Story by Brad Walseth and Photos by James Walker, Jr.
he Skyline Stage at Navy Pier was the setting last Monday night for "Guitars and Saxes," a concert of smooth jazz presented by WNUA. The weather cooperated providing a glorious night of sunshine with a nice cool breeze, while the big tent was still decorated with accoutrements from Cirque Shanghai. It was a perfect setting for a night that featured performances from some of the most glittering stars of the smooth jazz world.
The All-Star cast on this evening included the affable and much beloved Peter White on electric nylon string guitar, joined by tousled golden-haired bad boy, Jeff Golub as his blues guitar counterpart. The saxes were provided by velvet teddy bear Gerald Albright on alto and the lovely young siren Jessy J. on tenor. With a solid rhythm section of Smitty Smith on bass and Rayford Griffin on drums, the group was rounded out by pioneering keyboardist (and producer) Jeff Lorber.
Rotating on and off the stage as needed, the performers took turns in the spotlight. White thrilled the crowd with his catchy "Bueno Funk" and exuberant dancing and swaying while he caressed the strings with considerable skill, while Golub entertained with "Dangerous Curves" and had the crowd on their feet for the crescendo of his slow blues "Naked City." Both combined on a groovy version of the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady?" that went into Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" (best known from the '70s Carlos Santana version).
That "lady" was sizzling young saxophone star, Jessy J., who combines talent with an attractive stage presence. She was given a spotlight role to strut her stuff and feature her chart-topping "Tequila Moon" single (7 weeks as #1 on the smooth jazz charts), but attracted attention from the men in the crowd even in a supporting role. Gerald Albright, meanwhile brought his sax appeal to the ladies in the crowd who swooned over his versions of "Georgia on My Mind," "Misty," "Bye, Bye, Bye" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" (from his upcoming release, "Sax for Stax").
Keyboardist Lorber was onstage throughout the entire show and centered the proceedings, backing the other artists gracefully. His featured songs took the show in a bit more adventurous direction musically and included nods to his past as leader of the groundbreaking group the Jeff Lorber Fusion (a burning hot "Toad's Place") to recent cuts from his most recent Grammy-nominated album, "He Had a Hat:" the straight ahead "BC Bop" and the powerful "Surreptitious," which may have been the most purely musical highlight for me.
As the show progressed it was clear that both Albright and Golub are masters of the art of holding and toying with one note, teasing the audience and building the anticipation of the listeners to a fever pitch that demanded a climax. Some of the grandstanding done by the headliners admittedly did little to enhance the music itself, but the crowd roared their approval for every hip shake or emotional gesture. Clearly "entertainment" was the theme for the evening, and these stars were willing to give the people what they wanted in spades.
A finale featuring everyone onstage singing and playing the Average White Band's "Cut the Cake" couldn't help but send the audience home buzzing and humming to themselves. For sheer entertainment, Guitars and Saxes gave a performance even the Cirque Shanghai would have trouble rivaling.