Soka University’s Jazz Festival, being held this weekend, is a gathering of new and familiar musicians performing standards and original compositions in a venue with exemplary acoustics. It will give dedicated fans three jam-packed days’ worth of jazz in four concerts.
The idea for a jazz festival actually predates the opening of the university’s performing arts center in 2011.
“I started a Jazz on the Green program shortly after I arrived at Soka 15 years ago,” said Jim Merod, professor of American literature.
Merod says there are no programming rules to the four artists chosen for the festival, nor for the four who are picked for other parts of the season. “I have no rules. I certainly know the majority of jazz musicians. I’ve been hanging out in New York clubs since I was 18. I’ve recorded with many of the greatest jazz artists in New York and Paris and L.A. I follow my instincts. I hire the guys who I think people want to hear. Informed whimsy is what guides me.”
This year has been a challenge, Merod admitted, because Soka’s jazz festival was programmed for the same weekend as the popular Monterey Jazz Festival. (It’s slated for Sept. 21-23 this year.) And there’s nobody with the name recognition of last year’s star, Diane Schuur. “But people know that we offer good quality every year, so I’m confident we’ll do fine,” Merod said. “Each year I feature a strong female vocalist and a Latin group, and they always do well.”
Here’s this year’s line-up:
Pianist Mike Garson – From Bach to Bowie
Sept. 21 at 8 p.m
Mike Garson has worked with some of the giants of rock: David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Billy Corgan, Free Flight and The Smashing Pumpkins, to name a few.
Garson, Bowie’s longest-running and most frequent band member, performed with the British superstar for his first and last concerts in the United States as well as more than 1,000 concerts around the world.
Parallel to this work with Bowie, Garson developed a strong reputation as a jazz pianist. He is regarded in the industry as one of the very few rock pianists capable of performing extended piano solos. He remains one of the most highly sought-after session musicians with a unique sound of his own.
Garson will premiere a new work titled “Symphony of Love” and Gaby Moreno, Joe Sumner (son of rock legend Sting), and The Section Quartet will join him on stage.
Roni Ben-Hur Quartet
Sept. 22 at 3 p.m.
Roni Bohobza grew up in Dimona, Israel, the youngest of seven children and one of two born after the family emigrated from Tunisia in 1955. His surname was legally changed to Ben-Hur when he was 10 years old.
At 11, Ben-Hur started playing guitar, picking up jazz licks from a friend’s record collection. In Israel he performed at clubs, weddings and bar mitzvahs until he had enough money to move to the U.S. He arrived in New York City in 1985, spending time at Barry Harris’s Jazz Cultural Theater and eventually becoming a member of his band.
In the U.S. he started jazz music programs at Professional Performing Arts School, the Coalition School for Social Change and the Lucy Moses School. At Bette Midler’s request, he started a jazz program for New York City high schools. He is the founding director of the jazz program at the Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Center in Manhattan, where he teaches.
Jazz Duo: Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson
Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.
Since 2002, vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson have nurtured an uncommonly strong musical bond. It has deep roots: Nelson was a band member on all four of Gazarek’s albums, and she sang on two of Nelson’s own recording projects. Over the past 18 months this Los Angeles-based pair has taken their collaboration to a new level, touring extensively as a duo with a diverse repertoire that showcases their style and maturity. Gazarek and Nelson recorded their new album, “Dream in the Blue,” as a tribute to their partnership.
Gazarek is a strikingly original vocalist, songwriter and storyteller. With three highly acclaimed albums under her belt at 34, Sara has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “the next important jazz singer.” Her group’s latest recording, “Blossom & Bee,” was released to strong reviews. Sara is currently on faculty at the University of Southern California, where she leads the award-winning vocal jazz ensemble and teaches privately.
Born and raised in Southern California, Josh Nelson is a first-call jazz pianist, composer, teacher and recording artist. At 35, he has already performed and worked with some of the most respected names in music, including Natalie Cole, Queen Latifah, John Clayton, Walter Smith III, Ben Wendel, Seamus Blake and Matt Wilson. He teaches at Cal State Northridge as part of the music faculty.
Latin Folkloric Jazz with Miguel Zenón Quartet
Sept. 23 at 3 p.m.
Miguel Zenón is a Puerto Rican alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, music producer and educator. He is a multiple Grammy Award nominee (including his nomination for a 2018 Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy) and he’s also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. Zenón has released many albums as a bandleader and appeared on over 70 recordings as a sideman.
In 1999 Zenón got together with Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez (whom he met at Berklee College of Music), Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo. They would meet for informal rehearsal sessions at Glawischnig’s apartment in New York’s Upper West Side and play through some of Zenón’s early compositions. The group, which would eventually become the Miguel Zenón Quartet, soon started performing at various venues in the city, such as the C Note and The Jazz Gallery.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.