By Richard Chang
Jazz is taking on a different look at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
The Costa Mesa campus, already known as one of Southern California’s best venues to hear jazz, is transforming its yearlong series into a concentrated weekend taking place Oct. 9-11. Additionally, programmers are looking beyond the three days to bring more great acts to Orange County.
“It’s an experiment,” says Segerstrom President Terry Dwyer. “We thought there was an opportunity to explore a number of jazz performances in a specific period of time. It’s like a mini festival.”
Dwyer also points out that Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and activities such as salsa dancing and a majority of the jazz acts coincide fortuitously with that theme.
According to Aaron Egigian, senior director of music programming at the center, Segerstrom’s Jazz Weekend began with a conversation with the Grammy-winning Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club to book the group on its final tour.
“I started to look around and see what else I could put together that season, and there was a confluence of four other great artists hovering around that same weekend,” says Egigian, who has been a programmer at the center since its opening in 1986. “I thought of grouping them together in a way that would freshen up the opening of the [2015-16] season.”
But before the 13-piece band from Havana steps into the spotlight as the Sunday finale, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall heats up with Friday performances helmed by bandleaders Poncho Sanchez and Eddie Palmieri. Both Grammy Award winners, the men bring their powerhouse outfits to present varying styles of jazz: Sanchez is a Mexican-American percussionist and singer, while Palmieri is a Puerto Rican-American pianist known for creating “La Perfecta,” a band and album featuring a front line of trombones rather than customary trumpets.
On Saturday, Brazilian bossa nova ambassador Sérgio Mendes offers up some of his chart-topping hits; newer fans might recognize his name from the 2011 Oscar nod he received for Best Original Song (“Real in Rio,” from the animated film “Rio”).
Equally anticipated on Saturday is a performance from legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Grammy-winning album, “The In Crowd,” by playing the classic in its entirety. The titular song is a swinging cover of the soul and rhythm and blues hit by Dobie Gray; Lewis’ version is one of a handful of jazz compositions to cross over into Billboard’s Hot 100 pop charts, where it hit No. 5 in 1965.
“I had no idea it was going to be such a hit,” Lewis says. “[The Ramsey Lewis Trio] had the other nine, 10, 11 songs. We just needed another song to balance the album out. We heard it on a coffee shop jukebox and thought, ‘Yeah, that will work.’ In jazz, we’re kind of comfortable in our little corner of the world. We weren’t thinking of crossing over toward the widest possible audience.”
Lewis will also play highlights from his 80-album catalog and selections from his most recent work, “Ramsey, Taking Another Look—Deluxe Edition,” which was released in July.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be in the right place in the right time,” the lifelong Chicago resident says. “I love to play the piano, and I love to practice the piano, and I love to reach out and touch people. I’m 80 years old. When I’m 90, I’m going to be doing the same thing.”
Finally, to close out the weekend on Sunday, Oct. 11, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is taking its final bow in Orange County during its Adios Tour. Born in Cuba, the group grew out of the Grammy-winning album from 1997 and Oscar-nominated documentary from 1999. In this farewell performance, expect to hear music from the latest “Lost and Found” album, plus classics from the repertoire.
“It’s going to be a great, fun weekend and a party every day,” Egigian says. “There’s going to be some great speakers coming in to talk about the forms of music, how things began, where their roots are, what their impact has been.”
To build excitement and momentum for the three days of music, the center is hosting a free salsa dance party on the Arts Plaza, in addition to expert speakers on jazz throughout the weekend and after-parties in the concert hall lobby and at Leatherby’s Café Rouge.
There’s also no need to worry that the center is limiting jazz to only one weekend: On Feb. 11-14, 2016, the New York-based Hot Sardines octet will bring its high-octane interpretation of 1920s and 1930s “hot jazz” to the concert hall as part of Segerstrom’s Spotlight Series.
“We are deeply committed to continuing high-quality jazz at the center,” Dwyer says. “We hope to continue it beyond that weekend.”
Egigian concurs. “I’m always out there looking to see what’s available to grab and bring in,” he says. “With jazz, I’m always trying to find a way to keep it fresh and bring in audiences.”