Hot Melt at Oakland Jazz Festival

A mostly R&B lineup didn't turn chocolate into syrup, but it surely melted a few women's hearts.

I know it’s hot,” soul singer Eric Benét told the adoring audience late Saturday afternoon at Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate. The sweltering sun beamed down on the crowd of some 7,000 overwhelmingly African-American, predominantly female, decidedly adult fans packed into every available space on the East Oakland facility’s expansive lawn for the nine-hour second annual so-called Oakland Jazz Festival.

“Chocolate melts in the sun,” he added. “I’m about to make some chocolate syrup right now.”

The 45-year-old Milwaukee-raised singer-songwriter then launched into “Chocolate Legs,” his sensuous 2009 salute to the lower part of the African-American female anatomy, penned in collaboration with producer Keith Crouch and Oakland guitarist John “Jubu” Smith.

Your cocoa skin against mine, baby, is all I need to help revive me, he crooned in candy-coated high-falsetto tones over his four-man rhythm section’s steady slow-grinding groove, concluding the song with a stunning cascade of melismas. He may not have melted any chocolate, but he surely melted more than a few women’s hearts.

Benét has been particularly popular among female fans since True to Myself, his 1996 solo debut CD, due to his gorgeous, remarkably pliant set of tenor pipes and songs that reflect an abiding respect for women, although his alleged infidelity to former wife Halle Barry earned him more than a few demerits from some of the faithful. His tunes may often be sensuous, but they’re never salacious.

The vocalist focused on love ballads during his forty-minute set. They included his biggest hit, 2009’s “Spend My Life with You,” on which backup singer Candice Boyd handled the woman’s part, originally recorded by Tamia, with aplomb. She did much the same filling in for Faith Evans on the playfully romantic “Georgie Porgy.” The tune, taken at a brighter tempo than most of the others, brought many in attendance off their blankets and folding chairs and onto their feet.

Benét is currently in the middle of a month-and-a-half national tour opening for East Oakland soul siren Ledisi, who closed Saturday’s nine-hour concert with an energy-charged fifty-minute set that ended abruptly at 8 p.m. in order to comply with a city sound ordinance. She wore a black blouse and black-leather pants as she strutted and bounced about the stage in sparkling silver spike heels, her auburn-and-black shoulder-length braids flying about her head as she pranced to the crisp, throbbing beats of her five-piece rhythm section, firmly anchored by bassist Idris Davis and drummer Tim Steele.

Unlike Benét, who recruited Boyd as his duet partner, Ledisi had no male vocalist to do Jaheim’s parts on “Stay Together.” She instead sang his lines in a gruff baritone, followed by her own in a soaring mezzo-soprano. Scaling octaves like an expert mountain climber, she flaunted her amazing range without ever seeming ostentatious throughout her performance, which included such favorites as “Higher Than This,” “Shut Up,” “Coffee,” and the kick-ass “Knockin.'”

Much like Benét’s, many of Ledisi’s life-affirming lyrics address women’s concerns. You gotta be good to yourself; can’t wait on nobody else, she wailed intensely on the gospel-imbued ballad “BGTY.” And as the temperature finally cooled thanks to the setting sun, many women rose to their feet, waving their hands in the air as they joined her in the repeated line I’m a woman from the ballad “Pieces of Me.”

“I’m sorry I’m not doing dinner jazz,” the singer, who has performed and recorded jazz in the past, quipped at one point. It was perhaps a subtle dig at the use of “jazz” in the name of the event.
Although four jazz groups were on the bill, R&B artists Ledisi, Benét, and Kem were Saturday’s main attractions.

Current soul heartthrob Kem was originally scheduled to close the festival, but he inexplicably hit the stage with his six-man band and three vocalists — all dressed entirely in white — at 12:20, causing many latecomers to miss some if not all of his outstanding ten-tune set, which included such numbers as “Share My Love” and “Love Calls.”

The festival was advertized as beginning at noon, but it actually stared an hour earlier with a set of original instrumental tunes by the San Jose fusion quartet Times 4. Completing the jazz part of the program were a tight rhythm- charged segment of Latin jazz by the brilliant San Francisco trombonist Wayne Wallace’s quintet, a welcome return to performing by Berkeley keyboardist Rodney Franklin after a hiatus of nearly two decades, and a set by smooth-jazz guitar star Norman Brown. The guitarist’s fast-fingered George Benson-inspired solos were far better in person, thanks to his hard-driving rhythm section, than on his CDs, which frequently utilize drum machines. Thoughtfully programmed old-school soul music by DJs Rick and Russ kept the throng in the groove during the long intermissions.


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