Music News & Reviews


Acclaimed jazz composer, orchestrator and woodwind player Bill Liston is the festival’s guest artist.
Acclaimed jazz composer, orchestrator and woodwind player Bill Liston is the festival’s guest artist. COURTESY PHOTO

Some of California’s most promising young jazz musicians will converge on Cuesta College this weekend for two days of concerts, competition and master classes.

Now in its 27th year, the Central Coast Jazz Festival attracts middle school, high school and college bands from the Bay Area to San Diego.

About 30 groups are expected to attend, said Ron McCarley, Cuesta’s director of jazz studies.

According to McCarley, bands come to play and get hands-on instruction from professional musicians. The competition also offers students and teachers a chance to swap notes with their peers.

“This is the community of people from all the different schools who are doing what you’re doing,” he said. “Directors are talking together. Kids are meeting other kids. Soloists are hanging out. It’s a way of placing yourself in a community and learning from that.”

The Central Coast Jazz Festival kicks off Friday night with a concert at the newly opened Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

Guest artist Bill Liston will appear alongside two Cuesta College jazz bands.

The program includes funky, modern versions of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” as well as the original “You Hid What in the Sousaphone?”

“Since we’ve gotten into it, I’ve discovered he’s a much better fit than I had even anticipated,” McCarley said, noting that Liston is related to a Cuesta trombone player.

An acclaimed jazz composer, orchestrator and woodwind player, Liston’s writing projects range from award ceremonies (the 81st Academy Awards) to theme park attractions ( “Tiana’s Showboat” at Disneyland) to video games ( “World of Warcraft,” “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty”).

He’s performed on the sound-tracks of “The Princess and the Frog,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Toy Story 3,” and worked with the likes of Randy Newman, Harry Connick Jr., Bette Midler and The Pussy Cat Dolls.

In addition to Friday’s concert, Liston will discuss his music and writing process at noon Saturday at a free Student Conference Center clinic, followed by a brief performance with the Cuesta Jazz Ensemble.

Fans of big band can dig deeper Saturday by sitting in on a series of free performances at the nearby music building.

Each ensemble plays a half-hour set before receiving 15 to 20 minutes of feedback from judges. Bands are graded on factors such as intonation, expressiveness and how well the student musicians blend together.

This year’s participants include high schools from Atascadero, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. Cal Poly’s University Jazz Bands will also compete.

According to McCarley, Saturday’s competition is a great way to learn about the ins and outs of jazz performance.

“You can hear a band play and think, ‘Oh that was pretty good,’ then hear a judge speak for 20 minutes about how that band can be better,” McCarley said. “It’s almost like a master clinic model. Someone performs and the master clinic comes up and responds to them.”

The music ranges from classic big band to samba to jazz fusion, McCarley said.

However, he added, audiences can also expect to hear a sprinkling of selections from modern composers such as Maria Schneider, who takes a sophisticated, classical approach to her work, and Gordon Goodwin, whose upbeat pieces show the influence of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“We’re used to a faster pace in this day and age than when that (older) music was written,” McCarley said. “It’s really fun music. …The high school kids just love this stuff.”

That youthful enthusiasm is a boon for the big band genre, which peaked in widespread popularity during the 1930s and ’40s.

“Jazz has its own niche that it’s found, but it’s definitely on the fringe,” Mc- Carley said. “It’s fun to see all these kids come out.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.