"Music has to breathe and sweat. You have to play it live." ~ James Brown (The Godfather of Soul)
Las Vegas was treated to an unequaled night of smooth jazz flavored with a heaping helping of soul tinged rhythm and blues when Soul Express played the intimate Chrome Showroom inside the Santa Fe Station Hotel/Casino. Soul Express is the grouping of three jazz/soul headliners on one dynamic concert card with each world-class performer leading their own set of songs while utilizing the shared services of a keyboardist, bassist, and drummer. This current Soul Express lineup (the third installment to date) consisted of British-born exceptional guitarist Chris Standring, accomplished saxophonist Everette Harp, and the incomparable vocalist Phil Perry. The brilliant sidemen used at the Santa Fe Station gig were Rico Belled (Liza Minnelli, Eddie Money, Gregg Karukas, Rick Braun, Keiko Matsui) manning the bass guitar, Sergio Gonzalez (Rick Braun, Jeff Lorber, Jessy J, Gary Wright) behind the drum kit, and Bill Steinway (Down to the Bone, Shilts, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, The Jazz Crusaders, Patti Austin) excelling on the Yamaha® keys.
Chris Standring got the show off to a flying start with an inspired rendition of "Groovalicious." Standing near the front edge of the stage he put on a guitar display of artistic excellence as he played the melody over a funky bass line. Combining the impeccable jazz technique of George Benson with a soulful "feel" comparable to Stax Records legend Steve Cropper, Standring brought the best of both worlds to the table. Standring’s funky rhythmic chops and breezy lead licks were a tastefully present factor the entire evening; applying a pure emotion and deep felt sincerity into every robust note he played.
Chris introduced the next song, with his thick London accent, as the pick to be the next single from his currently very popular (rightly so) Love and Paragraphs CD. "Have Your Cake And Eat It," was its title, and it was a beautifully breezy mid-tempo song containing a lovely melody that could reach the very top of the smooth jazz charts. The tune was a prime example of the kind of song that Chris Standring writes which endear him to audiences everywhere. The entire band deserved kudos for their exhilarating performances. They took the song to a higher ground, making it one of the many highlights of the night.
The highly recognizable smooth jazz radio hit "Love & Paragraphs" came next; after an explanation from Chris as to how he arrived at the title. It was a huge crowd favorite and another supreme effort from his bandmates, as they embraced its catchy hooks and rich, velvety smooth grooves. After it’s conclusion, Chris called out Everette Harp to assist him on "Pins And Needles" from his Hip Sway CD and together they provided some very nice instrumental interplay on the funky number which contained a retro-soul feel and showcased both artists profound soul aptitude.
Standring left the stage and Everette Harp began his set with a jamming performance of "Holla," from his In The Moment album. In 2006 In The Moment made it’s debut in the number one position of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. "Holla" contained an insistent beat, and Harp played his instrument with a power unrivaled by his peers. His entire set was an energetic exhibition of funk-filled sassy sax.
Everette informed the crowd that the next two songs would be selections from his latest CD, My Inspiration. He told the audience that his deceased, loving father was his inspiration throughout his life. His father having taught him the life lesson of how much a child needs hearing "I Love You" with constant regularity; he now applies that lesson with his own daughter, who is twenty years old and in college. The song he then played was the first single from the CD, a mid-tempo groove he calls "Old School."
Everette then called Chris back out to help him on another song from My Inspiration. It was an earnest tribute to The Crusaders called "All Jazzed Up (And Nowhere To Go)." The tune, just as those found in The Crusaders catalog, encompassed jazz, soul, and pop to form a pleasing merger of all of those elements. The spectacular group of musicians stretched it out, which allowed Rico Belled a few added moments to sparkle in the spotlight. Harp ended his fine set with "Monday Speaks" with Standring very capably filling the shoes of Norman Brown who had originally laid down the guitar on the record.
Before Harp left for a much deserved break, he introduced Phil Perry as his "favorite singer." Perry, dressed all in white, then proceeded to shower the audience with his embodiment of the core of the soul genre with highly passionate and emotive vocals. He reached back to the early seventies for his first selection, a rendition of War’s classic cross-over masterpiece "The World Is A Ghetto." A song with great grooves and great lyrics, and one that Phil included on last year’s A Mighty Love CD, it was given a tender loving treatment and dazzled like a diamond. He also showed that he could whistle beautifully, in addition to exhibiting some masterful jazz scatting.
Phil then invited the crowd to close their eyes and accompany him on a trip to a beautiful island paradise on "The Perfect Island Night." Visions of soft warm evening breezes caressing the palm trees and the scent of tropical frangipani hanging heavy in the air came to mind thanks to Perry’s romantic vocal treatment. Phil’s quivering falsetto reached amazingly high notes as he convincingly proved to be a master of his craft.
Everette Harp replaced Standring on stage for Perry’s version of Aretha Franklin’s "Call Me." On the song that was a number one record for him, Perry begs and pleads for his lady to call him, with spectacular impassioned pleas. Standring then returned to join everyone in a standout performance of Christopher Cross’s "Ride Like The Wind," another song culled from A Mighty Love.
The encore was a heartfelt rendering of Motown soul legend Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On," the title song on Harp’s wonderful Gaye tribute CD from about a decade ago. Played with a pure and sincere deep reverence by everyone, it was a marvelous choice to close the splendid show.
Words can’t truly describe the fabulous blend of smooth jazz and funky grooves served up by Soul Express on this evening. Soul Express was a perfect illustration of the kind of synergy and creative brilliance on display when premier performers pool their individual musical talents and merge into an entity far greater than the sum of its parts.