You had a choice at 2:15 on September 24 if you were in Boston’s South End that afternoon for the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. You could go to Wally’s, a streetcar-long jazz institution in a brownstone, where folks listen to straight-ahead musicians every Saturday afternoon. Or if you were washing down jambalaya with Poland Springs in the humid heat, you could check out pianist Tim Ray and cellist Eugene Friesen doing an hour of eclectic improvisation at the far stage.
But front and center at the Berklee Stage, right after the barricades at Columbus and Mass. Ave., amps were piled high for Jazz Urbane, a collaboration of Berklee faculty and students. If what you wanted was an hour of feel-good, get-down music, you had come to the right place. Banfield’s group got the outdoor crowd going with the occasional musings of a rapper, featured guest Grace Kelly on sax, and a lineup of stunning female singers with strong voices who stepped out for solo numbers when they weren’t supporting male vocalist Joey Blake.
A smooth jazz/funk fusion groove permeated the set, with tight drumming laying down the groove, a sparse and booming electric bass with funky lines, and bright fills on keyboard. Everything was built around the vocals on mostly original songs and two blockbuster 1972 hits. Blake’s air-percussion slid into “Use Me” (Bill Withers), and Jamie Woods’s clear, poised delivery led “People Make the World Go Round” (The Stylistics). To keep the show moving in this carefully rehearsed show, the female singers rotated the long, emotive phrases of love songs with tighter, funkier numbers.
Banfield, grinning widely, seemed to be having a ball. He waved his guitar over his head in rhythm to the music when he wasn’t playing rhythm with effects, and took only one volume-building solo, during which he began dancing, and finished by unstrapping his guitar, holding it at his side while the crowd applauded.
Grace Kelly’s funk solos were solid, nicely built, with control and fire. Although Kelly’s PR machine may originally have run rampant promoting her way before she was ready, she has been steadily growing as a musician, and that’s good news.
A final question – did this act “belong” in a jazz festival? Isn’t smooth jazz, which would not appeal to most serious jazz aficionados, more “smooth” than “jazz”? Or are we splitting hairs here over a concert that never pretended to be more than a good time?
Until jazz became increasingly intellectualized, and then found refuge in academia as the number of bandstands dwindled, it was meant, first and foremost, as entertainment.