On December 1, 2006 Houston, Texas was privy to one of the best concerts of the year. Billed as “A Smooth Jazz Christmas” and sponsored by KHJZ 95.7 “The Wave,” four of the genre’s most notable musicians hit the stage of the Verizon Wireless Theater. Although David Benoit, Jonathan Butler, Michael Franks and Kirk Whalum have all been to Houston at various times, the event was heralded as an extra special extravaganza of smooth contemporary stylized jazz. Historically, each of the four artists have always been extremely prolific in their approach to their chosen craft and as always, whenever they perform in Houston they leave their legion of fans well-pleased.
Leading a succession of one after the other, guitarist Jonathan Butler kicked the concert off with some of his most memorable selections. As an artist, Jonathan is most known for music that reflects upon his South African roots, where he combines jazz, R&B and gospel with the cultural aspects of his heritage. Jonathan’s music is inherently spiritual in approach and lends itself to a sensitivity rarely experienced with the elemental aspects of smooth jazz. Another dynamic of Butler’s musical repertoire is his vocal ability. Whenever he sings, Jonathan’s tenor tinged voice is poetic and sensual in style and approach, which often invokes a mesmerizing sense of calm with his audience. When threading the needle with voice and song, Jonathan Butler pushes the envelope of intuitive creativity, even when he ups the ante with a dramatic display of driving guitar rhythms.
Following Jonathan Butler, pianist David Benoit came forth with his usual display of captivating groove-oriented melodies. Considered by many to be one of smooth jazz’s most dominant pianists, David has been hitting the keys as a solo musician since 1986 with a wide and varied array of hit tunes, one of the favorites being ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ This was a rare opportunity for smooth jazz connoisseurs to experience the subtlety of David Benoit in an up close and personal setting. On the flip side, David often augments his music with a combination of pop, classical and contemporary jazz, which can be a boon to connoisseurs of his musical style. But make no mistake about it, as an entertainer Benoit was true to his craft as one of smooth jazz’s finest. During his performance he had a definite connection as he wove an intricate pattern of melodic tapestries, which would open the door for a different musical piper of song.
As a vocalist, Michael Franks makes a statement that few people within earshot of his music can ignore. His whimsical mix of fantasy, romance, life experience and satire are situations everyone can relate to. As yet another highly anticipated visitor to Houston, Michael brought a level of enthusiasm to the stage that was thought to be mystical at best. Bordering on any number of influences, Franks’ music is not necessarily jazz in its purest sense; however, some of those elements may exist. As he sang, Franks pulled his audience into his web of passionate expression with a formidable sense of presence that many in the audience could relate to. Furthermore, he too has a distinctive calm about himself, which has become a patented trademark of his and one that was enthusiastically received by the near capacity crowd. As always, Franks was a master craftsman of song while paving the way for Houston’s own adopted son.
Whenever saxophonist Kirk Whalum comes to the City of Houston, his visit is best described as a musical family reunion and a homecoming. As a graduate of Texas Southern University, protégé of saxophonist Arnett Cobb and mainstay of the local jazz scene, Kirk became a city favorite during his stint in Houston. In fact everyone knew he was not long for the local jazz scene, so when he hit the big time after opening for Bob James during a concert in 1985, the Kirk Whalum era began to evolve. Over the years since his evolution, he has come back to the city as a phenomenon of sorts and many still remember seeing him at Cody’s and Rockefellers. As the fourth installment of a “Smooth Jazz Christmas,” the season was truly merry and bright. Although Kirk has been back to the city many times since his departure, his visit is always a well-received homecoming.
On the night of December 1, 2006, the combined talents of four of smooth jazz’s most sought after talents left little to be desired by the fans of Houston. If anything, the concert may not have been long enough, even though their performance was almost three hours long in duration. As one of the final jazz events of 2006, Houston was decidedly well served by the musical array of talent conveyed by Benoit, Butler, Franks and Whalum. Collectively, they made the season bright for a city that often suffers a jazz drought during the year; however, the optimism for more to come continues to be one of the city’s most anticipated expectations.
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