazz, which has since led to a much heated debate about the legacy left by Tito, Sr., who passed away 5 years ago. At the beginning of his performance, Tito Puenté, Jr. encouraged the audience to enjoy his music and not compare him to his famous father. He stressed in no uncertain terms that he was there to have fun and entertain everyone with stories of Latin jazz during its heyday. Let the truth be told, Tito Puenté, Jr. blew everyone away with his brand of musical talent. Utilizing the compositions made famous by his father, Tito did exactly what most in the audience was looking for; he performed with flair, integrity and zeal. The overall impact on those attending the concert was mystical. The up tempo rhythms that Tito provided were inspiring and a thrill to see. Tito conveyed a message of a heaping helping of Latin jazz, filled with an underlying impulse to dance to the influences of salsa, cha-cha and other traditional Latin steps. Even the band of local Houston musicians were tuned in to Tito's array of Afro Cuban jazz. The idea that Tito was operating under the guise of his famous father was soon set aside once the show got started. It was proven beyond a doubt that this concert had an identity of its own. Over two successive hours of high energy entertainment, Tito Puenté, Jr. showed why he is definitely the heir apparent towards keeping the legacy of Latin jazz alive, as did his father and so many others like him. Although Tito Puenté, Sr. can be proclaimed the epitome of Latin jazz, the legacy he left behind has been instilled in his son. By my estimation, it is unfair to compare Tito, Jr. with his father. He must be judged as an individual musician and as a timbale player; practicing the craft he was trained for, presenting Latin jazz in a dynamic, exciting and exuberant manner. At the 15th Annual Houston International Jazz Festival, Tito Puente’, Jr. did exactly that.
If two days of exceptional jazz were not enough, the franchise known as Guitars and Saxes brought their wares to the stages of the Verizon Wireless Theater on August 7th. Billed as one of the best-known smooth jazz acts around today, the group has a formula that is ever changing and constantly evolving. Having been through the City of Houston any number of times, the group usually consists of two guitarists and two saxophonists. Since its inception in the early ‘90s, featured performers have included Dave Koz, Richard Elliot, Craig Chaquico, Kirk Whalum, Marc Antoine, Euge Groove and Peter White to name a few. For the 15th Annual Houston International Jazz Festival another installment populated by a different menagerie of artists was the feature. This time out, Mindi Abair, Jeff Golub, Warren Hill and Wayman Tisdale blew into Houston to showcase their musical perspectives. The main thrust behind Guitars and Saxes is their adherence to smooth jazz principles. Each musician provides a different spin on the music she or she conveys. Basically, it can be said that Golub, Hill and Tisdale brought the funk and circumstance to the show, while Mindi Abair provided a tinge of pop and heart to the stage as an underlying cushion. In retrospect, I must say that of the four artists participating this time around, Wayman Tisdale was the ultimate funkmeister. His signature bass lines along with his effervescent personality permeated the Verizon with some serious personal antics and rhythms. On the other hand, Jeff Golub and Warren Hill acted more like rock musicians rather than smooth jazz artists. Their fusion influenced melodies had cutting edged references to music of the 1970s and eighties. Although I must also say that both Jeff and Warren provided a groove that was just as dynamic and focused at various points. Mindi Abair’s pop oriented saxophone added music of a different flair. Her approach was highlighted by light touches of R&B and diverse influxes of pop melodies and rhythms. Collectively as a group and as individuals, their brand of music provided a platform to launch whatever suited the audience's fancy, including the funkmatic grooves of R&B as provided by Wayman Tisdale, then intertwined with the fusion/pop rhythmic melodies of Abair, Golub and Hill. As a gathering of varying perspectives, Guitars and Saxes continues to be about smooth jazz; however, at various times throughout their rich history, the artists involved have presented a titillating demonstration of musical awareness. Historically, the group has been known to be energetic in approach, as well as a sound activated energy ray of excitement. The 2005 installment at Houston’s International Jazz Festival was just as prolific as well as entertaining. By all accounts, Guitars and Saxes added to the overall success of this long-standing tribute to jazz.
The Houston International Jazz Festival is the best known and biggest scheduled event of its kind in Houston. The international component has always been the theme towards bringing artists and influences from all over the world. Visiting musicians have come from Mexico, Switzerland, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, Canada and Mexico. During 15 years of excellence, the event has featured Alex Bugnon, The Crusaders, Steve Reid and Bamboo Forest, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford, Jonathan Butler, Ahmad Jamal, Bobby Lyle, Ramsey Lewis, Bubbha Thomas, Tania Maria, The Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, Boney James, Gregg Karukas and Jimmy McGriff to name a few. Not only does the Festival provide some of the most prolific jazz entertainment ever seen in the city, it also supports the Summer Jazz Workshop. Sponsored by Jazz Education, Inc., a non-profit organization that instructs school-aged students between the ages of 12 and 17 on the fundamentals of the music business, public speaking, education and jazz, the Workshop is the heart and soul of the Houston International Festival. At the end of a five-week course of study, students of the workshop also perform in the Festival on the same stage as the professional musicians. During its 34-year history, participating students from the workshop which includes Jason Moran, Kyle Turner, Joe Carmouche and Eric Harland to name a few have gone on to become professional musicians in their own right. Overall, the Workshop has over 8,000 graduates, all of which have gone on to become contributing members of society in disciplines from other walks of life. By most standards, the Houston International Jazz Festival is a much-valued resource to the city, as well as a viable educational tool for school-aged students seeking an understanding of America’s only original art form and a career in music. The 2005 addition closes another installment on one of the city’s most important featured events.