The 30th annual Long Beach Jazz Festival was held August 11th-13th, 2017, delivering a weekend of good times and great musicianship to Rainbow Lagoon in downtown Long Beach. The festival draws thousands of loyal fans every year to enjoy the sunshine and an eclectic line up of jazz artists. Rainbow Productions puts the event together each year with an emphasis toward contemporary jazz that manages to be both crowd pleasing and diverse enough to encompass the Latin jazz of Poncho Sanchez, legendary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and the R&B of Rachelle Ferrell alongside contemporary jazz stalwart Bob James, fusion survivors Sypro Gyra and smooth jazz performers such as Najee and Boney James. A second stage in the festival’s vending area in the Long Beach Arena’s parking lot gave opportunities for younger artists to perform as well.
Marcus Miller, the headliner of the festival’s opening night on Friday, perhaps best exemplified all the various threads of jazz brought together at LBJF 30. His set included virtuoso arrangements of classics from the Beatles and Temptations, music he first recorded with Bob James and David Sanborn, “Tutu,” a song he wrote for and performed with Miles Davis, and a guest spot from singer R&B singer Randy Crawford, who belted out her hit “Street Life” like it was still 1976. But, then, many of the acts across the weekend waded freely across the various waters of jazz.
N’Dugu Chancler’s all-star group on Saturday afternoon, featuring Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson and pianist Bobby Lyle, mixed soul jazz classics from Lyle’s songbook with the adroit rhythms of Johnson and drummer Chancler. Lyle even flirted with the avant garde with a solo interpretation of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” that not only recalled John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner’s arrangement, but also Jaki Byard in his use of glissando.
Sunday, as a whole, had a gospel and blues vibe that befitted the day. Festival founder Al Williams’ Jazz Society with special guest Barbara Morrison set the tone with their set of blues and classic jazz. Even Spyro Gyra sounded more church than’70’s porn soundtrack fusion. Bob James, perhaps inspired by the quality of the Steinway provided by the festival, played that instrument for most of his bluesy and inspired set, only switching to the Fender Rhodes and the sound his name is synonymous for a couple of his hits.
Ramsey Lewis has been playing jazz since the 1950’s, and his set covered as much of that ground as it could in 75 minutes. Highlights included a soulful reading of “A Hard Day’s Night,” later hits like “Sun Goddess” and “Tequila Mockingbird,” and, of course, a version of his first major hit, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which stretched into a medley interpolating various Latin figures and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” The great conguero Poncho Sanchez and his band also sprinkled some R&B through their set, opening with Ray Charles’ “One Mint Julep” and closing it (and the festival) with James Brown’s “Out of Sight.” In-between, their set featured Latin classics from artists like Willie Bobo along with their popular rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and, from their upcoming release, their own version of Coltrane’s “Liberia.” (there was also a brief power outage toward the end of the set, but it was resolved in time for the band to complete their performance) Sanchez, a veteran of 27 of the festivals 30 iterations, ended the weekend on a joyous note, and I’m sure all of us there left hoping to see him again next year at Long Beach Jazz Festival 31.