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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Band to Debut Its Worldly View of Music at Festival

June 12, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are day gigs, and there are day gigs. In the music industry, good players with big ideas can get sidelined into an assortment of employment opportunities.

Michael Sembello's first prominent job in music was as a right-hand guitarist for Stevie Wonder, at the peak of Wonder's most creative period in the '70s. For respected drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, whose ample resume includes work with Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell, the last few years have found him in the comfortable employ of Sting.

But there's more to life than side men and session work, however rewarding. Together, the musicians have formed the nucleus of a group called the Bridge, in search of more personal creative release, and to promote the concept of bridging cultures. Also in the band are Brazilian singer Daniel Jobim (grandson of Antonio Carlos Jobim) and Japanese singer Toshi Kubota.

"It basically shows that we all speak the same language," said Colaiuta, on the phone from the rehearsal studio. "Maybe the form changes, but the substance is the same."

The group, which has recorded an album for initial release on a Japanese label, is making its live debut at the Santa Maria Valley International Friendship Festival in Santa Maria's Waller Park on Saturday, hitting the stage at 8 p.m. The ambitious show will be taped for a PBS documentary and will be accompanied part of the time by the Santa Maria Symphony.

The Bridge represents a particular career high point for Sembello, the de facto bandleader, who has been struggling to find a more satisfying, creative musical outlet in the last several years. The band blends R&B, jazz and world music into a multilingual stew.

Growing up a young guitar fiend in Philadelphia, Sembello sought out lessons from the legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino, also from Philly.

"I basically wanted to be Pat Martino when I was 12 years old," Sembello said.

As it turned out, Sembello's jazz ambitions were put on ice when he aced an audition with Stevie Wonder.

"When I got with Stevie Wonder," Sembello recalled, "they handed me a paper bag full of cassettes and said, 'We're going on the road in a week.' I didn't know who he was. I said 'Where's the charts?' They said 'What charts?' It was the greatest ear-training experience I ever had in my life. He said, 'I don't have any charts. I'm blind.' "

Life after Wonder meant launching a solo career as a singer-songwriter-guitarist. Later, when his career stalled, he survived through session work, songwriting and producing for George Benson, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and others, and scoring films such as "Cocoon" and "Rocky IV."

* The Santa Maria Valley International Friendship Festival, Sat., noon-10 p.m., Waller County Park, Santa Maria. Free. (805) 963-2415.

*

Festivalia, Part Two: It's a big weekend in north Santa Barbara County, as the ninth annual Live Oak Festival unfolds at Lake Cachuma.

This year's lineup for the three-day event (camping is permitted but sold out) includes folky Dar Williams and down-home virtuoso Mark O'Connor on Friday; a jazz organ summit between Joey DeFrancesco and Brother Jack MacDuff and the jump blues revue of Johnny Nocturne on Saturday; and Afro-Cuban group Conjunto Cespedes and banjo-driven Peter Wernick's Live Five on Sunday.

* Live Oak Festival, Fri.-Sun., Live Oak Camp on Highway 154, just north of Paradise Road. Hours: gates open 8 a.m. Fri. with music from 5-10 p.m., dance from 10-midnight. Sat., 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m., dance from 10-midnight. Sun., 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tickets are $80 for a three-day pass; $65 for two-day pass; $20 Friday; $30 for single-day passes Sat. or Sun.; children ages 4-13 admitted for $15 for two to three days and $5 for a single day; children under 3 are admitted free; (805) 781-3030.

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