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  • Jonathan Widran


Among the great pleasures of attending the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival are those brief, spontaneous conversations you have with the stranger sitting next to you when you’re both caught up in the funky joys of the music, with mutual longtime passion for smooth jazz an instant common bond. I happily engaged in one of these On the afternoon of Saturday, October 22, sometime during Eric Darius’ adventurous, freewheeling show whose high octane vibe perfectly reflected the title of his latest album Unleashed.

The woman told me she and her husband came all the way from New Orleans to spend the full weekend on the island. When she added it was their first time at the festival, I said that I would be dating myself if I told you how many years I’ve been attending. Darius and his band were still jamming, but I piqued her curiosity. I told her, with great pride and a flood of sweet, grooving memories of prior events filling my mind, “Since 1988, the second year Art Good put on the event.” She said “You don’t look that old.” I could have said my first trip “26 miles across the sea” (as the island’s signature song by The Four Preps goes), but instead I offered, “This music keeps me feeling and looking young.”

Witness Darius, who’s closing in on 40 but first wowed the audience with a similarly scheduled afternoon concert back in ’04 (at 21!) as what Good calls “The Where Did This Guy Come From Artist.” He was followed on the slate this year by legendary trumpeter Greg Adams, who originally made his mark via a few decades with Tower of Power, leading his sizzling brass ensemble East Bay Soul, with special guest guitarist, Richard Smith rockin’ a solo with a life force befitting of a guy who knows the value of live after a recent bout with cancer.

The evening wrapped with great anticipation for the first full-scale JazzTrax show in a few decades by none other than Dave Koz following a few wonderfully unexpected cameos in 2018 (with Adam Hawley) and last year (with Rick Braun. It feels kind of impossible for a guy who cruises the world onstage and has performed thousands of shows over the past three decades, but on this night, he outKozzed even himself.

While complementing his tried, true, always infectious and funked out fun stuff with his fun arrangement of “Got To Get You Into My Life” (initially heard on the first Dave Koz & Friends album), he also showcased his masterful skills as a collaborator, letting the amazing soul/jazz singers Rebecca Jade and Chris Walker do their transcendent thing on “The Prayer,” duetting with Walker on a soaring version of “The Dance” (title track from Koz’s 1999 album), and – creating the show’s most explosive moments – inviting Darius up for a roaring romp through Koz’s 2020 smash “Side by Side.”

Besides eternally youthful shows from the artists that have defined the genre since the 80’s and 90’s, one of the ways JazzTrax helps the years melt away is by always featuring newer, younger artists on the bill. My favorite all time in recent years was Vincent Ingala (who played like ten different instruments!), and this year, Good invited Lindsey Webster w/ Adam Hawley, Jazmin Ghent, Randal Clark, Jeff Ryan and 16 year old multi-instrumentalist dynamo Justin Lee Schultz to complement the old guard that also featured Chris Standring, David Benoit, Richard Elliot, Mindi Abair, Jessy J and Norman Brown. Oh, and harkening back to 1987, Lee Ritenour (who headlined at the first event) did a show with (would you believe) 87-years-young Dave Grusin.

Then there’s the occasional brilliant turn by a so called “new” artist who’s actually a veteran musician venturing magnificently into smooth jazz at middle age. This is the case of the cool, ultra-melodic and soulful guitarist Mark Jaimes, who made his debut this past year after years with Simply Red.

When I considered musing about my wonderful single day in Catalina this year -my first time at the fest since the long ago world of 2019 – I seriously thought I’d be writing a poetic (probably overindulgent) essay about the passage of time, how different the challenges are in my life now compared to my relatively carefree live during festivals gone by, and why the day away was so important personally.

But as the fest roars back from the 2020 pandemic cancellation stronger and as well attended as ever, I realize that everyone who comes to share the magic – from that lady and her husband enjoying their first time, to practical lifers like me – has their own story to attach to the music, the event and the annual trip to the island. So it’s best to focus on the music, right?

Yes, it’s hard to believe that when Art Good first launched the festival, we who were of age were consuming the music solely on CDs and terrestrial radio. Many of the artists had major label deals. They still sell CDs on the Casino’ mezzanine level (because artists simply cannot sign a Spotify account or a YouTube video!), yet much about how folks of all ages are exposed to and consume music has changed. No matter, the festival endures beautifully because the artists love performing and the fans enjoy listening. It’s as simple as that.

Nothing – not 9/11, not the Great Recession, not the global pandemic despite the one year gap – has stopped Art Good’s wonderful vision from ultimately flourishing. For some of us, as long as we have breath, no matter how old or young we grow (it’s all mindset, right?) we’ll make the trip every year to the isle of romance. Because, yes, ultimately we can’t do a damn thing about the way our bodies change, but the music keeps us from aging on the inside, and in the end that’s the essence of who we are.


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