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26th Annual Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival
Oct. 4-7; 11-14 and 18-21, Avalon, California

By Jonathan Widran and Melanie Maxwell

Celebrating an incredible quarter century as one of the best and most diverse contemporary jazz festivals in the country is the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival, the first three weekends of October.

Launched by veteran radio personality Art Good as a single weekend event in 1987, this year the festival continues its unique tradition of offering a lineup that mixes established genre stars (Peter White, Brian Culbertson, Euge Groove, Paul Taylor, Mindi Abair, Najee, Eric Darius, The Sax Pack) with surprise guest legends (Booker T. Jones) and famed performers from other, non-smooth realms of jazz (multiple Grammy Award winners Gordon Goodwin's 18-piece Big Phat Band).
    
Between these familiar names on all three weekends are talented rising solo artists who, based on the popularity of their early recordings, hit airplay singles and demand for their live performances, represent the next generation of smooth jazz. Several of the younger artists on this year’s slate have played to rousing ovations at the festival before, including saxophonist Marcus Anderson (2010 and 2011), keyboardist Jonathan Fritzén (2011) and guitarist Rob Tardik, who headlined one of 2011’s official after-parties and this year takes the main stage for the first time. Violinist Karen Briggs, best known to contemporary jazz fans as Yanni’s globetrotting violinist, brought down the ballroom last year and is returning for a second time.
    
Other artists playing this year who may be new on the average festivalgoer’s radar are 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist Vincent Ingala (who was named Smooth Jazz News’ Debut Artist of the Year in 2011) who will be performing with Sax and the City; bassist Julian Vaughn and keyboardists Brian O’Neal and 19-year-old Nicholas Cole. Another debuting artist who defies strict categorization but has been an explosive force in jazz these past years is Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews with his band Orleans Avenue. This Grammy-nominated New Orleans-based sensation made his mark on Southern California jazz fans with debut appearances at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Jazz Festival and Thornton Winery.
    
After the Catalina festival was extended in the early ‘90s from two identical-lineup weekends to three with distinct lineups, Good also added Thursday evening Unplugged shows outdoors (now held at Descanso Beach) followed by three days and nights of concerts in the elegant Avalon Casino Ballroom. This has given him an advantage over producers of one- or two-day events where every artist has to be an “A-lister” to ensure brisk ticket sales. Yet his knack for discovering and debuting artists who later became genre stars was there from the start.
    
In 1987, before any other station was playing The Rippingtons’ debut album Moonlighting, Good was the first person to interview Russ Freeman on the radio and took a chance on booking the band (with Gregg Karukas on keyboards) for the first event; they also played the following year. David Benoit was just emerging in the new format with his album This Side Up and Good booked him for the first two years as well. Other future stars who played Catalina early in their eventually booming careers were Acoustic Alchemy, Keiko Matsui, Jesse Cook, Peter White, Mindi Abair (who debuted as part of an all-star band in 1994) Paul Brown and Jessy J.
    
“There are always going to be a few misses along the way,” Good said, “but it’s always about trusting my instinct and experience from working in the business for 30 years. When you get a show like Jesse Cook gave back in 1995, it’s like winning a big game, and you would like to do that again. In the early years, I would always hear artists live before I booked them, but now that I live in Palm Springs, I don’t always have that opportunity so I rely on what I hear on their recordings, YouTube videos and word of mouth.
    
“This year, I have not heard Trombone Shorty live, but I heard great buzz about his performance in Newport Beach in 2011 and know his vibe expands beyond just smooth jazz. Last year, I remember in early summer trying to figure out Jonathan Fritzén, like, “Is this guy for real?” I took a chance and booked him. Not only was he for real, I chose him as the festival’s Debut Artist of the Year. Some of these guys make my job look very easy.”
    
Smooth Jazz News recently had the privilege of talking to several of this year’s newer performers -- and all of them speak glowingly about their first experiences at the festival and about the impact it had on their careers.

Marcus AndersonMarcus Anderson
Just three years after his breakthrough in contemporary urban jazz circles as the 2009 winner of the Capital Jazz Fest Challenge, Marcus Anderson has released two critically acclaimed albums (From the Heart and Now), which have received substantial radio and Music Choice airplay, and he has played everywhere from Blues Alley in Washington, DC, to Jazz Alley in Seattle, JazzFest West in San Dimas, California, and the Seabreeze Jazz Festival in Panama City Beach, Florida. Since his first appearance at Catalina, he has toured with R&B great Anthony Hamilton, performed throughout Europe with Sheila E., become an official touring and recording member of The Sax Pack with Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Cole, replacing Kim Waters; and is currently touring with Prince and the New Power Generation in the horn section for the Welcome 2 Chicago tour.
    
“My first experience playing Catalina was incredible and unmatchable for so many reasons,” the North Carolina-based saxman said. “When you’re building a career, perception is everything and playing a major event like this in California made fans and people in the industry see me as much more than a local or East Coast artist. I had just started breaking through a year earlier, and I feel like it justified me as a presence in the genre. Not only do fans across the country know who I am, but I had opportunities to play with amazing artists I might otherwise not have, and my name came up when Kim (Waters) left The Sax Pack. I respect Art because he takes risks on newer talent, and that exposure is crucial for independent artists like me in building sustainable careers. I’m really looking forward to playing there again, and I am working on making it my best show ever. These fans deserve it.”

Jonathan FritzénJonathan Fritzén
When Stockholm-born keyboardist Jonathan Fritzén debuted at the festival last year, many who were blown away by his Saturday afternoon appearance had no idea that he already had released three recordings. Following his 2008 self-produced debut Love Birds and his 2009 set VIP, his breakthrough album Diamonds was released in 2010. His latest, the perfectly titled Magical, debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart. Born to a Swedish mother and American father, Fritzén started on drums at an early age and later learned piano, bass, guitar and flute. Influenced by everyone from Oscar Peterson to Keith Jarrett, he was educated at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm, where he became one of the first students to receive a master’s degree from the jazz department.

Since playing Catalina for the first time last year, he has played at Good’s Big Bear Lake JazzTrax Summer Music Festival in June and other major festivals in Bangkok, Stockholm and most recently, Las Vegas. “When Art invited me to play Catalina, I had always heard that it was one of the premiere jazz festivals in the U.S., and I was thrilled to be invited,” said Fritzén. “And, I am happy to be asked back this year. He really makes you feel great as an artist, and I made new fans at my show who have come back to see me play at other places around the country. Catalina really opened a lot of doors, not just for other festivals in the States but overseas as well. I feel like I’m switching continents playing shows almost every week now. This year I’ve really got to up my game because I’m playing on a Saturday night opening for Mindi!”

Rob TardikRob Tardik
Last year, Toronto-born-and-based guitarist Rob Tardik rose to the enviable challenge of following a blazing main stage performance by Richard Elliot with a show by his trio at the official festival after-party. His success at this event inspired Good to invite him to play at this year’s Big Bear event and to have him open for Najee on Saturday evening of the second weekend of the Catalina festival this year.
    
Tardik has performed for five consecutive years at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, winning the honor of Guitarist of the Year in 2010. Over his 20-year career, the guitarist has shared the stage with everyone from legendary producers Phil Ramone and Paul Brown to Peter White and David Sanborn. Over the past year, he has played venues in Boston, Florida, San Diego and several times at Spaghettini in Seal Beach, California.
    
Tardik, who released his third CD, Balance, Energy, Laughter, Love (B.E.L.L.), last year (which was also on Smooth Jazz News’ 2011 Top 10 list of best CDs), has worked for Roland Canada as a guitar product specialist and clinician and has been a faculty member at the prestigious Merriam School of Music in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, for more than 15 years.
    
“I’ve been recording and playing for years in Canada,” he said, “and it’s nice to have an opportunity to break into the U.S. market both on the radio and as a live performer. Last year’s show was a real catalyst toward establishing a presence in the U.S. Art’s been a big supporter of my music and has been helpful to me in this area, and I’m excited about taking the main stage this time. Being invited to play Catalina is special because artists know that they’re following in the footsteps of artists we have all looked up to over the years. I’m hoping to see a lot of the people who saw me play the party last year, and I look forward to the opportunity to play for others that I hope will become new fans. I love the genre because it allows me to be eclectic, incorporating all of my influences from Motown to Latin jazz.”

Karen BriggsKaren Briggs
While the violin has not been a lead instrument on smooth jazz radio for many years, Good created an exciting one-two urban-flavored punch last year by pairing guitarist Nick Colionne with Karen Briggs, whose several- decade resume includes nearly 15 years with Yanni (including his famed concerts at the Acropolis and Taj Mahal) and performances with everyone from Dave Grusin and Stanley Clarke to Chaka Khan, Wynton Marsalis, Patrice Rushen and Kenny Loggins.
    
While Briggs blew away the Friday night audience last year in Catalina with selections from her most recent album Soulchestral Groove, she didn’t realize that Catalina Express holds their late boats for musicians who run overtime  -- and in her panic over possibly missing it, she cut her set short and wasn’t able to do the encore fans were demanding. She promises that will change this year on her Friday night (Oct. 12) show before Colionne’s. Another near mishap last year happened when the pickup mic on her violin went out during sound check; fortunately a member of the sound crew had a spare mic that fit and worked perfectly.
    
Although Briggs has released several solo albums, her success as a featured musician with bigger name artists has precluded her from devoting as much time as she would like to further developing her solo career. Playing Catalina, she believes, helps her lay a strong foundation for more opportunities to take center stage in the future.
     
“The Catalina audience really listens,” she said. “They’re avid jazz fans that really care about the music and respond vocally when they hear what they like. My attitude going into a show is to never take for granted that the response will be favorable, so it was gratifying that the audience “got it” as I played my eclectic set. Aside from that, the Casino Ballroom is beautiful, with unique architecture and the domed ballroom. The fact that for so many years fans have been catching a ferry boat to attend this festival speaks volumes about the way Art Good has fulfilled his vision. For me, it definitely added a little extra excitement having to take a boat to play a gig. This year, I know the boat will wait for me so I will play as long as the audience lets me!”

Trombone ShortyTrombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue
Good has so much confidence in inviting Trombone Shorty to the festival this year that he scheduled him in the final slot of the third Sunday night. Those considering taking the same chance on seeing an artist who is essentially new to fans of this genre should know a few things about Troy Andrews. The funk/rock horn player is a product of New Orleans’ culturally rich Treme neighborhood who was a bandleader by the age of 6. While navigating The Big Easy with his band in tow, he was also absorbing lessons from his older brother James, a dynamic musical performer known as “Satchmo of the Ghetto.” As a graduate of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, he joined the ranks of fellow alumni Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr. and Nicholas Payton. Marsalis once said of Shorty: “Troy possesses the rarest combination of talent, technical capability and down-home soul. I’m his biggest fan.”
    
The 26-year-old trombonist and vocalist has performed over the years with Norah Jones, Diana Krall, chart-topping rapper Juvenile and was tapped in 2005 by Lenny Kravitz to be a featured member of his horn section for the 63-date Electric Church world tour that in North America supported Aerosmith’s Rockin’ the Joint tour. His recordings include the Grammy-nominated debut album Backatown and For True, both of which feature a style Shorty refers to as “supafunkrock.”
     
Even as Good continues to try to figure out ways to get big ticket artists like Kenny G, Boney James, Dave Koz and George Benson out to the festival, he is proud of the Catalina Island JazzTrax legacy of mixing the artists everyone loves with those he believes they will come to embrace.
    
“I understand it’s a business, and everyone wants to make money,” he said, “and as a festival producer, I want to make money, too. But at the same time, this is my showcase, and I’ve always strived to give the fans variety at the festival while emphasizing the uniqueness that we’re on a historic island with an atmosphere and water activities that no other jazz festival can match. No matter how much the genre has evolved over the years, my basic approach to booking new artists is still the same. When I see them live (or, if that is not possible, on YouTube these days), I never close my eyes. I simply try to imagine what they would look and sound like in the Casino Ballroom. Most of the time, I’m happy to say, the artists I choose knock it out of the park.”

When
Thursday - Sunday: Oct. 4 - 7, Oct. 11 - 14 and Oct. 18 - 21

Where
Catalina Island
Unplugged at Descanso Beach (Thursdays)
1 Descanso Ave.
Avalon, California

Avalon Casino Ballroom (Friday through Sunday)
1 Casino Way
Avalon, California

Tickets and information
Visit www.jazztrax.com/ or call 866-872-9849

Lineup
Thursday, Oct. 4
Peter White (Unplugged Under the Stars at Descanso Beach), 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 5
Gordon Goodwin’s 18-piece Big Phat Band, 7 p.m.
Marcus Anderson, 9 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 6
The Producers featuring Paul Brown and Darren Rahn, noon
Hiroshima, 2 p.m.
Jonathan Fritzén, 7 p.m.
Mindi Abair, 9 p.m.
After-party at Descanso Beach featuring
DJ Jonathan Phillips (free admission), 11:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 7
Michael Lington, noon
Ronny Jordan, 2 p.m.
Eric Darius, 7 p.m.
Big Bad VooDoo Daddy, 9 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 11
Mindi Abair (Unplugged Under the Stars at Descanso Beach),            7:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 12
Karen Briggs, 7:30 p.m.
Nick Colionne, 9 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 13
DOTSERO, noon
Euge Groove, 2 p.m.
Rob Tardik, 7 p.m.
Najee, 9 p.m.
After-party at Descanso Beach featuring
DJ Jonathan Phillips (free admission), 11:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 14
Nicholas Cole, noon
Jackiem Joyner, 2 p.m.
Julian Vaughn, 7 p.m.         
Brian Culbertson, 9 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 18
Gerald Albright and daughter Selina Albright
(Unplugged Under the Stars at Descanso Beach), 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 19
Booker T. Jones, 7:30 p.m.
Sax and the City with Paul Taylor, Marion Meadows
and Vincent Ingala, 9 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 20
Marc Antoine, noon
The Sax Pack with Jeff Kashiwa, Steve Cole and
special guest, 2 p.m.
Brian O’Neal, 7 p.m.
Peter White, 9 p.m.
After-party at Descanso Beach featuring
DJ Jonathan Phillips (free admission), 11:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 21
DW3, noon

Down to the Bone, 2 p

 

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