A grounds pass to the 49th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival is a ticket to jazz bliss.

Local’s Guide to MJF: Babatunde Lea Quartet | Hank Jones | Tierney Sutton

I’ll let you in on a little secret. For sheer musical value, it’s hard to beat a grounds pass for the Monterey Jazz Festival. A $40 ticket (or $30 for Friday evening) provides access to four venues where seating is first come, first served, and mix of music includes the world’s greatest jazz and blues artists, though as often as not they’re probably players with unfamiliar names.

Sure, everyone wants to get into the arena, where box seats are passed down from generation to generation, and it takes a really riveting performance to quiet down the revelers. The arena’s Jimmy Lyons Stage is where the big names cavort, and who doesn’t want to see Dave Brubeck unveil his latest composition, hear Bonnie Raitt belt the blues, or witness tenor sax great Charles Lloyd relive his star-making festival appearance in 1966, which led to his hit album Forest Flower? Unfortunately, those pricey tickets sold out back in the spring.

Ah, but savvy music fans know that much of the festival’s best action takes place in the smaller venues on the fairgrounds, where each space has its own particular vibe. On the outdoor Garden Stage, the mood is usually festive, with beach blankets and picnics set out on the grass. The Coffee House, on the other hand, is mainly the preserve of piano trios, a dimly lit room with the feel of a hushed, after-hours jazzspot.

Perhaps the best argument for a grounds pass is that it puts you in control. Hanging out in the arena means taking the acts as they come. But experiencing the festival on the grounds requires strategy and curiosity (and sometimes a willingness to wait in line, particularly when the bigger name acts leave the arena to play a smaller space).

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For lovers of jazz vocals, the arena offers the regal Dianne Reeves, one of jazz’s most commanding figures, and the suave baritone Kurt Elling, who performs as part of Dave Brubeck’s MJF-commissioned Cannery Row Suite and the world premiere of bassist John Clayton’s “Red Man—Black Man.” Exciting stuff, and I’m sure I’ll be in the arena to hear at least some of it. But there’s no way I’m going to miss the homecoming of Sasha Dobson, who performs in the Nightclub on Friday, 9:30pm with her band featuring guitarist/songwriter Jesse Harris, who wrote Norah Jones’ monster hit “I Don’t Know Why.” The daughter of the late, beloved Santa Cruz-based pianist Smith Dobson, Sasha has spent the past decade in New York City, mostly developing her chops as a scat-singing jazz vocalist. But with the release of her new album Modern Romance, she’s emerged as a chanteuse with a sensual feel for bossa nova grooves.

Representing straight-ahead jazz singing, there’s the lithe, light-toned Tierney Sutton, a masterly vocalist who closes the Nightclub on Saturday at 11pm with her superlative band featuring the smart young pianist Christian Jacob. And while rising star Roberta Gambarini performs as part of Brubeck’s Cannery Row on Sunday in the arena, later in the evening she appears in Dizzy’s Den as special guest with the dean of jazz pianists, Hank Jones, who’s still playing with grit and elegance at 88.

Come to think of it, nothing better illustrates the value of a grounds pass than a perusal of the keyboard talent participating in this year’s festival. In the arena, you can experience some of the music’s most august figures, including Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner. But out on the fairgrounds, you can discover the future of jazz. Indeed, the array of talented players under 25 years old is nothing short of astonishing.

Taylor Eigsti, 21, plays the Nightclub on Friday, 8pm with the supremely swinging drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Luques Curtis and 18-year-old guitarist Julian Lage (who along with Curtis has toured and recorded with vibes master Gary Burton). A Northern California phenomenon since he was about 8, Eigsti has won a coterie of fans among jazz’s elite, such as Brubeck, Bobby Hutcherson and James Moody.

If that kind of early achievement makes you feel a little tired, wait ‘til you hear Eldar, who plays a solo set on the Garden Stage on Friday, 9:30pm. That’s a daunting assignment for most pianists, but the 19-year-old has the technique and presence to hold an audience’s attention. Born in Kyrgyzstan, he moved to the US with his parents in 1998 with the help of a jazz-loving philanthropist, and he’s been turning heads ever since. In the words of the late alto sax legend Benny Carter, not a man known for gushing, “He’s one of the most astounding artists I’ve heard in a long, long time.”

Other pianists to watch out for are Robert Glasper, who plays three sets at the Coffee House on Friday with his trio. A slyly funky player who gained attention in 2005 as the first new artist signed to Blue Note in five years, Glasper is rapidly developing into an incisive composer. The Japanese-born pianist/keyboardist Hiromi, a high-energy player who’s visceral music so impressed Ahmad Jamal that he became her manager, plays three sets at the Coffee House on Saturday. And Aaron Golberg, best known for his two-year stint with tenor sax star Joshua Redman, makes his festival debut at the Coffee House on Sunday afternoon with bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland, one of the most exciting trios in jazz.

There are literally dozens of other brilliant musicians, disconcertingly young, pleasingly seasoned and venerably experienced, who can be heard on the Monterey Fairgrounds this weekend. Fortunately, one needn’t break the bank to take in the best the Monterey Jazz Festival has to offer.

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