This weekend, the birthday party continues in Santa Barbara, where the Music Academy of the West is celebrating its 50th anniversary year with a star-studded roster of concerts. And the stars in question haven't necessarily been the usual suspects. Bobby McFerrin showed up two weeks ago, as conductor and improvisational guru, and brought the house down, with dignity.
This Saturday night, the avuncular American humorist Garrison Keillor makes his sole Southern California appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl; he has appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in summers past. Joining him will be the Academy Festival Orchestra, conducted by Philip Brunelle. That this orchestra comprises mostly students is no handicap: They knock your sock's off.
Via his weekly public radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor has proven himself to be a good friend of the musical cause, welcoming musicians with folk and country traditions as well as occasional classical artists.
At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Keillor's program will include "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra," a revised version of Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," as well as his radio staple, "News from Lake Wobegone."
This is also the weekend in the Music Academy season when opera comes to town. Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims" will be presented in a fully staged version at the Lobero Theatre on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. More so than other programs over the summer, the annual opera production involves a marshaling of the academy's forces--from the orchestra pit, conducted by the Juilliard Opera Center's Randall Behr, to the student vocal talents under the guidance of Marilyn Horne, new director of the voice program.
* Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims," Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre, 33 W. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $25 and $45; 963-0761.
* Garrison Keillor, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St. Tickets are $20-$40; 583-8700.
Piano Wunderkind: Young jazz pianist Brad Mehldau moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast a couple of years ago. He has since become a fairly regular presence on the Southern California club scene, playing many Wednesday nights at the Bel Age Hotel and other venues.
Despite his regional omnipresence, Mehldau's considerable gifts shouldn't be taken for granted. He's is one of the more deeply musical and reliably invigorating new jazz pianists around, globally speaking. What you hear on his latest CD, "The Art of the Trio" (Warner Bros.), is a pianist in command of his instrument but also searching for new avenues on it, stretching solos into little essays.
Mehldau's star keeps rising, but slowly. Last December, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz--an increasingly revered and poetic player--was booked for a gig at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City and asked bassist Charlie Haden who to get on piano. Haden mentioned Mehldau. Konitz wasn't familiar with him and was naturally skeptical. But his skepticism quickly evaporated, and this impromptu trio is now an official entity, with an album soon to be released on Blue Note.
At this summer's Montreal Jazz Festival, Mehldau showed up in a couple of different contexts: in a duo with Haden, playing mostly Haden's tunes; and then with the Konitz trio, a beautifully balanced organism. It was a late set--spilling past midnight--to a full and appreciative house, and turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival.
Back on the home front, Mehldau shows up tonight at Santa Barbara's Jazz Hall in a duet with trusty bassist Darek Oles. He has appeared in this intimate space before, and the tight quarters suit his up-close-and-personal approach.
* Brad Mehldau, tonight at Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $15; 963-0404.
Jazz Piano News: The San Francisco-based pianist Denny Zeitlin and the versatile bassist David Friesen will play a duo at the Jazz Hall on Sunday night. Zeitlin, who brings a Bill Evans-like intelligence and lyricism to his playing, has veered in and out of the spotlight over the years, partly because of his ongoing day job as a psychiatrist. Friesen, part of the Northwest jazz scene which spawned in Oregon two decades ago, has a formidable technique and a range of interests, from hard-swinging jazz to more atmospheric styles, sometimes even verging on New Age. But don't let that scare you: Friesen is one of the commanding bassists around.
* Denny Zeitlin and David Friesen, Sunday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $15; 963-0404.