Nailing down the lineup for the Bakersfield Jazz Festival always presents a series of challenges, but for festival talent booker Paul Perez, it's also meant adapting to newly developed business habits.
"It's like playing a game of checkers," said Perez of the festival -- a highlight of Bakersfield's music scene -- which returns to the CSUB Amphitheater Friday and Saturday. "I have offers on different places on the board, waiting for someone to make a move.
"The lineup has changed a few times. You make an offer to these artists and they have three weeks to accept or reject the offer, so I have to sit and do nothing until I hear. One artist who was on our original lineup texted me with 'I'll be back with some good news,' then and hour later it's, 'Sorry, we just booked Japan.'"
Another considerable factor in booking talent comes down to money, which means sponsorships. Though many have returned, Perez blames a noticeable jump in ticket price (up $4 to $6 from last year) on rising production costs.
"Generally speaking, everything is just going up. Bringing the artists to Bakersfield alone has some big costs, depending on the size of the group and what location they're traveling from. If you figure in travel agents, booking flights, and putting them all up, it really starts to add up. Last year, there were considerations on the table. This year, an agent is either 'yes' or 'no.'"
Despite those hurdles, Perez has successfully lined up a collection of artists from across the jazz genre, each with a unique style and sound. All the money raised is used to fund CSUB music scholarships.
"Friday night is a party night. Saturday is more straight-ahead jazz and dancing. We have something for everyone."
Friday: Robin Bramlett, Billy Vera Big Band, Roy Ayers
Opening the festival main stage is Bakersfield bassist Robin Bramlett, who will be marking the occasion with the official release of her debut CD, "This Is My Life."
A funk-filled gem of contemporary jazz, "This Is My Life" kicks off with a re-worked instrumental cover of the Teena Marie funk classic "Square Biz." Throughout the release, Bramlett's melodic bass work is prominently showcased whether taking the lead voice or stepping back into the foundation of the song.
Bramlett described the CD as an instrumental autobiography layered with a helping of her musical influences.
"I want people to not only dig my music but to be able to spiritually connect with me after listening to my life story through my music," said Bramlett, who will sell copies of the CD at the festival. "I'm getting many positive responses."
Bramlett will be backed Friday by Bakersfield saxophonist Darren Gholston, guitarist Darlene Moreno, bassist Nathaniel Kearney, keyboardist Andrae Alexander, and drummer Ray Moore on drums.
Following Bramlett is acclaimed singer-songwriter Billy Vera, who plans to give audiences an update of the classics under the stars.
After hitting the music charts with his breakup anthem "At This Moment," the Grammy-winning artist slipped back into cruise control, staying active as a songwriter, producing and performing with his band, The Beaters. He'll be joined by his latest project, the Billy Vera Big Band, on Friday.
Starting out as a professional songwriter in the early '60s, Vera recalled the stress of trying to craft a hit suited to each artist he wrote for.
"The boss would come in and say, 'The Shirelles are recording this week, or Tony Bennett is recording,'" said Vera, 68, during a phone interview. "So, you'd try to listen to some of their records, find their range and subject matter they like to sing about. If you had a hit song, you could look forward to 10 to 20 different versions of it."
But Vera's biggest break would come decades later in 1986 with the re-release of "At This Moment," the song that helped re-ignite his career as a live performer.
"Every song comes from somewhere. In this case, I had just started dating this girl and she was telling me about breaking up with her previous boyfriend. So, I wrote about the first two-third of the song from what I perceived to be his point of view but I couldn't finish it. When she dumped me about a year later, I was able to write the end."
Recorded with a full jazz ensemble, Vera's new CD, "Big Band Jazz," pays tribute to the jazz masters of the 1920s through the '40s.
"Someone asked me, 'What do you know more about than anybody else?' So, that's why I chose that theme. Everybody and their mothers are doing a standards album these days, so how could I make mine different? I got two bedrooms full of records. I've been collecting since I was 11, and I love my 45s."
Expanding the party theme of Friday night to include some vintage grooves will be legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers. Now in his fourth decade in the music business, Ayers is an iconic figure whose talents remain in great demand. Known as the Godfather of Neo-Soul, his classic recordings from the '70s have been sampled by some of the biggest acts in hip-hop and R&B, including singers Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, and rapper Ice Cube. Ayers is currently the subject of a documentary in progress called the "Roy Ayers Project."
Saturday: Euge Groove, Avance, Lao Tizer, Clayton Cameron & the Jass Explosion and more
Kern County's best jazz students start things off, followed by Bakersfield musician Rob Hutchinson, who wrote a collection of new compositions especially for this jazz festival performance. Expect intense, playful and sophisticated grooves from this local genius and his quartet.
Segueing into late afternoon is Drummer Clayton Cameron and his group, the Jass Explosion, who promise to make your toes tap with a straight-ahead jazz show in tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The group will feature 14-year-old piano phenom Jamael Dana Dean, of Bakersfield, along with students from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.
At dusk will be the set by improvisational keyboardist Lao Tizer and his explosive mix of jazz, rock, classical and world rhythms.
This year's Latin jazz spotlight act features West Coast sizzling salsa sensation Avance, who plan to bring spectators to their feet. Formed by world-renowned Santana band percussionist Karl Perazzo in 1992, the group's sound is heavy-hitting, dance-oriented Latin, embued with various traditional tropical and pop influences.
"The concept of Avance has always been about experimenting with different styles that lend themselves to the Latin sound," said Perazzo, who, due to a scheduling conflict, will not be joining Avance Saturday. "Content and genres of music have never been limited or censored. We can do something as traditional as Willie Rosario to Carlos Santana to Bobby Brown to Kool & the Gang back to Irakere."
The group features a trio of lead vocalists -- Armando Cordoba, Jeff Cordoba and Jimmy Flores -- along with a nine-piece Latin orchestra.
"Bakersfield can expect interaction and participation from both parties involved: the band and audience," Perazzo said. "We give 150 percent in everything we do and the energy is what people react to. Salsa, dancing and most of all, fun. You won't be disappointed, guaranteed."
Following the annual fireworks display will be the electrifying climax of the festival, featuring saxophonist Steven Eugene Grove, aka Euge Groove.
The wildly entertaining musician has a resume most musicians would die for, including appearing alongside Tina Turner, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Richard Marx, as well as stepping into the lead shoes for Tower of Power's 1991 comeback album, "Monster on a Leash."
"Each one of them had a different lesson to teach; Tower of Power was definitely about energy and precision," said Grove, 50, in a phone interview. "There's no band that's more energetic or more precise than that band. I really learned what a short, precise attack was about playing in that horn section, because if you messed up you're all alone. Joe Cocker was all about passion. Richard Marx was about songs. I learned from him that you had to have a great song. Tina was all about class. I mean, she just exuded class. When she walked into a room, the room would just light up."
Even as a solo artist, Grove said he'll always consider himself a product of his environment.
"You can try to shape something as much as you want, but in the end, we're all products of everything that we've been exposed to or have listened to our whole lives. I studied classic music all through college. I've listened to everything from Boots Randolph to Junior Walker and Gato Barbieri and didn't start getting into the rock and roll stuff until the end of college. All that experience made what Euge Groove is."