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09.17.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Ines Kaiser
Sax Machine : Maceo Parker puts some funk in the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday night.

The Hoi Polloi Boogie

Arena shmarena. At the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, the cheap tickets (otherwise known as the grounds passes) are where it's at.

By Eric Johnson


The Monterey Jazz Festival, returning for its 51st year to the famous fairgrounds down the highway, continues to be a tremendous musical-fun bargain.

Once again, tickets to the big-name "Arena" acts are sold out (the Lear jets full of vacationing swells have already started to arrive). And once again, smart locals will be able to catch most of the big-name acts for the price of a grounds pass--and catch dozens of less-well-known but equally entertaining artists to boot.

It happens every year. In 2005, Tony Bennett was the star. He put on a stunning show. But the best performance for my money--10 musical minutes I'll never forget--started when a New Orleans guitarist named Doug Wamble played "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a searing critique of racism from South Pacific. Afterward, Branford came onstage with Wamble for a devastating rendition of "When the Saints Come Marching In." This was a month after Katrina.

Two years ago, it was the young vocalist Ledisi. We caught her show by accident as we passed by the Garden Stage. After blowing the crowd away with her world-class pipes, she got every single one of us out of our seats and dancing.

I could go on and on about similar experiences: watching pianist Bill Charlap improvising with exhilarating intensity from the third row in the ag barn; moshing to Roy Hargrove and his avant-fusion band RH Factor; fake salsa dancing with a few hundred close friends to Omar Sosa on a rare warm Monterey night.

It will happen again this week. And while it's a special kind of thrill to stumble onto performances like these, it doesn't hurt to know what to expect. Some highlights from this year's MJF Grounds Artists lineup:

Friday
Joshua Redman Trio A decade after exploding onto the scene, Redman (who also plays in the Arena) is still considered one of the Young Lions of jazz. Brian Blade is that bare-handed drummer you may have heard about, and it's no cheap gimmick: he's remarkable.

Anat Cohen This Israeli sax player is deep into Latin styles, from Brazilian choro to Afro-Cuban fusion. She has established herself in sessions on both the tenor and clarinet since she arrived in New York in 1999.

George Young Quartet You've definitely heard this guy--he was a member of the Saturday Night Live Band for six years. But you haven't heard his best work: with Benny Goodman, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Al Cooper.

Yaron Herman Trio This 27-year-old composer is turning heads all over the world. That's all I know.

Saturday
Terrence Blanchard Last year, Blanchard premiered "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)" at MJF. In February that piece won a Grammy. He brings something new (again) this year.

Maceo Parker Playing with James Brown (and later George Clinton and Bootsie Collins), Maceo helped invent an art form. He's still one of its masters.

Ledisi (See above.)

Bill Frisell Duo He plays one of the most stylistically inventive guitars anywhere. This setting, in which he's paired with only the brilliant drummer Matt Wilson, will be an opportunity to watch him flex it.

Sunday
Kurt Elling This guy was artist-in-residence at the 49th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and he was all over the place. Still, it was impossible to get enough of him.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band The drummer/composer is often called "visionary," and he was at his finest on the 1998 Daniel Lanois-produced date with this lineup. Guaranteed an unforgettable set.

The Brass Menazeri MJF's Tim Jackson continues to indulge a fascination with Balkan brass. The S.F. band plays Romany (Gypsy) jazz from Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.

Psst ... Several top players (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter) are giving exclusive performances in the Arena this year, all officially "sold out." You didn't hear it here, but there will be tickets for these shows available, at a premium, on the sidewalk in front of the Fairgrounds.


THE 51ST MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL runs Friday-Sunday, Sept. 19-21 at the Monterey Fairgrounds. Grounds tickets are $35/Friday or $45/Saturday or Sunday; $110 for the weekend. (925.275.9255 or www.montereyjazzfest.org)


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