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Jazz Party

Annual Santa Barbara festival has a more populist than purist tone.


What is jazz? And why is the question such a nagging one? That might be the tacit theme of the Santa Barbara International Jazz Festival, which hits the sand at Leadbetter Beach this weekend. The festival has prevailed through thick and thin, no mean feat in itself, but its "jazz" identity has been elusive.

That trend continues in 1997, but at least the name recognition has improved compared with last year's more faceless affair.

Now in its ninth year, the festival has been drawing heat for a while because of its shift away from a standard definition of jazz.

For the last few years, the festival has taken place on Labor Day weekend on the beach near Stearn's Wharf, drawing a large walk-up tourist crowd. Partly because of that populist environment, the programming has moved further away from the genre of its namesake, per se, and toward more funk- and groove-oriented diversions.

The move has aroused the consternation of jazz fans who would like to see the kind of mainstream commitment demonstrated earlier in the festival's history. It began, after all, with a showcase concert by the late, great saxophonist Stan Getz. That was then; this is now.

For this year's festival, which has been subtitled a "Jazz and Beach Party," the musical menu includes Sunday's headliner, "smooth jazz" star Boney James, a chart-topping saxophonist in the no-brain-no-headache Kenny G tradition. James' music is in stark contrast to the rootsier, jazzier groove machinery of Les McCann, appearing Saturday. But then McCann will be followed by The Drifters, whose jazz influences may have few, if any, detectable traces.

Friday night's focus is strictly on soul and R&B, featuring Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, King Cotton and Santa Barbara's own Soul City Survivors. There will be return engagements by neo-flamenco guitarist Nocy; Freddy Ravel, who does pop soul; and the Santa Barbara City College Lunch Break Band, offering some polished big-band jazz. The Estrada Brothers, an Oxnard-based Latin jazz group now signed to Milestone Records, will make their festival debut Sunday.

Founded by Jack Butefish, a Santa Monica-based organizer of sporting events, the festival has been programmed in the last few years by John McNally, whose own eclectic tastes aren't necessarily reflected in the music on the beach. McNally, who previously worked on a jazz festival in Indian Wells, sees his mandate in Santa Barbara as that of creating "a festival with a certain amount of mass appeal. . . .

"The other thing is that you're also on the beach, so you can't have too many fine nuances in there. You've got to have a sound that pushes against the wind and the waves."

The name change reflects a reconsideration of the festival's artistic agenda. "I think 'Jazz and Beach Party' is a fair name," McNally said. "Yes, there is some jazz, whatever your concept of jazz might be, but it's also a beach party. You're kicking back with an evening of soul and rhythm and blues. You've got flamenco guitar and Latin jazz, as well as get-up-and-dance music."

McNally acknowledges that he hears from "dyed-in-the-wool, straight-ahead-jazz people saying, 'This isn't a jazz festival.' But they should be saying that it's not a straight-ahead jazz festival. It's not a Dixieland festival, it's not a bebop festival, it's not a big-band jazz festival, for that matter," he said.

"You could say that this era is a throwback to the time when Paul Whiteman was being called jazz. It's an interesting analogy, as far as I'm concerned. Basically, you're dealing with music that appeals to the popular taste. This is the music that, at least in the popular vernacular, is being called jazz."

Something Else: For something completely different from anything on the festival roster, check out the gifted keyboardist Andy Milne when he stops at the Jazz Hall tonight. For a few years now, he has been a right-hand man with one of the more innovative young musicians in jazz, saxophonist Steve Coleman. Now, Milne is carving out his own music and touring with a quartet featuring bassist Patrice Blanchard, drummer Mark Prince and the dynamic young vocalist Vinia Mojica.

Coleman was instrumental in forging the M-BASE movement out of Brooklyn, beginning in the mid-'80s, which incorporated funk and R&B elements in ways radically different from other fusion and "smooth jazz" styles. This music involves complex meters, rhythms and a seductively looping, tumbling sense of structure. It is a sound that can also be heard in the music of Milne himself, on his album "The 'E' Is Silent."

Nothing smooth about it, thank goodness.

* Andy Milne, tonight at 9 at Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $10. 963-0404.


The Santa Barbara Jazz and Beach Party, at Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara, Friday, 5-10 p.m., Saturday, 1-10 p.m., Sunday, 1-8 p.m. Tickets are $6-$55; 963-8833.

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