Posted by: russdavis | May 12, 2010

Russ Returns to Atlanta

(The Lewow Evening of Jazz & some thoughts on Contemporary Jazz vs. Smooth Jazz)

27 April, 2010

My dear friend for decades, Deborah Lewow, has been one of the most influential jazz record company promotion executives for many years, working for companies like Warner Brothers Jazz and GRP and helping further the careers of some of the most important and popular artists in contemporary jazz. Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, The Yellowjackets, and any number of others can thank Deborah for helping make them more famous with her diligent and effective efforts, always accomplished with a lot of heart and kindness. Recently she was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it has taken its toll on her physically but by all accounts has not taken away her strong and positive spirit. She inspires all around her and on Monday, April 26th in Atlanta’s great concert venue, The Variety Playhouse, a packed house gathered to celebrate and benefit Deborah and the Emory University ALS center, where she has received most of her treatment, for a gala concert featuring some of the artists she’s touched…guitarist Earl Klugh and saxophonists Boney James and Mindi Abair.

I began my jazz radio career in 1978 in Atlanta programming and presenting the show JAZZ FLAVOURS on the station known as 94Q. The program was a mix of fusion, and what was becoming known as contemporary jazz, a more mass-appeal, accessible and conservative, if you will, style of improvised music compared to the unbridled energy and experimentation of fusion. There was no lack of great playing or players in the movement though and with artists like Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Bob James, Earl Klugh, Joe Sample and many more combined with effective marketing of the show by my radio station the program and the genre took off in Atlanta in a big way. It was during this time that I became great friends with Deborah Lewow and we became not only constant business associates but our families became close as well. I have learned over the years that there are any number of others who have developed the same relationship with Deborah and that’s a big reason why artists as popular as Earl Klugh, Boney James and Mindi Abair were quick to answer the call to give their time and talents for the performance to benefit her continuing treatment. The group that was assembled for the event was an incredible array of artists, many of them solo recording artists in their own right, who became an all-star band for a wonderful evening of uplifting music.

The drummer was Atlanta’s Yonrico Scott, the Grammy-winning member of The Derek Trucks Band. Joseph Patrick Moore, who you’ve heard in the past on MOJA Radio, played bass. The playing of guitarist Eric Essix, another contemporary jazz solo star and former classmate of Mindi Abair at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, was a major feature of the night. And one of the peaks of the night, equal to the efforts of the main headliners, was the contribution of Atlanta-based trumpeter Joey Sommerville, whose solo work as well as his collaboration with Boney James on one of Boney’s most famous songs, Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing In The Grass.” The two-hour show featured many great musical moments and testimonials to the various participant’s love of and respect for Deborah Lewow, her affect on those she touches and her great strength and positivity. I was pleased to be alongside an old friend and former radio associate, Kelly McCoy, as co-emcee for the event and part of our duties included reading messages from artists who could not attend but wanted to contribute including Lee Ritenour, Gerald Albright, Larry Carlton and the members of the group Fourplay. The spirit of the night was uptempo and positive and the performances were inspired and inspiring, and that is a point I feel I must make in defense of artists like these who have often been disparaged by writers and many fans of more “progressive” jazz. There is no doubt that when the marketing/radio movement known as “smooth jazz,” which was what followed what I call contemporary jazz, took over, many artists fell into a trap that they felt they were forced into which led them to create music with a smooth, easy-listening formula that would be played by the large number of radio outlets that adhered to this format. The sameness of this music and the short-sightedness of the programmers, researchers and consultants finally squeezed the creative life out of the format and for the most part it has died as a movement in radio. But events like the “Lewow Evening of Jazz” in Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse reminded me of the fact that there is still an audience for the music when it’s played with true energy and creativity, as it was on this evening.

The true intent and high level of musicianship of these artists was evident throughout the night from the wailing trumpet of Joey Sommervile, the soaring electric guitar work of Eric Essix, to the sweet soprano sax work of Boney and Mindi along with their tenor stylings that were only equaled by their sexy performances as they pranced on the stage to the crowd’s delight. Then there was the noble and masterful work of the great Earl Klugh. He’s exhibited tremendous variety in this career as the first guitarist with Chick Corea’s original Return To Forever, to his great solo work and his Grammy-winning collaborations with Bob James. His performance was nothing but a true treat for all and probably most especially Deborah Lewow herself as she’s become a close friend of Earl and his wonderful wife Denise since Earl moved to the Atlanta area some years ago. Should you care to dismiss the work of artists who have fallen under the “smooth jazz” umbrella, and believe me, I’ve been known to be one to disparage this style quite often, you only need to attend a show like this to be reminded that many of these artists are real players and when they play live it’s a totally different ballgame from much of the formulated dreck that emanated from many of those “smooth jazz” radio stations in the later stages of that genre. Any prejudice I might have felt in the past went by the wayside on this great evening of music as I found myself caught up in a spirit of positivity created by the work of great musicians inspired by the strong and positive spirit of a wonderful lady, my good friend Deborah Lewow.


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