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Photograph by Pooja Bakri
Ivory Keys to the Universe: Pianist and physicist Vijay Iyer bends Eastern and Western influences into category-defying works.

Big Tent Jazz

This year's Monterey Jazz Festival expands the genre like never before, rolling out the red carpet for folk singer Pete Seeger and a host of other trailblazers.

By Eric Johnson

EVERY September the Monterey Jazz Festival comes to town, and--forgive the cliché--if you haven't been there, you have no idea what you're missing. Unless you're a regular at Kuumbwa, your definition of the word jazz is almost certainly way too narrow. (No offense.)

Jazz is a big word, rooted in the blues and, deeper than that, in African rhythms and Celtic melodies informed by the European classical tradition, incorporating rock, hip-hop and electronica. And the meaning of the word keeps expanding, thanks in part to Kuumbwa's own Tim Jackson, who has been artistic director of MJF for a decade now.

This year at the Monterey Fairgrounds, the jazz spectrum will be on full display. Representing the proud past will be the legendary Dave Brubeck, who once staked out the music's cutting edge, and now, at 89, is still creating superb new work.

Also representing the great tradition is Wynton Marsalis, for whom the term "trad jazz" was coined when he first arrived on the scene 25-plus years ago looking (and sounding) like some Eternal Jazz Trumpeter from central casting. But here's the thing: Those lucky enough to catch his set with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Saturday might be stunned to witness the breadth of this straight-ahead jazz band's repertoire.

Brubeck and Marsalis will be performing on the big stage in the Arena, along with other all-stars: Randy Brecker and Joe Lovano (reviving Miles and Coltrane); Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Kenny Barron, John Scofield and others.

Also on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, Saturday afternoon, will be a legend representing another tradition: the banjo-picking folk singer and populist hero Pete Seeger, a national treasure, and, at 80 years old, still a deeply inspiring entertainer, whom Jackson has generously invited into jazz's big tent.

Joining these old masters will be a whole flock of fresh young talents. Here's a brief glimpse of some of the newcomers playing next weekend (all of these performers will be performing in one of the charming sheds or outdoor stages available with a $35 grounds pass).

Lizz Wright To give an idea of the range covered by this gorgeous young singer (meant both ways): On her new record of mostly original songs, she also performs the Ike and Tina Turner classic "I Idolize You," Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Hey Mann," the Led Zeppelin ballad "Thank You" and Patsy Cline's "Strange."

Esperanza Spalding She's a 23-year-old standup bass player and bandleader who plays funky instrumentals and sings in three languages.

Jonathan Batiste This young pianist/composer (and master of the melodica!) released his first album, Times in New Orleans, in 2003. Then he graduated from high school. And went to Juilliard. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall two years later and has since become a sensation in New York.

Ambrose Akinmusire Like Batiste a Wynton Marsalis' protégé, this powerful and intelligent trumpeter won the 20th Annual Thelonious Monk jazz competition, then jammed onstage with two of his teachers, MJF stalwarts Terence Blanchard and Roy Hargrove. Check out the YouTube video. Akinmusire kills.

Raul Midon A half-Argentine guitarist from New Mexico via New York, Midon has a unique approach to his instrument, a classically soulful singing style and a disarming way with a lyric.

Vijay Iyer This mind-blowingly inventive pianist/composer has no classical music training, but he does have two Ph.Ds--in math and physics. Blending Western and Eastern musical influences, he has produced 10 albums in 10 years with three bands, all of which have received breathless reviews.

Jazz is a big thing, getting bigger all the time, and this is one of its biggest weekends anywhere, ever.

THE MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL runs Friday-Sunday, Sept. 18-20, at the Monterey Fairgrounds. Grounds passes start at $35. For info and tickets visit

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