A Capitol offense

When it comes to sedition, Trump is like Mozart with melodies and Rembrandt with canvas.

He’s damn good at it.

Aided and abetted by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, Trump incited a whopping can of whip-ass on the Capitol yesterday when the Capitol police folded like a carpenter’s ruler.

Thugs, hardly dressed like medieval theologians and fueled by Trump-laced false claims and false hopes, roamed the Capitol halls and squatted in Capitol offices.

Obviously not America’s finest hour.

Pure madness.  

Trump needs a tutorial on democracy

The specter of defeat hounds lame duck President  Trump. So he keeps trying for one last huge gulp of publicity before he goes under, trying to alter reality with his hyperactive Twitter thumb as his mind darts about like a trapped animal,

Less than 24 hours after he said he was ready to step aside for President-elect Joe Biden, Trump reversed his position, claiming that Biden must first “prove” he actually won the 80 million votes that states across the nation have tabulated in his favor.

On Friday, a federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia shot down Trump’s legal team’s attempt to challenge election results in Pennsylvania, a state Biden won.

Yet in a tweet completely detached from reality, Trump insisted that it’s now Biden who has a “big unsolvable problem.” 

The president-elect can “only enter the White House as President if he can prove that his ridiculous ‘80,000,000 votes’ were not fraudulently or illegally obtained,” Trump tweeted Friday.

He did not indicate how Biden was expected to prove the legitimacy of votes that have already gone through a certification process. Of course, there is no legal requirement for Biden to do so.

Suffice it to say that Trump’s Twitter feed is where truth goes to die. 

Dereliction of duty

Donald Trump supposedly is still our Supreme Commander and Grand Pooh-Bah.

Yet while he clings to the presidency as desperately as a guy grabbing a life raft during a tsunami, he seems to be sullenly unenthusiastic about the job.

Trumperdoo  blew off a G20 summit meeting on the coronavirus pandemic Saturday to hit the golf course.

After logging in briefly to a video conference marking the opening ceremony of the economic summit, Trump boasted that he isn’t accepting defeat and leaving the White House just yet.

“I look forward to working with you again for a long time,” he told the other leaders.

He obviously cannot free himself from the quicksand of his own mind and ego.

Minutes later, Trump headed to his golf resort in suburban Virginia instead of interacting with other top leaders about the pandemic’s impact.

Last I looked, the coronavirus was chewing through America like so much lunchmeat.  

Put another bogey on Trump’s scorecard.

Trump thinks he trumps democracy

Donald Trump’s pathetic attempts to subvert the presidential election demonstrate that he could care less about democracy and that all he cares about is making himself dictator for life.

It’s hysterical that the face of Trump’s groveling attempts to overthrow the government is the ghoulish Rudy Giuliani battling twin rivers of brackish hair dye streaming down his face as he sprays treasonous nonsense spittle.

Follow the leader

As good Americans we’re taught to follow our leaders and watch our parking meters.

Our president says he’s taking hydroxychloroquine to insulate himself from COVID-19 against the advice of many medical professionals.

Of course, the president speaks with a forked tongue so frequently he has to use chopsticks as tongue depressors. If he were Pinocchio, his nose would stretch to Montana even while the rest of him was standing in the White House Rose Garden.

So who knows if he’s actually taking hydroxychloroquine or merely pitching it like a snake oil salesman?

Besides, when did our president became an oracle of health? After all, he’s morbidly obese.

A book co-authored by his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Donald Trump had four major food groups during the 2016 campaign: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke (up to a dozen a day).

Be that as it may, he is our leader and I must follow the leader.

So I’ve decided to ignore doctors and take a heretical approach to treating my body like a temple.

To keep my liver fluid, I’m going to drown in it hard liquor – no easy task these days with curbside pickup at state stores.

To keep my cholesterol under control and keep my arteries flowing like freshly built sewer lines, I’ll make sure my diet is high in fat, salt and sugar while low in nutrients such as calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.

To guard against high blood pressure, I’m going to gorge myself on table salt by the barrel, pickles by the barrel and processed meat by the deli counter. Oops. I forgot French fries by the fast-food franchise.

To ensure my back and knees are strong and supple, I’m going to do heavy bent-over barbell rows and heavy squats.

To ensure that my reflexes stay sharp, I’m going to drive in the approaching lane and only cross over to the safety of the correct lane when a heavy tractor-trailer is inches from my front bumper.

I could go on and on but unless you have to be briefed on how to eat your morning cornflakes, you get the point by now.

Berks Jazz Fest artists Gerald Veasley and Rick Braun up close

By Mike Zielinski

As the world turns and change is a constancy, there is one thing that never evolves … time always whirls on like a manic gyroscope.

Indeed, Father Time is ticking away over there in the corner, the dude wearing a beret holding a bass and a trumpet.

Numbers are a central theme because the 30th edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council is upon us.

Two primary staples in the Jazz Fest menu of performers over the years are two talented artists who have been key pistons in the engine that has sustained its long run of success.

Bassist Gerald Veasley and trumpeter Rick Braun need no introduction to Berks Jazz Fest fans. They have been as omnipresent as oxygen and have become the festival’s leading ambassadors.

“I’m pleased to be considered an ambassador of the festival,” Veasley says. “It’s a beautiful event. I would tell anyone in the world how great this festival is and the people who make it happen.”

Both have been perennial and prolific performers at Berks, with Gerald participating in his 23rd Jazz Fest this year and Rick appearing in his 22nd. As usual, both will be hyperactive during this year’s festival.

Veasley’s musical odyssey has taken him to the top of the contemporary music world as a bassist, bandleader, composer, producer, educator and curator. His performance as a six-string bassist has been top shelf, as his extensive body of work attests. He is motivated by a singular purpose: to translate his joy of music to the world, music without boundaries.

Braun, an Allentown native who moved to the West Coast years ago, is known for his impeccable technical chops, melodic wizardry, keen compositional prowess and his own distinctive sound. While Braun is notable for his trumpet, he also is a gifted singer.

The two have performed in a plethora and variety of BJF concerts over the years as headliners, collaborators and musical directors, performing a delicious smorgasbord of jazz and burning a musical path across the window of time.

So what brings them back year after year, seemingly ever since Teddy Roosevelt still was rough riding the range?

“In the jazz world I look at the Berks Jazz Fest as a treasure,” Veasley explains. “It’s a festival that given its track record has produced a lot of interesting programming through the years and launched as well as highlighted careers and contributions of artists. And to be involved in that festival for so many years, I’m really, really honored.

“Growing up in Philadelphia, even though I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the world, to have a major festival that is right down the road that is serious in its programming and its reach it’s really an honor to be involved in it.

“It’s really fascinating that we have this thing that has a national and international audience to be a stone’s throw away. Some folks ask me all the time if I still live in Reading. Because of the festival, people associate me with Reading. And I’m proud of that. Culturally it has become a powerhouse.

“It is important to highlight that Berks has such a variety of venues in terms of casual venues, formal venues, large places like the Scottish Rite, the clubs and everything in between like the Miller Center. That opens it up for different types of programming. Having the variety of spaces influences the kinds of music you can present and the level of artists you can present. I think that is unique to the festival as well.”

Veasley also cited his close collaboration with BJF general manager John Ernesto for attracting him to the festival year after year.”

“John Ernesto is so easy to work with,” Veasley says. “He’s straight forward. He has respect for the artists, respect for the music. He is a smart businessman and a creative programmer. But more than anything he’s a music lover and it shows in the festival.

“I love John as a friend because I always learn from him, I’m always impressed by his integrity and most of all what I learn from him is the spirit of win-win. That’s his whole approach to business and life.”

Rick Braun cites several reasons for his perennial participation at Berks, also giving major props to Ernesto.

“The answer is I get invited,” he says. “It’s the simplest answer. It’s also John Ernesto. John has done such an amazing job of running the festival and keeping it up there. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate what he really does.

“There are so many moving pieces and so many things to consider. What artist fits in what venue, what artist you can have playing at the same time that won’t compete against each other.

“Logistics. Keeping the volunteers happy. Knowing the amount of money you have to offer each artist that is appropriate, so you don’t lose the farm. To overpay or underpay and you don’t get the artist you want.

“We all love John so much. And for me, it’s definitely coming home. Having grown up in Allentown and shopped in Reading as a kid, like I always joke from the stage, every year before school I’d get new underwear from the Reading outlets. When you have been wearing underwear from the Reading outlets since you’re a little dude, there’s a feeling of coming home.”

One of the enduring charms of the festival to participating performers is the sheer multiplicity of concerts turns it into a big reunion party for them.

“I totally agree that the relationships that develop through the years with peers, a lot of that has been cultivated through my association with the Berks Jazz Fest,” Veasley says. “It’s a reunion. It makes sense because if you play a venue elsewhere, you’re there one weekend and your colleague is there the following weekend. So you don’t get a chance to share space and share stories.

“But at Berks, bringing so many folks together in one space to create music and to create memories, that’s what makes a festival like this so very special. Out of those connections, sometimes they are creative connections, sometimes they are business relationships and most of all there is a deepening of friendships.

“To add to that sense of camaraderie is the fact that myself and other artists are able to create special projects that sometimes are presented at other places, but John gives us the latitude to do things that are unique to the festival. All these special projects that myself and others have been able to do is because of John’s openness to allowing us to have spaces and venues to do something that are a little bit outside of the norm, it’s really unique.”

Braun also cherishes the collaboration and camaraderie of artists at Berks.

“I have so many fond memories with Pat Martino, Randy Brecker, Brian Bromberg, Philippe Saisse, Will Lee and people I don’t normally get to hang out with,” he says. “The list goes on and on. I always look at the Berks Jazz Fest as very special because another thing that happens at Berks that doesn’t happen at other festivals, the combinations of artists in ensembles that are unique. I kind of look at it as a band camp for grownups.

“We get together and go out. Here we go. It’s a be-bop show. What are we going to do? I don’t know. Eric Marienthal’s got something. Or Everette Harp. Or Jeff Lorber. We figure out what we’re going to do. For us, it’s definitely a musically challenging and uplifting experience for us at Berks. The fans sense that with the All-Star Jam and the be-bop show. They sense that it’s a unique experience, not just for them but for us as artists.”

One of the signature events of the festival every year is the Chuck Loeb Memorial All-Star Jam.

Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest lost a member of its family when the beloved guitarist/composer Chuck Loeb passed away in 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Loeb was the musical director of the then-named Berks All-Star Jam, turning it from a loose jam session into a well-produced concert without losing any of its improvisational characteristics. Braun then joined him as co-musical directors.

With Loeb’s passing, Veasley teamed up with Braun as co-musical directors.

“Chuck had an interesting position in the jazz world because he was widely respected and revered not only by fans but by people at the highest levels,” Veasley explains. “So when Chuck would walk into a room and say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ he commanded a touch of respect. So it was easy for people to leave their egos at the door. Chuck was a master of getting folks to sublimate their own desires for the good of the entire show. He also was great at finding spots for everyone to shine.

“That was the producer in Chuck. He was a great guitarist and songwriter, but he also was a great producer in the studio. He brought a lot of those same skills in terms of organizing people and getting people to bring their best selves forward without ego. He was a master at that.

“For Rick and I, we try to continue Chuck’s model, that same spirit of collegiality letting everyone have a place to shine and getting folks to work together with as little ego as possible. It’s a pleasure working with Rick, who has this spirit of fun and great energy. He makes the whole process a lot of fun.”

“Chuck and I were partners as well on the All-Star Jam and we always collaborated,” Braun explains. “I always took a step back so Chuck could be the main person. He did an amazing job. Of the two of us, Chuck definitely was the more organized. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is less organized than I am.

“Gerald is one of the kindest, sweetest souls in the world. On a musical level, he’s just so incredibly talented and a wonderful entertainer. He and I have had a wonderful time being the traffic directors on the All-Star Jam. It’s always a little bit challenging trying to accommodate everyone.

“It’s really funny because we really designate who plays what solos on what songs and we try to keep it short. Every year our tragic error is pointing to the one person who hasn’t attended the pre-show meeting where we’re saying keep your solos short. He’ll play like four choruses and that song winds up being 20 minutes long.”

A special event this year in which Braun is serving as the musical director and a performer is the 30th Anniversary All-Star Celebration also starring Peter White, Mindi Abair, Nick Colionne, Larry Braggs, Brian Bromberg and Euge Groove.

The concert will include a video/slideshow Remembrance segment recognizing the Berks Jazz Fest headliners who have passed away over the years.

“I get together with John and we figure out what we’re going to do,” Braun says. “We bounce ideas back and forth about artists. I’ve helped him in reaching out to some artists personally and trying to coordinate it. Once we hit the stage, I’ll do my thing and we’ll have a good time.”

To help commemorate the 30th anniversary of Berks Jazz Fest, the Berks Bop Big Band is going to put on a big concert and then some.

Braun is part of the big band along with Andrew Neu, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright, Everette Harp, Skip Spratt, Randy Brecker, Craig Kenney, Tony DeSantis, Aubrey Logan, Paul Arbogast and Jarred Antonacci.

Braun also is part of the highly anticipated Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder at 70! concert along with Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Maysa, Kimberly Brewer, Eric Darius, Nick Colionne, Ragan Whiteside, Glenn Jones, Art Sherrod Jr. and the DOXA Gospel Ensemble.

“That’s going to be a lot of fun,” Braun says. “Again, that’s part of the big picture. There always are events at Berks that are unique to Berks. You don’t see it anywhere else.”

One new thing Veasley will be doing at this year’s BJF is his Unscripted at Berks concerts featuring Nelson Rangell, Alex Bugnon and Marc Antoine the first weekend and Bobby Lyle, Chieli Minucci, and Jazmin Ghen the second weekend.

These Unscripted shows mimic Gerald’s Unscripted Jazz Series at SOUTH Jazz Parlor in Philadelphia.

“The Unscripted Jazz Series we do at SOUTH Jazz Parlor is full circle,” Veasley explains. “We borrowed from The Gerald Veasley Jazz Base at the Crowne Plaza model.”

Veasley hosts the very popular Midnight Jam that takes place every year on the Fridays and Saturdays of both festival weekends, assembling a phalanx of amazing artists to create unforgettable musical adventures.

“I love jam sessions,” Veasley says. “There is something exciting about not knowing exactly what you are going to do. It’s taking a risk. Victor Wooten compared it to walking on a tightwire. The excitement is that they might not make it. The stakes are very different. But the analogy still fits. That sense of taking a risk. A sense of vulnerability. For me, that’s thrilling. We have a ball with that.”

On a closing note, Veasley also gave props to the lifeblood of the festival.

“The festival volunteers and the production people are our friends,” he says. “The friendships we develop with them over the years is really cool. Those kinds of things are precious to me. Getting to know the people behind the scenes has been a blessing to me.”

“There are so many people in the support cast at the festival that we’ve become friends with,” Braun says. “It’s not just me. It’s all the musicians.”

As the years swell like a blowfish, Gerald Veasley and Rick Braun can bask in the warm light of magical Berks Jazz Fest experiences stored in the attics of their memories.

With undoubtedly many more memories to find storage for as the artists play on.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Dean Brown up close

By Mike Zielinski

Dean Brown’s Summer of Love Evolution wedding an interpretive jazz component to signature songs from the abundantly memorable 1968-72 period of music promises to be an imaginative flight of brilliance.

This luminous concert on Friday, April 3, at 7 p.m. at the Miller Center for the Arts will be one of the highlights of the 30th anniversary edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council.

Brown, a superlative guitarist, composer, producer, arranger and educator, has put together a marvelous project spotlighting great music being played by great musicians.

The Summer of Love Evolution features a dynamic array of artists in multiple Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker; multiple Grammy-winning saxophonist Eric Marienthal; profoundly diverse vocalist Honey Larochelle; extraordinary drummer Keith Carlock; incredible pianist/keyboardist Jim Beard; Billy Joel and Michael Bolton bassist Schuyler Deale; accomplished vocalist/guitarist Deveron Patterson; master-of-all-trades Mino Cinelu (percussion, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals) and the Berks Horns (Mike Anderson on saxophone, Rob Diener on trumpet and John Loos on trombone).

The Summer of Love of 1967 began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, an event that birthed a brilliant musical era. The Summer of Love celebrates its 53rd anniversary this year. The exact date is sketchy, lost somewhere in the psychedelic haze of historical memory.

But the Summer of Love endures today because it represents a time like no other in American history. While there were societal upheavals before, there had never been the tremors that began in the West and shook the status quo from coast to coast, for better and for worse.

The Summer of Love’s most recognizable denizens were the hippies who harbored dreams of transcendence, young people awash in new ideas, fresh attitudes, boundless energy and free love. It began with utopian beginnings when peace and love were paramount, spawning great music. It was a social phenomenon that also popped up in many places in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

But there also were grimy, seedy, drug-addled loners and drifters who used the spirit of the Summer of Love as an excuse to avoid responsibility. There were all kinds who gathered at the Haight-Asbury epicenter. That’s what happens when tumult envelops a nation divided by the tumult of the Vietnam War.

“In my opinion, the Summer of Love was a protest against the idea that we had to go around killing each other,” Brown says. “And that it would be a much more enlightened world if everybody sort of lived and let live. The Vietnam War was a huge influence on culture. So many of the artists were taking a stand against killing people in the name of democracy. That what was going on, whether you agree with it or not. There was such a huge divide and that’s why things got dark.

“When we talk about the Summer of Love, for me as a musician, I would rather focus on the good things that came out of it, which is the music. What happened with the music is what we hoped would happen in society. Everything worked with everything else. That’s what I’m trying to illustrate in this concert at Berks. Songs like Miles Davis are going to fit well with a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They’re like related.”

Indeed, the Summer of Love produced a wondrous volume of great music, juicier than a summer peach. There was magic floating in the air. Some hit songs pass through like fog and quickly burn off. Not the classic songs from that era.

Let’s be honest. Even some No. 1 records are about as exciting as warts. But many of the songs from the 1968-72 epoch are about as boring as probing a lion for a sore tooth. Those songs are art. They should be painted as well as listened to.

“The music of that era is such an integral part of people’s musical upbringing,” Brown says. “There’s never been a period in music where more different kinds of music affected more different other kinds of music.

“There was so much cross-pollination, rock musicians using more jazzy sounds and on the other side many jazz musicians were looking for something more to push them, to push the envelope with this rock thing that was a different type of scenario and a different type of orchestration and made things sound completely different.

“Being that it’s the Berks Jazz Festival, I’m trying to draw a direct correlation between the jazz music that everybody loves and the actual songs and groups of the late 60s, early 70s that were so popular, that had so much influence on those jazz artists. We want the audience to hear the two things happening at the same time.”

Those who came of age listening to that abundant treasure chest of music during the late 1960s and early 70s never want to flee their past like orphans of the storm. And now their past meets the present, courtesy of Dean Brown’s jazz spin on that music.

As you can imagine, it was a monumental task for Brown to sift through all that marvelous music and winnow it down or otherwise the concert would last forever and a day.

“A lot of the music I’ve chosen for this particular project lends itself to improvisatory exploration,” Brown explains. “Even though we’re playing songs from The Fifth Dimension or Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Beatles or Marvin Gaye.

“I was looking for songs that I thought were important to me and also would lend themselves to this cross-pollination of jazz and rock or jazz and soul music or jazz and Latin. I spent a lot of time curating the repertoire and narrowing it down. It was a huge thing.

“And I’m thinking about the various guys and girls that we are using on this project that we want to feature and that helps rarify the selection. We probably will play 10 or 12 songs. It might be a little more. Not to give anything away, but some of the songs are mashups. Even if you perceive them as one song, they are sort of mashup of things, a jazz song and a rock song.”

One of the hallmarks of the Berks Jazz Fest over the years is the uniquely special musical projects it premieres. The Summer of Love Evolution is a prime example.

“This project will have its premiere at Berks Jazz Fest,” Brown says. “We probably will rehearse for a couple days at Berks prior to the concert. But everybody will have the music for at least a month so they can marinate with it. It will be mocked up. But I don’t want to lock it in too much, to make it sound like a finished product. I don’t want to do some cookie-cutter kind of thing.

“I want the artists on stage to explore that music in their own way, however they want. There obviously is a template. We don’t want to make it too dense in terms of arrangements but also not so sparse that there is not enough content.

“My plan is to do this at Berks, see how it goes, and see if I can get some interest to actually record it somehow and perhaps take it elsewhere. It depends on the amount of interest. To me it’s a no-brainer.”

So it would seem.

By the way, the Summer of Love and the music it spawned also gave birth to Dean Brown’s remarkable career. Even though he was only 12 in 1967. More on that in a moment but first a quick glance at his resume.

Brown’s music defies boundaries to combine rock, Latin, jazz, funk and fusion into a joyful, soulful, dynamic and intense groove. He is well known in the global jazz/fusion scene for his powerful virtuosic rhythm guitar work and his passionate melodic soloing.

R&B goddess Roberta Flack says of Brown: “I found guitarist Dean Brown to play behind me. He’s a genius.”

Brown released his fifth celebrated album Rolajafufu in 2016 after four acclaimed previous solo CD’s worldwide. Brown’s guitar work can be heard on well over 200 recordings which include numerous Grammy nominations and four Grammy Award winners.

Since starting to play professionally with his own group at the age of 13, Brown has toured all over the world with his projects and performed and recorded alongside legendary artists such as Marcus Miller, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, David Sanborn, Bob James, George Duke, Roberta Flack, Bill Evans, Randy Brecker, Victor Bailey, Joe Zawinul, Simon Phillips, Lenny White, Chris Minh Doky, Kirk Whalum, and Steve Smith’s Vital Information, just to name a few.

Brown picks up the narrative of why the music from the Summer of Love era — along with a fortuitous introduction into jazz — was so transformative for him personally.

“I started gigging when I was 13 and the music from that era obviously had a profound effect on me in terms of me wanting to be a musician,” he explains. “Up to that point I didn’t have that much interest in it even though my mom was a professional singer singing jazz. It didn’t resonate with me.

“I came to jazz through the side door because of that music and I think that this is what this project is kind of about — my window into jazz came through artists who were not jazz musicians but played rock or soul or various different other genres.

“Jethro Tull. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. During this transition I was playing in a band and a couple guys in the band were GIs. We played the pop and rock and soul music of the day. Those guys told me I had to listen to John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. It was transformational. I heard it but I still didn’t know what the hell it was. But I liked it.

“It took me the longest time to realize that when the guys were soloing, they actually were soloing over a form. It sounded to me then like they were playing freely until they played the melody again. In fact they were playing over the form and the chords of that song. It was a major step for me to even just like it, instead of dismissing it as something my mom did.

“It kind of came full circle. All of a sudden, the musicians I was listening to were being influenced by the music that I liked. That was where a lot of the jazz rock was born out of. Jazz musicians were embracing electric bass and electric keyboards.”

Brown’s perspective is that the power of music extends far beyond what goes into people’s eardrums. He experiences that every time he writes and performs.

Anyone that’s seen Brown live understands how that translates into a charged, emotional experience that leaves no doubt about his intimate relationship with the muse. It’s common to see Brown leaping about with wild abandon at his gigs to the delight of the audience.

“I feel like I’m tapping into a higher energy when I write and perform,” he says. “It’s about respecting the muse. I try not to think about it too deeply and just channel the flow. It’s about being open to inspiration and enabling an energy conversation to take place. I’m not interested in filters.”

The Summer of Love Evolution at Berks Jazz Fest will be an emotional experience. That’s a lead-pipe cinch.

“I put the word evolution in there,” Brown says. “You are going to recognize these songs as part of the tapestry of your listening experience throughout the late 60s and early 70s. But I’m not just covering stuff just to get a rise out of people. That’s not enough. Even though all the songs are going to get a rise out of people.

“I’m choosing songs that are very easily recognizable. I’m tempering my artistic license with the understanding that I want people to feel a connection. They just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a nostalgic experience but also something that is immediate and urgent.”

He takes a pregnant pause.

“I don’t think there’s any way to screw this up,” he laughs.

No way in hell.

Berks Jazz artist Marcus Miller up close

By Mike Zielinski

When you look at the totality of Marcus Miller’s career, you blink in astonishment.

How could one musician accomplish so much in so many realms?

How could an artist follow so many paths with all of them leading to the top?

Usually when you navigate a maze, the network of divergent paths leads to a puzzling dead end.

But not with Marcus Miller. All his paths lead to the summit.

“As a Gemini, I’m always working on two, three or four or five paths at the same time,” says Miller, who is bringing his Laid Black Tour to the 30th anniversary of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, April 4, at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.

No wonder the man has been dubbed the Renaissance Man.

He also has been dubbed the world’s preeminent living bass player. He’s not merely a bass player, he’s a virtuoso. Like Heifetz with a violin and Horowitz at the piano back in the day. His creativity is as unstoppable as tomorrow.

“I discovered the bass during the glory years of bass players,” Miller explains. “When I was a teenager, we had Larry Graham, James Jamerson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Anthony Jackson, Alphonso Johnson. They all were doing their thing. I had some pretty high standards to live up to. I was practicing all the time. I was pushing myself to be like those guys. The bass really was in the center of music back then.”

That hard-wired drive enabled Miller to scale the Everest of his profession. His meteor is up there and blazing. His signature sound snaps ears to rigid attention.

Indeed, his bass playing can be as hot as tar percolating under an unforgiving sun.
Miller also has been dubbed one of the most influential artists of our time because of his groundbreaking style and carefully cultivated, unique musical voice.

Let’s face it, the man has been dubbed everything but a knight.

But back to his massively influential music voice. It took him a while to discover his voice. It was buried somewhere deep inside him and had yet to scratch its way out of his stomach.

Once it did, his voice resonated around the globe. The irony is thick enough to cut with a steak knife.

“I started focusing on my solo career when (legendary trumpeter) Miles (Davis) passed in September of 1991,” says Miller, who is 60. “I had done some solo stuff in the 80s but didn’t really feel like I had found my voice as a solo artist yet. So I stopped and restarted it when Miles passed.

“A big problem for sidemen, studio musicians, is finding their own voice because we make a living being chameleons. And that is exactly the opposite of what you do as an artist. As an artist you have to have a really specific point of view. It took me a minute to make the transition.

“When I first started as a sideman, I would play for Whitney Houston or Paul Simon or whoever it was, you wouldn’t even know it was me on the bass. Because I was just playing exactly what I thought was necessary to just support the music. As I began to grow, my own style emerged. When I started collaborating later on, I would actually I would bring my style to the mix.

“That’s when people started to say that I know it’s you on every record I hear that you play on. But it wasn’t like that. There are a whole bunch of records I played on where you don’t know it’s me. As I evolved, I became more like a sideman slash artist. I found a way to make my style enhance whoever I was working with.”

Miller was even leaving footprints along various paths on a daily basis back in the day.

“In my studio days, in the morning I would play on a commercial for Huggie diapers or Ford trucks,” he explains. “We did jingles in the morning. That was a New York studio musician’s bread and butter. To play on TV commercials in the morning.

“Around noon you had a record date with Roberta Flack or Bob James or whoever it was. At night you’d go to the clubs and you’d play. I was very much a presence in the New York City jazz scene. While I was being a studio chameleon in the morning, I also played with Miles in his band at night. The trick for me was to find a way to bring it all together. I still haven’t completely brought it all together.

“That was an incredible time with Miles. I started playing with Miles in 1981. He already was a huge legend. It literally was like playing with like a god. I was surprised he was only five feet six inches tall. He was a regular human being, to my surprise.

“I happened to catch him at an incredible time in his life. I played in his band for a couple years. Then I left. Then I came back, like 1985 or 1986, to write music and produce music for him. In that second period he was in a real reflective mood.”

Some men develop arthritis as they age. Other men develop a deep sense of retrospection. That was Miles Davis.

“So we would be working on music, just he and I in the studio,” recalls Miller. “He would just stop and start talking about Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. All these stories. Just out of nowhere. An incredible time to be sitting there next to him. Really a beautiful experience, man.”

Miller’s whole career has been a beautiful experience. Indeed, he has enjoyed one of the most enviable careers in music. He is a two-time Grammy winner and the composer/producer of numerous critically acclaimed and genre-defying albums, including his 2018 release Laid Black.

He wrote the renowned track “Maputo” on the David Sanborn/Bob James collaboration Double Vision, considered by many as one of the most successful albums in the jazz genre that sold over a million copies and won a Grammy Award.

Besides seemingly being able to play the bass while walking on water, he also is highly proficient as a keyboardist and clarinetist/bass clarinetist.

Not only has Miller pioneered the continuing development of a technique known as “slapping”, but his fretless bass technique also has served as an inspiration to many and has taken the fretless bass into musical situations and genres previously unexplored with the electric bass of any description.

His resume as an A-list player brims with over 500 recording credits as a sideman on albums across the spectrum of musical styles.

He also writes movie scores and hosts his own show Miller Time with Marcus Miller on Sirius Satellite Radio.

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a multitasking genius?

Besides Sanborn, James, Davis, Houston, Simon and Flack, Miller has played, and in many cases written and produced for, such luminaries as Luther Vandros, Joe Sample, The Crusaders, Lalah Hathaway, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Elton John, Al Jarreau, Wayne Shorter and Mariah Carey.

It’s a magical experience to listen to a legend play. It’s a transcendent experience to sit down and play with a legend.

“The first time I played with George Benson or Joe Sample or The Crusaders or Miles, those are pretty heavy moments,” Miller says. “You can’t believe the music you’re hearing is a sound that you’ve been listening to your whole life, but you’re hearing it come out of the person who’s sitting right across from you. That’s a trip. But eventually you become contemporaries and good friends. Then you’re just enjoying making music.

“The same with David Sanborn. The first time I heard that sound live was when we were putting the Saturday Night Live Band together, 1979,1980, something like that. Sanborn was in the band, too. That was incredible. That’s when David and my relationship began. His sound was so distinctive. It blows your minds. After a while, it’s not so much awe. It’s respect.”

Miller has a rich and very deep resume of outstanding collaborations, including a 15-year songwriting and production partnership with Vandross, resulting in an astonishing13 consecutive platinum-selling albums.

Vandross was a living, breathing, veritable hit machine at that time. His voice was termed “flawless” and “as smooth as silk.” His voice created an atmosphere of pure romance. For years Vandross was the go-to-singer for when you wanted to get in the mood.

But it wasn’t always so.

“Luther and I were in Roberta Flack’s band together,” Miller says. “Luther at the time was a really popular background and studio singer in New York. He also was singing for TV commercials in the morning. We would pass each other in the studio. We got to be buddies on the road with Roberta.

“He was as hardcore about singing as I was about jazz. I really learned a lot about singers from him. He had this dream to make his own music. He got a lot of us guys from the Roberta Flack band together and we did a little demo. He took the demo around for about a year trying to get his own record deal.

“It wasn’t as easy as you would think. At the time the big groups in R&B were like Earth, Wind and Fire … R&B bands with 13 people in the band and bright colors. And Luther was just like a standstill singer. It took him a minute to get a record deal. When he finally did, the record was Never Too Much. It instantly was a smash.

“All of a sudden in front of my eyes I see my buddy become a huge star. Negotiating that and trying to figure out how to live your life when everybody knows who you were, I got to see the whole thing, the positives and the negatives. But there were so many more positives.”

And indescribable moments.

“When you’re playing on Luther’s fourth record and you know that every note you play millions of people are going to hear it because now he’s a star and people are waiting for his next recording, that’s an incredible thing,” Miller says. “So you’re in the studio and he’s singing live with the band, I know it’s another classic as we’re playing it.

“We didn’t know ‘Maputo’ was going to become what it became. It just sounded pretty nice. But with Luther when we got a few albums in, you could tell that you were performing music that you would be listening to for the rest of your life on the radio. I can’t even describe it with words. The beauty of being in that situation.”

Miller’s voice trails off as he savors that delicious memory.

Music is a dialogue between an artist and his instrument in which they go deep into the heart of each other’s matter. There is a cosmic connection between Marcus Miller and his bass, one that has enabled him to master the ultimate inquisition of himself and his art.

“I basically play one bass,” he says. “I started playing it in 1977. In fact, it’s a 1977 Fender Jazz Bass and I’ve been playing it my whole life.”

He used to exclusively be a Fender guy. But when Sire approached him and demonstrated to him that a Sire bass had the same quality as a Fender but was less expensive, Miller started endorsing them “because I wanted to put quality, affordable instruments in kids’ hands.”

“I’m not giving up my Fender,” he says. “It’s like a singer changing throats. You’ll hear me playing my Sire V7 Vintage 30 percent of the time on stage and the rest is my Fender.”

You’ll also see a very fit Marcus Miller on stage. He looks like a guy you could drive railroad spikes with. Rock hard, he looks like he was mined, not born.

“I’ve enjoyed working out for a long time,” he says. “I try to work out every day. It never happens with all the traveling I do. But if you try every day, you will work out at least three times a week. Weight training, playing basketball, all the crazy insanity stuff they have. I like to switch it up. Again, I’m a Gemini. And your body gets comfortable if you do the same routine all the time.”

Miller is thoroughly enjoying his Laid Black Tour that he’s bringing to Berks, the BJF concert featuring Surprise Special Guests. His Laid Black Tour reflects Miller’s view of jazz that is rangy and iconoclastic yet respectful to the art form’s traditions.

“The album came out a year and a half ago and we’ve been touring with the album since then,” he says. “It’s a really been a beautiful thing. When you have an idea for an album and when you’re on stage playing that music a year later, it’s an incredible thing.”

Miller’s Jazz Fest appearance is subtitled Blue Note at Sea Cruise Night. To help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, Entertainment Cruise Productions is offering everyone who purchases tickets for the fest a chance to win a cabin for the Blue Note at Sea cruise set for January 23-30, 2021 that features – you guessed it – Marcus Miller.

The raffle will be held just prior to his concert that evening.

Miller’s long involvement with Entertainment Cruise Productions began when his very close late friend Wayman Tisdale, the NBA star and jazz bassist, hooked him up with ECP executive director Michael Lazaroff.

“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to be a musician on The Love Boat,” laughs Miller “But I went on a cruise and it was so cool. Then I hosted them. Michael asked me to pick it up after Wayman passed 11 years ago and I became musical director. It’s become a really incredible thing. A lot of musicians hanging out together. We’ve copied the Berks Jazz Fest model. We’re Berks Jazz Fest on water.”

Apparently having successfully navigated every conceivable path on land, Marcus Miller taking to the sea was as inevitable as the sunrise.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Kenny Neal up close

By Mike Zielinski

It’s the bloodline. No doubt about it. It’s his bloodline that spawned and sustains the long and remarkable career of the preternaturally gifted Kenny Neal. The man doesn’t bleed red. He was born and bred to bleed the blues.

Little wonder that his 2016 release Bloodline was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and also won two Blues Music Awards — one for Best Contemporary Blues Album and the other for Best Contemporary Male Blues Artist.

Neal started playing music at such a young age he can’t even remember when it was. It likely was before he even learned to walk. Funny thing about walking. It takes a bit for kids to learn how to walk. But once learned, they pretty much have it mastered.

It was like that with music for young Kenny. He was a child prodigy, a simple matter of predestination. He learned the basics from his father, singer and blues harmonica master Raful Neal.

Young Kenny had some big shoes to fill. But he’s been more than up to the task. He’s a modern swamp-blues multi-instrumentalist – guitar, bass, harmonica, vocals – blending his swampy roots with soul and R&B to put his own contemporary spin on the blues.

Indeed, Kenny Neal is the real deal and delivers the blues like no one else can.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge, Neal was playing in his father’s band at 13 and was playing bass for the legendary Buddy Guy at 18. Not too much later he was playing with another blues god in Muddy Waters.

How many young men can hold their own with divinity? Imagine a young man co-authoring with Homer, Shakespeare and Hemmingway. Talking transcendent talent.

Of course, bloodline isn’t the sole reason why Kenny Neal has flourished for decades. His Louisiana roots are a major reason why he is bringing The Neal Family Revue to the 30th Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, March 28, at 1:30 p.m. at The Inn at Reading.

If he and his kin were raised in Idaho or Utah, they likely would be in the audience, not on the stage, at Berks Jazz Fest.

Baton Rouge is known as the swamp blues capital of Louisiana.

“You hear Chicago-style blues or West Coast, but down here we got so many different cultures that blend in together,” Neal says from his Baton Rouge home. “I guess that’s where we get that gumbo from. Cajun, New Orleans, rag time — it was rag time before it was jazz — all that makes up what we call swamp blues.

“Baton Rouge to New Orleans north to Delta, Mississippi. So many different types of music combined. We got that bluesy feel from the Delta, that jump, zydeco, Cajun from Baton Rouge, and the funk jazz music from New Orleans. That’s what I like about the music I play.”

And when Kenny is playing the harp on stage, his dad is pouring out of that harmonica.

“The harp is a very big part of my show,” he says. “I love the harmonica. A lot of times when I play it, I hear my dad coming out of me. I play his licks and at those moments sometimes I’ll say, ‘Wow, thanks for giving me this,’ and I’ll reminisce with my dad for a bit.

“I play the harp upside down like my dad. He played backwards. Instead of the lower end on the left side, we play it with low end on the right side. Slim Harpo did it. Whispering Smith did it. The guys from here all played upside down. I can bend the notes real good like that.”

Raful Neal had great friends, great connections in Baton Rouge.

“Buddy Guy and his brothers Phil and Sam — Sam still lives in Baton Rouge — they’ve been family for years,” Kenny explains. “Buddy was my dad’s guitar player in 1956 and 1957. Then Buddy and my dad got an offer from Muddy Waters in 1958 to join him in Chicago. Buddy went but my dad had just started his family here. I’m the eldest of 10. My father stayed in Baton Rouge because he wanted to make some babies.

“Buddy would always come back to visit his brothers and sisters and always come to my dad’s house and go out to my gigs when I was growing up. A few years passed by and Buddy needed a bass player. Buddy wanted me. I was 18. Chicago was a whole different world for me. Got to meet Muddy Waters. I was so excited to meet him. I got to play with Muddy, and I couldn’t wait to get off stage so I could call my father and tell him I played with Muddy.

“I stayed with Buddy for about a year and a half. One thing that interested me was that a lot of guys around Chicago who were mediocre players and singers were getting contracts in Europe. Bells started going off in my head. I started writing my own music and bought myself a guitar. I started shedding on the guitar. I wasn’t interested in playing the bass with Buddy Guy anymore. I moved to Toronto for a while and I worked on my own stuff.”

And the rest is blues history. Now at the age of 62, Neal even takes a break now and then.

“This is my first time I’m enjoying my house even though I bought it 37 years ago,” he says. “Man, I never knew how nice the place was until now because I was always on the road. The road is part of my genes. I’m in it forever. I probably do 100 dates a year. I used to do 250, 260. But I’m enjoying being home now. This year is my first time ever going on vacation.”

Granted, there are vacations and then there are vacations. And his first one is a dandy, not something experienced by 99.9 percent of the world’s population.

“I’m going to Mick Jagger’s house on Mustique (a pristine and private West Indies island), spending two-and-a-half weeks with Mick on his estate,” Neal explains. “He invited some more musicians and we’ll be doing some jamming on the beach. I’ve been all over the world but never took the time to take a vacation. I met the Stones way back in the 1970s when I was with Buddy Guy. They love swamp blues.”

Still, it’s difficult to picture Mick Jagger wrestling a Louisiana alligator.

“(Stones bass guitarist) Bill Wyman and I have stayed friends ever since then,” Neal says. “He was always amazed at my bass playing. I still play the bass at times in my shows. I do all my fancy popping and pulling the strings like I used to do.”

The blues indeed are transformative. There have been a number of fantastic British blues singers and not one of them sings with a British accent.

Of course, when Neal isn’t taking one-of-a-kind vacations, he’s not just sitting on the front porch or grouting the bathtub when he’s home.

“I have my studio here now at the house and it’s just a place for musicians to come and record and live and get some good food,” he says. “I opened up my own record label last year and it’s been great. Booga Music. I used to call my son Booga when he was a little baby.”

Neal hasn’t released an album since Bloodline.

“I’m not the type of person who feels I have to put a record out every year and write a song just to have an album,” he says. “It’s got to come from my heart. I have to feel it. It’s got to be real. You take pride in what you do. Like they say, serve no wine before its time.

“But I do have a real nice acoustic CD I’m releasing in a couple months called Feed Your Soul. You come here to Louisiana and feed your soul with the food, the culture and all the stuff we do right here in Louisiana. I’m also working on one for Kenny Neal Live with the Band. But I just can’t rush it.”

Speaking of his band, a number of siblings have played with him over the years. Two still do.

“I have my two youngest brothers with me now,” he says. “The two baby brothers who have been with me for over 25 years. Frederick is the keyboard player and Darnell plays the bass. (Longtime friend Bryan Morris has been playing drums for Kenny since 2005).”

Broke, brokenhearted or betrayed? There’s a blues song for every hardship in life. The old adage that a shared sorrow is half a sorrow may explain why singing or hearing the blues is so good for us.

The wondrous thing about the blues is its deeply profound effect on mood. If you’re listening to great blues, you can do anything without irritation …. even such mind-numbing, grit-your-teeth endeavors such as memorizing the dictionary or alphabetizing your canned goods. Heck, you can even eat beets with a smile on your face while drenched with the blues.

Being the consummate bluesman, Kenny Neal knew all that intellectually. Now he owns it emotionally.

Fate lifted the gate just a crack on his life, just enough to waft in an ample chunk of torment.

“I lost my brother Noel, who played with James Cotton, two years ago from a heart attack,” he explains. “I lost another brother from liver cancer. I’ve been through the ringer, man. I lost my baby sister. Her boyfriend murdered her.

“At one point I lost three family members in 11 months. My daughter died, my father died four months later and then my sister got murdered. After I buried my sister, I found out in 2004 that I was dealing with Hepatitis C. I was at Stage IV. Thank God I was at Palo Alto at Stanford University. The professors and doctors saved my life.

“I took the treatments in 2004 and 2005. I went through 58 weeks of treatments. I took interferon. I had to inject myself every Monday. I was taking 37 pills a week. Now they have a pill you can take for a couple weeks or something and it’ll knock it right out.

“After that happened to me, I was talking to myself about how life is so unpredictable, but the one thing I know for sure I’ve got to let life flow. I wrote it down. After I started to feel better from my treatments, I checked my notes and I wrote a song behind that.”

A song hatched from such a crucible can be a creative therapeutic.

“It touched so many people,” Neal explains. “I write about real things in life that people can relate to with everyday life. It brings joy to me to be able to do that. It’s like therapy to my fans.

“The blues changed for me after my illness. I stopped writing a lot about my baby gone and left me and I’m drowning in my own tears. I started writing about real life when I wrote the song ‘Let Life Flow’ (the title track on his 2008 album Let Life Flow).

“Blues wasn’t made to make you feel sad. Blues was made to make you feel better after you express yourself. You vent. When you’re singing the blues, you’re getting rid of the negative inside and what you’re going through in the hard times. Once you do that, you feel better. That’s what the blues is about. Getting it off your chest.”

When toxic times ooze into your life, listen to some Kenny Neal swamp blues for some Southern comfort.