It's easy to dismiss James "Saxsmo" Gates as a gifted musician caught somewhere between smooth jazz and the real deal. But it's far more difficult to discount the passion and the power that drive his live performances. Gates, who shared the stage at the Canal Club Dec. 11 with Fred Wesley, one of The Godfather's sidemen, was the hardest-working man in the building.
The expressive saxophonist played songs from his latest release, "It's Time," with dexterity and emotion. The onstage intensity heightened when Wesley was introduced and both musicians took on Wesley's songs like "For the Elders" and "No One." While Gates was clearly honored by Wesley's presence, he wasn't eclipsed by the elder statesman of funk. If some in the packed audience had come just to see Fred, they certainly got more than they bargained for with Gates and his versatile band mates.
When the band returned after a long break between sets, it was evident that few had taken the opportunity for an early exit. Wesley soon assumed vocal duties for spirited romps through James Brown's "Doin' It to Death" and his own funk anthem "House Party." The audience chanted his name like Mr. Brown used to and Wesley ate it up.
"What's my name?"
"I can't hear y'all!"
"Whose yo' daddy?"
The portly trombonist wasn't the only guest. A 15-year-old bassist from Hanover named Brandon Lane also shared the spotlight, turning in an impressive performance of McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." Jerome Brailey and Larry Hextal, Wesley's fellow Parliament alumni and Richmond residents, were also introduced, along with other local musicians.
The concert was billed as the year-end meeting of the Richmond Jazz Society, but it felt more like a family reunion.