Solvang Jazz Festival Finds the Groove

Solvang Jazz Festival

James Moody

The creation of a successful jazz festival is a fine and delicate art form in itself. Critical requirements include musical intelligence in programming, involving both audience edification and customer satisfaction, fiscal savvy, and other x factors. Film festivals, despite the presence of filmmakers and actors, entail canned, prefab product, in which the only surprise might be a projection glitch. Rock music, even at its jammiest, is more about the fixed and finished musical entity-and vibe and wardrobe-than exploratory ideas or soloing.

But jazz isn’t jazz without sounds not yet written or played. Improvisation is embedded in its DNA and subject to the influence of atmosphere.

That theory is being put to the test as the second annual Solvang Jazz Festival comes in for a landing this weekend. At the beautifully atmospheric Solvang Veteran’s Hall and over at the Royal Scandinavian Inn, Friday through Sunday, we’ll have a chance to hear, among other things, pianists Jean-Michel Pilc and Monty Alexander, Hammond B3 organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith, and the Gordon Goodwin band with the octogenarian legend tenor saxist James Moody as guest.

Hammond B3 organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith

Last September in the quaint, Danish-themed tourist haven of Solvang, we were all watching, with wariness and plenty of wishful, hopeful thinking, as the festival bravely christened itself into being. Jazz fans from these parts and entrepreneurs (who at least like the word “jazz” if not the unruly reality) have long considered Santa Barbara County a ripe ground for a jazz festival situation. The beachfront Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, suffered from wayward or negligible artistic vision and wavering audience interest.

Fast forward a decade, and it was a very different story in Solvang last year, partly thanks to careful planning and the grounding brain trust of founding artistic director Stix Hooper, the well-known drummer, formerly of the Crusaders. Hooper knows from whence he chooses artists. He brought into this charming little faux Euro-burg names like veteran trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (whose playing was emotional, if still diminished from his lip problems), flutist Hubert Laws, percussionist (and former Santa Barbaran) Airto Moreira, and tenor sax giant-in-hiding Pete Christlieb.

In real time and also in retrospect, last year’s festival highlight was the set by the dynamic and versatile young pianist Taylor Eigsti and his trio. Subsequently, Eigsti released a well-received album on Concord and his star has risen dramatically in the jazz world. We heard him here first.

On this year’s pianist front, the star players demonstrate the riches of cultural flavorings within “mainstream” jazz contexts. French-born and New York-based Pilc has been a highly regarded mid-career artist on the scene, and has established a specifically local following through his two powerhouse shows at SOhO. Alexander, hailing from Jamaica, but based in New York since the early ’60s, has carved out his own little corner of the jazz piano scene for decades. For this occasion, Alexander has chosen to augment his trio’s show in Solvang with special guest and friend, organist Smith, one of the most distinctive, hip and important (not to mention turbaned) contributors to the canon of B3 jazz.

Opening the festival on Friday night with a dinner concert at the Veteran’s Hall, Goodwin’s group belongs to a handful of hot big bands out of Los Angeles, demonstrating the formidable big band tradition in this otherwise fairly jazz-challenged city. Securing Moody a few weeks back was a feather in the already fanciful cap. The evening will also feature guest Barbara Morrison, who also appeared with Eigsti last year. From there, festivalers can drift over to the Royal Scandinavian Inn to hear sets by not only Pilc, but also by the masterful jazz accordionist Frank Marocco (who also wowed ’em at SOhO not long ago). Sunday afternoon brings Dr. Bobby Rodriguez and his Latin Jazz Orchestra to cap things off in Latin groovular fashion.

From the evidence so far, a great quasi-European atmosphere and artistic firepower are in order. All the Solvang Jazz Festival needs now is an audience, word of mouth, and enough momentum to secure its place on the cultural calendar, here in this God-kissed corner of the world.


Solvang Jazz Festival, at Solvang Veteran’s Hall and Royal Scandinavian Inn. Cost: $30 to $80, single tickets, $145 for festival package,


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