Saturday, September 17, 2005

MJF/48: The first night of the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival

Under an almost-full moon and with the occasional jet screaming overhead on its way to the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport, the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival opened with a sonic boom on seven stages. Janis Lane-Ewart, executive director of KFAI Radio, and I are here to celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend, Suzan Jenkins, president of Jazz Alliance International.  Suzan is a veteran of the festival; it’s the first time for Janis and me.

Like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (a moment of silence as we all pray for its return), Monterey is also about crafts and food. Tempting vendors lined both sides of the walk toward the Jimmy Lyons Stage as we headed toward our first event: the John Handy “40th Anniversary Quintet.” The Jimmy Lyons Stage is the “indoor” part of the festival—actually an open-air equestrian stadium that seats about 7,000. As first-timers (and relatively late ticket-buyers), we found ourselves in the middle seats of the very last row on the main hay-covered floor. The performers were tiny spotlit dots in the distance. The giant screen on stage helps, but today I’m bringing binoculars. Luckily, the sound system is superb.

Master saxophonist John Handy was joined on stage by Carlos Reyes on violin and harp (jazz harp! Excellent!), Steve Erquiaga on guitar, Don Thompson on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums. A tender performance of “Nature Boy” featured a guitarist who also sang. He sounded a lot like Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, famous for “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” and other big ’70s and ’80s rock hits. In fact, it was Steve Miller.

We headed out for some plantains and salmon with hot sauce, then stopped by the Starbucks Coffee House Gallery, where we saw Russell Malone in between sets. My friends are his friends, so he stopped to greet us and share a few of the bawdy jokes he’s famous for. I won’t repeat them here, but I’ll tell Don Berryman later.

Back at the arena for the night’s big closer, Sonny Rollins, we caught the tail end of the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. They’re hot. They’re also part of this year’s Northrop Jazz Season, scheduled to appear on Sunday, November 20 at the Ted Mann. Tip: Don’t miss them.

Sonny was wearing red pants, which I could see by squinting hard. He sounded fantastic, his tenor sax growling and purring. With him were Clifton Anderson on trombone, Bobby Broom on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Steve Jordan on drums, and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion. The power of the arena’s sound system was made clear during Dinizulu’s solo on the congas, when the slightest caress reached us all the way in the back and floated out to the sellers of jewelry, made-on-the-spot lemonade, and ten-feet-tall wooden giraffes.

What about those jets? I was under the impression that post-9/11, planes were no longer allowed to fly over places where crowds gather. But maybe that just applies to football stadiums, where the people in the field represent some serious money. We were just a bunch of jazz fans and a legend or two or four, enjoying some music in the moonlight.

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