It's a year of transition for the venerable Bakersfield Jazz Festival, and if first-time talent booker Paul Perez wanted to prove he knows what he's doing, mission accomplished. The Bakersfield sax man has pulled in some of the biggest names in jazz today, assembling the strongest lineup the two-day music festival has seen in years.
Try these names on for size:
* Alto-saxophonist Maceo Parker , who began his legendary career with James Brown's band. He's simply one of the most influential musicians working today.
* Silky saxophonist who helped popularize the contemporary smooth jazz craze of the 1990s.
* Veteran drummer Alphonse Mouzon, a favorite of nearly every heavy hitter in popular music.
* Accomplished Cuban percussionist Melena, who puts on a dazzling high-energy show in the vein of fellow drumming live wire Shelia E.
Landing the crowd-pleasing acts was an undeniable coup for Perez, who has himself played the jazz festival for years. He assumed the responsibility of seeking out talent after Doug Davis, who has organized the event since its inception 26 years ago, announced that this would be his last festival.
"For me, Friday night has always been more of a party night. Bearing that in mind, the first person who popped into my mind was Maceo. He stands for party. Doug (Davis) had been trying for years to get him, so for me on my first time out booking the jazz festival, I'm really thrilled out of my mind. I think it's perfect for Bakersfield, and doesn't get any better than that."
Friday: Steve Cole, R&B Bombers, Maceo Parker
Friday's traditionally upbeat party-themed kick-off features saxophonist Steve Cole , one of the top acts in smooth jazz. In addition to his own best-selling albums, Cole has recorded and toured alongside artists like guitarist Boz Skaggs and Larry Carlton and trumpeter Rick Braun. His latest CD, "Moonlight," is a collection of classic pop songs and standards.
Following Cole is the horn-heavy sound of Santa Barbara fixture R&B Bombers, who pride themselves on blending classic American music styles with the grit of a New Orleans speakeasy. It's an approach that requires teamwork when it comes to composing effective compositions to match the group's fat nine-piece sound, baritone saxophonist Dave Tolegian said.
"We usually let our lead singer write up the vocals into a bare-bones arrangement, before handing it over to the rhythm section. Then our keyboard player will arrange the horn parts until they fit together. The horn arranging is one of the more painstaking things to do for our group, and we won't play anything until it's just like we want it," said Tolegian, a member of the band since it formed nearly 30 years ago. "We're a little different than a three-chord horn band."
The band's latest release, "Bad Behavior," has all the ingredients of a house-party shaker. The CD contains original tunes from the band, penned mostly by lead singer and harmonica player Joe Wilson, who inspired the title.
"He's always singing about some kind of trouble," Tolegian said. "He loses the girl or she wants to hurt him back; now I'm down and out, but I've got this money in my pocket. Do I spend it on the rent or one of my vices? There's no fun in happy blues, right?"
Headliner Maceo Parker has become one of the most influential and easily identified musicians of his generation since leaving his North Carolina home in 1964 to join the James Brown band. For the next decade he would become one of the defining elements in the Brown horn arsenal, along with saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley.
Parker played on several classics with the Godfather of Soul but is most associated with "I Got You (I Feel Good)," which features a screaming Parker solo. Following his departure from the group, he found success as a member of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic and Booty's Rubber Band. Most recently, the funk icon, 69, has toured with Prince.
Perez said there's no way to fully describe Parker's influence on popular music.
"If you play funk music at all, from Tower of Power to Kool & The Gang and beyond, there's no way to get around his influence. Unless you were born somewhere so isolated from humanity, there's no way you could not be influenced. The moment you get funky, it's Maceo. Every band has to tip their hat to his playing."
Saturday: Mouzon, Melena, Elliot and more
The 19-piece 2012 Kern County Honor Jazz Band takes the stage as the first act on day two, followed by Los Angeles saxophonist Ray Zepeda and his quartet, featuring veteran Bakersfield musicians Glenn Fong , bass; Zanne Zarrow , drums; and 13-year-old piano phenom Jamael Dana Dean.
CSUB music instructor and guitarist Jim Scully rounds out the trio of local openers with his new group, the 4tet , which fuses contemporary pop, rock and folk with instrumental jazz into his original compositions.
Azerbaijan composer and pianist Amina Figarova leads off the second half of the day with her quartet. Her critically acclaimed new CD, "Twelve," was released Tuesday.
Acclaimed drummer Alphonse Mouzon's musical associations read like a Who's Who of modern jazz and pop music. Credited with being the rhythmic foundation for the far-reaching musical explorations of pianist McCoy Tyner, he was a charter member of the group, along with keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
His talents cover a broad range of musical disciplines and philosophies that have led to work with artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant.
"It'll be great to be coming back," said Mouzon during a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "The last time I performed there was with Poncho Sanchez at the junior college theater in '88."
Mouzon will be bringing a quintet of Los Angeles heavy hitters, and the group features his 15-year-old daughter Emma Alexandra Mouzon on vocals.
"She started playing my drums when she was 3 years old, and now plays violin, piano, guitar."
Mouzon's new CD, "Angel Face," will be available for sale at the festival.
Cuban percussionist Melena speaks volumes with her drumming. She's toured, performed and recorded with legendary artists like Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias and Chayanne, and fronts her own Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban salsa band, which will perform at the festival at sunset.
Born in Havana, Melena came to the States with her family at age 4. Raised around mostly American culture, she began reconnecting with her roots after picking up the drums as a teenager. Her first teacher: world-renowned percussionist Luis Conte.
"He was my first percussion mentor. I was right out of high school in Los Angeles. He taught me Latin rhythms on drums, then he was the first person I saw playing congas, timbales, and all the family of drums. He pushed me to learn everything."
Searching for the most comprehensive instruction available, Melena found other teachers around Southern California, but after a visit to Cuba in 1988, her dedication to her musical goals intensified.
"I always wanted to seek out more about the music and what it meant to me. In Cuba I found many master teachers. That put me back in touch with the music the way I had always felt it should be," she said. "When you talk to the elders in Africa, they want the fresh new ideas from young musicians because, to them, you're taking what they've done and to the next level, but the root of tradition is still there and really strong. They know that."
Her stage show incorporates drums as well as a variety of Latin dance moves, which will no doubt have hips shaking in the audience.
After Melena's ignites the stage, the annual fireworks display will light up the night, segueing into Saturday's closing act, saxophonist Richard Elliot .
Widely recognized as one of the musicians responsible for popularizing the smooth jazz sub-genre in the 1990s, the Scottish-born tenor saxophonist made a name for himself performing with Bay Area funk legends Tower of Power.
"They were some of best and most influential years of my entire career," said Elliot of his five years with TOP. "I learned more with them than with any other group I've ever played with. I kind of look at them as my graduate school."
Although the smooth jazz craze has died down after years of oversaturation, Elliot is not complaining. He sees it as just another phase in the evolution of jazz music.
"In many ways, what it was back then is very different than what it became later. Even the name 'smooth jazz' wasn't added until the '90s, when it was looked at more like contemporary instrumental music with guys like David Sanborn, Bob James and Ronnie Laws.
It fused jazz with R&B together. Back then when radio stations were open to being more accepting of that, the sound was able to flourish. Unfortunately, what I think happened later on was that the sound began to get pigeon-holed as a very less aggressive, watered-down type of music. That's why you hear less of it today, because what radio did to it."
Yet in many ways, Elliot said there's never been a more exciting time to play jazz.
"I'd like to think it's reinventing itself. I listen to guys like Trombone Shorty and others who are pushing the boundaries, reminding people what made instrumental music exciting in the first place. Everything kind of comes full circle, and right now it's getting more grassroots and less about being homogenized."
Elliot plans to bring the house down with tracks of his latest CD, "In the Zone," plus a wealth of career-spanning material.
"We always tend to rock a little harder live than on the CD. We'll cover a lot of ground, but most of all we like to have a good time with the audience. And of course we like to funk. That's in my DNA."