Blues, pop, soul . . . 'n all that jazz

The Times, Trenton New Jersey
Friday, August 16, 2002

The Trenton Jazz Festival reaches a milestone tomorrow with a glittering lineup, but remains almost devoid of its hallmark music, jazz. The 10th annual edition of the city-sponsored event may be hailed by R&B, soul, blues and pop fans, but it makes mainstream jazz listeners grit their teeth. 

Heading the mixed cast is the singing and songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson, whose many smash hits include Motown's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," most notably performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Sharing the festival billing is vibraphonist Roy Ayers, who has roots in traditional mainstream jazz but in recent years has crossed over into the smooth jazz genre with his seven-piece group. Returning to the festival is Pieces of a Dream, a Philadelphia ensemble formed about 25 years ago and guided to national prominence through the efforts of the late Grover Washington Jr. Also returning is popular keyboardist Alex Bugon, a contemporary recording artist on the Narada Jazz label. 

Busy bluesman Paul Plumeri and soulful vocalist Grace Little, a pair of deserving hometown musicians, round out the card for this year's event. 

"We're really pleased with the lineup. There should be something for every kind of music listener," said Lenny Pucciatti, a spokesman for the city's volunteer festival committee. "If you look at what we've offered in 10 years, you can see that we have expanded our horizons and we want to continue to widen our reach for audiences. "Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, not only wrote a whole bunch of smash hits starting back in 1964, but they have been very popular performers over the years and we know our audience will enjoy them. "We had Roy Ayers here in Trenton for Heritage Days afew years back and he played a heck of a performance for jazz fans." 

Pucciatti, who besides being the city's director of inspections is a professional drummer, said a cooking attraction has been added to this year's festivities at Mercer County Waterfront Park. Joe LaRusso, executive chef at the Lafayette Yard Marriott Conference Hotel in Trenton; Debra Caucci, head chef of McCaffrey's Markets of Yardley, Pa.; and Chis Stevens, chef/owner of Mezzaluna of Princeton Borough, will share their food preparation secrets with the audience between musical acts.  "Joe will do hors d'oeuvres, Debra will do the main course on a grill and Chris will do dessert," said Pucciatti. "The chefs will be televised as they work and it will be flashed up on the big screen in the outfield for the audience to see." 

Among those anticipating a good time is guitarist Plumeri, who is delighted to be featured at a music festival in his hometown after years on the road and playing at just about every blues club within a 100-mile radius of Trenton. 

"It's a real hoot to be invited to the festival," said Plumeri. "But I never saw a reason why as a blues player I shouldn't be invited. Ever since the advent of jazz festivals, they have been mixing the two related traditions where legendary blues guys like Muddy Waters would be invited to play on jazz programs. "It's a nice marriage between the styles and it'll be a way of carrying on a Trenton tradition." 

He was referring to previously invited Trenton-area artists such as Richie Cole, Bill Lacy, Barbara Trent and Bob Smith who have performed at the festival. Plumeri, 47, earlier this year released "Live in Seattle," his second CD as a leader. He returned from a 10-day tour in the Seattle area just a few weeks ago and has future bookings lined up in Arizona and plans to return to Jamaica this winter. "We went down in March to back up the act of Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry's piano player, and we ended up being in the whole show. It went over so great they are going to have us back again," said Plumeri.  He laughs recalling how in the 1970s he went for what was supposed to be a couple of weeks to Sarasota, Fla., with Duke Williams and the Extremes and did not come back home for almost a year. "It was fun then when I was younger. But it was the best time to be on the road because you were developing your chops and all of the other talents that go into making you a musician. Now, I'm glad to be home even though there are fewer and fewer clubs to play in around here." Plumeri's trio includes two other homegrown musical products with Rick DeAngelo of Trenton on drums and Bob Eckman of Bordentown on bass. 

The festival's headliners, Ashford and Simpson, have an endless supply of their own material to sing. They met in 1964 at the White Rock Baptist Church in New York City, where Simpson was playing piano and singing in the church's legendary choir. By the end of the year they were a team, having composed what would become Ray Charles' classic, "Let's Go Get Stoned." They moved on to Motown and after "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," they followed with such Gaye-Terrell hits as "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." 

The duo went on to record eight albums for Warner Bros., including three that went gold, followed by five more for the Capitol label in the 1980s. After about a 10-year break from the recording studios, they made another album a few years ago - a stirring collaboration with Maya Angelou resulting from a singalong during a Thanksgiving stay with the national poet laureate in Winston Salem, N.C. The married couple also wrote "I'm Every Woman," the hit song from the soundtrack from "The Bodyguard," sung by Whitney Houston. 

Vibraphonist Ayers, 61, started his musical career under the watchful eye of his musician parents, but from his early teens on focused on his instrument. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had performed or recorded on the West Coast with heavyweights such as Gerald Wilson, Teddy Edwards, Chico Hamilton, Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn. He and flutist Herbie Mann collaborated, splitting five years on the road and at the fabled Hermosa Beach Lighthouse. From mainstream jazz, Ayers went on in the '70s to explore a mixture of jazz, blues, R&B, pop, bossa nova and Latin in his group, Ubiquity. His current seven-piece group includes two backup singers and a repertory of smooth jazz arrangements that has kept the band on the move throughout this country, but even more so in England, Japan, Australia and Europe. 

Bugnon's first concert - at age 6 - was the debut of Aretha Franklin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Bugnon said thanks to his jazz musician father, he literally grew up at the festival, happily absorbing a wide range of influences, from Memphis Slim and Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. His latest recording for Narada is "Soul Purpose." Bugnon said the title is self-explanatory. "It's just music for the sole purpose of your soul," he said. "Nothing cerebral, nothing analytical, no chops for the sake of chops. Just strictly from the heart for the heart." 

Little has titled her debut CD "Amazin' Grace." She said it is her faith in God and perseverance that has driven her career over the years, after getting a start by singing in church with her parents. Influenced at an early age by Natalie Cole, Little by the time she was 12 won one of those famous competitions at the Apollo Theater in New York's Harlem. For many years she has teamed with her mentor, keyboardist Rodney Blackstone, at concerts and venues in the Trenton area. She also has toured with stage productions such as "The Wiz," "Dream Girls" and "Oh, Calcutta." 

Pieces of a Dream is observing its 25th anniversary with the release of "Acquainted with the Night" on the Heads Up label. While it would be hard to define the group as the founder of smooth jazz, Pieces certainly was among the very first to come into prominence with the format. Its level of popularity is reflected in having dozens of recordings on such labels as Electra, EMI/Blue Note and now Heads Up, a division of Telarc. The group consist of two of its founders, keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon, a bassist and two vocalists. 

The Trenton Jazz Festival takes place tomorrow at Mercer County Waterfront Park, Route 29 in Trenton. Gates open at 1 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45 and available at the stadium box office tomorrow or from Ticketmaster. (609) 520-8383. 

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