Jazz shows up a little late, but mostly great

Friday audiences were moved, despite tardiness

Music Review

August 12, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The second day of Baltimore's first Paetec Jazz Festival offered exuberant, danceable music loosely based on jazz -- highlighted by a nearly sold-out Earth, Wind & Fire set at Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

In the only ticketed show of Friday evening, the group energetically and movingly performed its hits of the 1970s. The legendary funk-pop band was never a jazz outfit. But its music, especially during the early years, sparkled with jazzy overtones. Friday night, the 12-piece band -- including its trademark glorious three-piece horn section -- played fan favorites with an emphasis on dynamically improvisational solos.

But the tunes weren't reconstructed. Earth, Wind & Fire's sound has always melded musical strains of the African diaspora -- gospel, blues, funk, jazz -- with a high pop finish. And nothing about the hits, including "Shining Star" and "Reasons," feels dated.

It helps that the band performs with the same vitality it had years ago. Elaborate costumes and magic tricks have given way to conservative outfits and stagey dance moves. Only three original members -- underrated singer-musician Philip Bailey, brilliant percussionist Ralph Johnson and madman bassist Verdine White -- still tour.

Bailey, who sings in a marvelous tenor and soaring falsetto, covers the bases well on songs that founder Maurice White originally led, namely "After the Love Is Gone." Midway through the show, Bailey brought up a 5-year-old named Nia, who helped sing the ballads "Can't Hide Love" and "Love's Holiday." Adorable in pigtails, she sang the romantic lyrics on key with a shocking amount of confidence. The house roared.

Pier Six felt like an open-air disco as the band ended with the celebratory "September," with dancing fans packing the aisles.

Tradition

The Baltimore-based Todd Butler Group had launched the second day of the festival at Bond Street Wharf Landing. The quintet played a laid-back, hourlong set whose inspiration clearly came from the soul-jazz fusion era of the 1960s. The group even paid homage to pianist Horace Silver on "The Jody Grind," one of the legend's greatest hits, released in 1966.

Next up at the wharf, flutist and saxophonist T.K. Blue played a more varied set of seductive and sprightly midtempo numbers, shimmering with Caribbean influences. With a warm and ingratiating approach on flute and sax, Blue was backed by smart, lively players -- especially the drummer, whose shifting, imaginative style gave the music buoyancy.

Late starts

Meanwhile, the free shows at the Power Plant Live! plaza pumped with more grit.

Although only three members of Seattle-based Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet showed up, the performance was impressive. The Hammond B-3 player covered organ and bass parts as the saxophonist blasted face-melting riffs, bolstered by the drummer's fast-paced rhythms.

When Toronto-based fusion quintet the Shuffle Demons came on stage at 8:15 p.m., about 200 people had gathered. The electric-upright bassist, drummer and three saxophonists jammed and clapped their way through the crowd, each sporting a black suit covered in crazy white patterns, and the music was just as fun: a tri-sax attack backed by swinging bass notes and hammering drums.

But the Anders Osborne Band killed the buzz. The odd quartet -- a saxophonist, a tuba player, a drummer and Swedish bandleader Osborne on guitar and vocals -- was about an hour late. The group had gotten lost, said festival publicist Tim Richardson. Finally there, the band offered swampy rock rhythms with a vague funky bottom, overlaid with noisy, meandering solos. Osborne warbled nonsensical lyrics in an affected, Southern-influenced growl.

Things were off to a late start inside Rams Head Live as well. Pocket Protector, the opener for Guru's Jazzmatazz, is a funk/jazz/hip-hop outfit with members of two Baltimore groups. These excellent musicians found some great grooves, but only the bass player looked as if he was really into the music.

Guru and his crew were on hip-hop time, taking the stage almost an hour late. But when he and Jazzmatazz -- a keyboardist, trumpeter, drummer, DJ and six-string bass player -- got down to business, it was worth the wait. The band sounded great, with new songs, earlier material and, best of all, tunes from his former project, Gang Starr. The crowd, numbering only about 200 to 250, was moved to dance along.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.

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