By Melanie Maxwell
I had to be out of my mind to drive from San Diego to Anaheim on a Friday afternoon. Especially during our month-end crunch; the pressure of writing a barrage of last-minute stories within an impossible deadline; the night before the Ocean Institute Jazz Festival Gala in Dana Point; two days before our 15th anniversary brunch celebration at Spaghettini in Seal Beach; and struggling with the logistics of how to also fit in the 7-plus-hour, roundtrip drive to Spaghettini Beverly Hills & the Dave Koz Lounge for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday.
But the invitation to Yamaha’s Dealer Concert during the 114th NAMM Show was just too tempting. Nathan East, Jonathan Butler and Bob James, as well as artists I’ve never seen before such as Colbie Caillat, James Blunt, The Piano Guys and Jamie Cullum were scheduled to perform. Plus, there were rumors of a special appearance by Michael McDonald at the show, which was held at a 1,800-seat theater near the Anaheim Convention Center. This truly seemed like a can’t-miss event despite the insane timing of my ridiculous and stressful schedule.
But I rationalized that if I left San Diego at 1 p.m., I could avoid the road-rage-inducing traffic jams and meet photographer David Hopley at Spaghettini by 3. That way, we could relax and have some great food in the lounge first, then take one car to the theater, less than 15 miles away.
And, man-oh-man, am I happy that I jumped through all those hoops to experience that spectacular evening of music!
My excitement registered off the Richter scale when I entered the theater and saw a 25-piece orchestra and three background vocalists. Nothing thrills me more than hearing highly skilled musicians playing real instruments live with great singers. There was no auto-tune or pre-recorded programming here: Just awesome talent, top-notch entertainment and a lot of laughter for this audience comprised mainly of dealers of Yamaha instruments and equipment.
Sinbad, the emcee, opened the show with a trumpet in his hand. Then, without a word, the comedian held the mouthpiece to his lips, placed his fingertips on the valves and pointed the bell toward the microphone. When it didn’t emit a sound, he blamed it on a suspicious “sticky-valve” conspiracy. And, after special guest Tom Scott hit the stage, Sinbad joked that the valves on his saxophone mysteriously worked just fine.
Nathan was up next, featuring Byron “Mr. Talkbox” Chambers. And, although Michael McDonald never showed up, David Paich and Steve Porcaro from the band Toto made a surprise appearance. They played a few of their biggest hits, including “Africa,” accompanied by Nathan and the orchestra.
After a quick set change, Colbie Caillat was standing five feet away from our front-row center seats. With a guitar and mic, the singer-songwriter showed the audience what a naturally sweet and pure voice sounds like. She went effortlessly from guitar to piano (at times accompanied by a male guitarist) as she sang some of her hits, including “Bubbly,” “Brighter than the Sun” and “Try.”
Chris Gero, Yamaha founder and vice president, was on stage for a few moments to thank the dealers and Yamaha’s artist endorsers, and to also introduce Bob James. Later, it was announced that a collaboration between Nathan and the 75-year-old piano legend was being considered for release on the Yamaha record label.
After several lovely instrumental tunes from Bob (including “Angela” the theme from the 1970’s sitcom “Taxi”), it was time for more vocals. James Blunt was just the guy to bring them. The multi-award-winning Brit went from playing piano to guitar, all the while singing his seemingly broken heart away with a raw, searing, emotional and aching style. He delivered the lyrics and music in such a personal way, his angst haunted me on the entire drive back home to San Diego. I can see why the pop star, who catapulted to international fame in 2005 with his hit song “You’re Beautiful,” has sold more than 17 million albums and 20 million singles.
But for me, a die-hard smooth jazz fan, one of many highlights was the performance by South African guitarist-vocalist Jonathan Butler. Accompanied by Greg Vail on sax, he earned multiple standing ovations.
If I thought seeing Colbie Caillat and James Blunt for the first time was a treat, I needed to fasten my seat belt (or “tighten up your depends!” as Sinbad instructed the audience) when Jamie Cullum began his fantastic vocal and piano performance. The adorable, 30-something, GRAMMY-winning, English jazz-pop star reminded me of an exciting combination of Brian Culbertson friskiness, Dave Koz charm, and the Road Runner’s energy mixed with an extraordinary voice and piano skills that would make Beethoven jealous. As his show began to sizzle, he stood up, loosened his tie, eventually jettisoned his coat and burst into full showman mode as he bobbed his head full of black spiked hair in rhythm to the music.
What did he do for an encore? He brought Bob James back onstage for a session of dueling pianos where the blend of contemporary spunk and legendary mastery was spectacular.
How do you beat that? With Nathan East’s encore of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which closed out the show with a dancing-ovation.
For more information on the Yamaha Entertainment Group of America, visit www.yamahaentertainmentgroup.com.
However, this wasn’t the only showcase of Yamaha’s bad-asses that night. While we were immersed in this musical magic, GRAMMY nominee and Yamaha-endorsed saxophonist Mindi Abair was across the street at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel receiving a She Rocks Awards for “Mad Skills.”
Sponsored by the Women’s International Music Network, this third annual event honored 10 incredible women in music, including Mindi, Colbie and the Bangles. Music-biz professionals Craigie Zildjian, Paula Salvatore, Gayle Beacock, Berklee College’s Debbie Cavalier, marketing executive Amani Duncan, journalist Katie Kailus and Robo Records president Rob Christie (the first male She Rocks recipient) were also presented with trophies.
For more information on this organization, visit www.thewimn.com/events/2015-rocks-awards/. Also, check out the Los Angeles Times‘ coverage on the She Rocks Awards at www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-namm-she-rocks-awards-20150124-story.html)