Cabo Jazz 2003

Cabo Jazz Festival
Music in Paradise
July 24th – July 27th 2003
by Mark Ruffin

Right before George Duke came on at the very first Cabo Jazz Festival late last month, an announcer came on stage and asked how many New Yorkers, Californians and Cabo JazzMidwesterners had made it down to the picturesque Mexican city of Los Cobos at the very tip of the Baja peninsula.

Chaka Khan may have outshined all the other American performers at this planned annual event, but she was definitely upstaged by a world music star from Mexico City named Albita. Besides Chicago native Kahn, the headliners were all Californians at the affair, including Duke, Stanley Clarke, Brenda Russell, Joyce Cooling and Pete Escovedo.

It is the beauty of Los Cobos and its proximity to L.A. that will help build the Los Cobos Jazz festival in its future years. A wonderful model was established the freshman year with a four days of themed music; smooth jazz, contemporary, Latin and gospel oriented jazz. The venues were unique and varied, the production outstanding and just everything one would expect from the more established and better-attended Caribbean festivals.

What Los Cobos can exploit much more that Jamaica, St. Lucia and Barbados will ever be able to is Hollywood. Some readers may even remember seeing a segment on the Cabo Jazz Festival on the television show Extra, maybe the first time ever a jazz festival was featured on a national tabloid show. The star wattage was that serious.

Brad Pitt, Gabrielle Union, Claudia Schiffer, and Michael Clarke Duncan were among the most well known. There was also the young black actor from West Wing, the guy who plays Lex Luthor on Smallville, Rosario Dawson from Men In Black, and character actor Anthony Michael Hall, and others who were recognizable, all doing heavy partying to outstanding jazz music.

The first night opened up in a multi-tiered mall with the performers at the foundation. A joke could easily be inserted here about the appropriateness of smooth jazz night being in a place associated with elevator music, but the artists performing here are among the quality smooth jazzers who play challenging music. Vocalist supreme, Brenda Russell, guitarist Joyce Cooling and the very underrated keyboardist, Gregg Karukas proved as much with high-powered sets that were the only free shows of the fest.

They were only the sparks that set off the flame for the weekend shows that were held right on the beach.

Friday night belonged to Duke, Clarke and Khan.

It was electric from the moment Duke walked out, electric as in 70’s fusion.

“I like to play music you don’t hear on the radio,” the jovial keyboardist said before starting his set. Then he proceeded to reel off his favorites including A Brazilian Love Affair, I Want You For Myself, Sweet Baby, and No Rhyme, No Reason.

Band members, Larry Kimpel, on bass, and guitarist Ray Fuller were scene stealers every time a solo spot opened up, and Duke even brought out Stanley Clarke’s rapping son to freestyle on the mega-hit Reach For It.

Clarke went further into the 70’s coming out with a violin player to augment his group, very reminiscent of the bassist’s collaborations with violinists Jean Luc-Ponty and Jerry Goodman from decades ago. He too ignored his recent recordings and just pleased the crowd with School Days, Lopsy Lu, Funny How Time Flies and other familiar chestnuts.

Of course, Khan has a much more familiar repertoire than either Clarke or Duke, and the crowd’s vocal cords were more than ready. They warmed up on the first three tunes, Fool’s Paradise, Get Ready, Get Set and Please Pardon Me, before the versatility of Khan’s band silenced the crowd.

On Tell Me Something Good, the quartet of background singers, including former Incognito vocalist, Karen Benod, stepped up with a very jazzy background arrangement of the otherwise very rocky tune.

The rock side provided by the very flashy and very good Jimi Hendrix-like guitar playing of Ricky Rouse, easily Khan’s best guitar player since the Rufus days with Tony Maiden. Rouse matched the leader’s intensity, which she even said on stage is hard for musicians to do.

After exhausting a number of other hits from the singer, like Hollywood and Sweet Thing, Khan and her entourage left the stage only to come back and totally light the stage on fire

The encore started with the jazz standard, My Funny Valentine where each of the background vocalists were given extended solo space. That was followed by a highly charged run of I Feel For You, which featured young drummer Franklin Vanderbilt.

Khan and Rouse were the stars here and both dug hard into their rock roots to finish the show with tributes to Sly Stone on a short but very funky version of Sing A Simple Song mixed with I’m Every Woman and the closer, a very long rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ Little Wing that had both the singer and the guitarist soaring near the bright stars in the Mexican sky.

Latin night seemed perfunctory after the electricity of the night before. It wasn’t that flute player Nestor Torres and percussionist/bandleader didn’t have the crowd doing salsa in the sand, but the crowd was much less keyed-up. That is until the headliner came on.

Her name is Albita Rodriguez and without uttering a word of English, this bundle of red-hot energy made converts of many Americans, no matter what U.S. city they came from. Using the perfect international language, Albita, as she’s known, made converts with a burning style that incorporates traditional Latin music with Afro-Cuban jazz and modern Brazilian and American pop.

Albita’s tribute to the late Celia Cruz, who she recorded an album with, stopped many of the celebrities cold and had them paying attention to the woman’s powerful and alluring voice.

The next morning at the gospel brunch, Brenda Russell who saw Albita while dancing in the front row, was telling anyone who would listen, “Albita is bad!”

The brunch itself starred Perry sisters, a quartet, known professionally as Perri, who were discovered by Pat Metheny fifteen years ago, and have since become among the top background singers in L.A. They are currently on tour with Anita Baker.

Perri closed the festivities on a spiritual high with originals from their 80’s albums and tracks from their upcoming gospel recording. Their songs included lyrics set to contemporary jazz music written by the bands Special Efx and the Yellowjackets and harmonies that were just totally heavenly.

In the crown of international jazz festivals, a shimmering jewel has been added on the southern tip of Baja with the Cabo Jazz Festival.