Tuesday, September 20, 2005

MJF/48: Day Three of the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival

After two days of terrific music at the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, I realized I was in southern California and ought to see a piece of it while I had the chance. We drove to Pebble Beach past jaw-dropping scenery and homes, cruised through Carmel, and turned back. The Jon Jang Seven was playing the Garden Stage and we didn’t want to miss it.

I’d never heard Jon, but my traveling companion Janis Lane-Ewart  admires him greatly. When I asked her to describe his music, she said: “I am guaranteed that when I hear Jon Jang, I will be educated, made to smile, and have taken a trip to church.” The program we saw was called “A Song Cycle of Traditions and Transformations.” Jang introduced each selection, which included Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs about love, loss, and women throwing themselves into graves and turning into butterflies. His Asian-infused jazz reminded me of Lew Tabackin’s forays into Japanese folksongs heard at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul. I know I want to hear more of Jang’s music and will start with his 1995 solo outing, “Two Flowers on a Stem.” Several of his CDs are on a label he cofounded called Asian Improv.

The other six of the Jon Jang Seven were Wayne Wallace, trombone and musical director; John Worley, trumpet and flugelhorn; Jim Norton, soprano saxophone; Francis Wong, tenor saxophone (Francis wailed); David Belove, electric bass; and Deszon X. Claiborne, drums.

Music festivals are not only a chance to see legends and greats, but to experience someone new to you. Jon was it for me and I’m glad.

Having recently seen the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, we opted to skip the crowds at the Arena and instead hit the Night Club/Bill Berry Stage for the premiere of the Christian McBride Situation (say “sich-ee-ay-shun”), with McBride on bass, D.J. Logic on turntables, Ron Blake on saxophone, and the amazing Patrice Rushen on piano and synthesizer. Is it jazz? Is it funk? Who cares? The rhythms were irresistible, even to the little gray-haired usher guarding one of the side doors. My personal favorite of the show: a version of “All Blue” with a lot of scratching.

As we left the Bill Berry Stage and strolled toward the Arena for the festival’s final big event,  stopping along the way for some wine and peach cobbler, Madeleine Peyroux’s voice drifted through the trees from the Garden Stage.

At the Arena: The Pat Metheny Trio & (Quartet). (Side note: Sitting beside me was the B3 player from the previous night’s Carla Bley Big Band. Hearing the Big Band play Bley’s brand-new Festival-commissioned piece, “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid,” I had thought—they know this cold, they’re so relaxed, they make it look so easy, this must be a band that plays together often. In fact, everyone but Bley’s partner, Steve Swallow, was a local, and they had practiced Bley’s music exactly twice.)  Back to Metheny: Is it possible to hear too much Christian McBride in one evening? Not for me. He was Metheny’s bass player, joined by Antonio Sanchez on drums. The trio became a quartet when David Sanchez came on with his saxophone (and turned up the heat). I’ve never been a huge Metheny fan because I’ve always thought he was kind of an ECM snoozer. I was so wrong. He wailed like a rock star in the Arena, and the sound of his guitar followed us for blocks when we sneaked out early to avoid the crush at the end.

As we left, people all around us were bidding each other farewell: “See you next year?” “Same seats?” “Have a safe trip home.” “Great festival!” In fact, it was. I liked it a lot, and I’d love to return. There’s a relaxed, mellow California feel to it. The days are warm and sunny, the nights are crisp and cool. The fair food isn’t bad, either. (We were so into the festival that we never ate at a restaurant.) And the crowd is wonderfully diverse. Most jazz fans in Minneapolis-St. Paul are used to crowds that are mostly white. Monterey brought out the Benetton colors—and the colorful characters. If you go some September, keep your eyes peeled for the small African-American lady in the giant sunglasses carrying the giant flyswatters. She’s known as the Fly Lady, and I hear she’s a regular.

Monday, September 19, 2005

MJF/48: Day Two of the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival

On day two of the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival,  Branford Marsalis opined, Mavis Staples took us there, Carla Bley waxed nostalgic, and Tony Bennett proved that he doesn’t just still have it—he’s still inventing it.

In a conversation called “Jazz: The Big Picture” at Dizzy’s Den stage, journalist Yoshi Kato asked Branford Marsalis about his family in New Orleans (they’re fine), his new label, Marsalis Music, and his views on the current state of jazz. If you’ve ever heard Branford speak, you know he has strong opinions and he’s not at all shy about expressing them. This day was no exception. A sampling of Marsalis-isms:

• On jazz today: “In a lot of ways, this is a really good time to be a jazz musician because the music is totally unpopular in American culture.”
• On being a jazz artist: “You have to immerse yourself in the music. If you’re meant to be innovative, it will happen. Otherwise you’ll have to be satisfied with being an excellent craftsman, and there’s no shame in that.”
 • On Marsalis Music: “We don’t have buildings in every city, we don’t have limousines, we’re not beholden to shareholders—when you’re beholden to shareholders, you don’t have a lot of time to spend with ragtag jazz musicians.” And: “Jazz records really don’t sell. Given that fact, you might as well make good ones.”
 • On his own recordings: “The fourteen records I did for Columbia were not close to my best stuff. My best stuff will be on my own label.” Some of it already is, like the delicious “Eternal.” Branford also guests on Harry Connick’s new Marsalis Music release, “Occasion.” The two will appear at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Wednesday, September 28, as will label mate Miguel Zenon. Forget about trying to get tickets; the show is totally sold out.

Those of us who couldn’t score seats at the Fitzgerald show can bask in the glow of two more Marsalises earlier that week, when younger brother Delfeayo brings his quintet to the Dakota in Minneapolis for four sets on Sunday and Monday, September 25 and 26. The group also includes Jason Marsalis on drums.

On the horizon: Marsalis Music is planning an Honors Series in which older musicians (“thrown on the scrap heap,” in Branford’s words) will be paired with younger musicians for one-off recordings, tours, and the kind of schooling a younger artists can only get from an older, experienced artist. Branford remembers,  “I was lucky enough to have Art Blakey curse me out on a nightly basis. I learned a lot.”

Back at the fairgrounds: After leaving Dizzy’s Den and downing some coconut shrimp croquettes, Janis Lane-Ewart and I headed toward the Garden Stage, deluding ourselves into thinking we’d find seats for Mavis Staples’ show. We were wrong, so we went and drank wine instead. It was 5:30—plenty late in the day for a little Pinot. I was able to squeeze into the crowd in time to hear Mavis sing “I’ll Take You There.” She’s been singing that song for decades but can still raise the hair on your arms.

Later that night, on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, the Carla Bley Big Band performed a rousing “Cages,” a lilting and lovely “One Way,” and a new work commissioned by the Festival: “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid.” The story behind “Black Orchid:” It was the name of a bar in Monterey in which Bley played her first and only gig as a cocktail pianist, performing all 17 songs she knew.

From some of the talk around us during Bley’s set (examples: “She sure has funny hair” and “Is it over yet?”), I suspected that most people were in the Arena for the night’s big headliner: Tony Bennett.  Just before the red curtains opened for Tony, they parted every so slightly and Clint Eastwood walked out. He welcomed the crowd, mentioned the “Higher Ground” hurricane relief concert held at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier that evening, and reminded us that the Festival was taking donations to benefit the many New Orleans musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And then the curtain opened and I was seeing Tony Bennett live for the first time. (From much better seats than my own, thanks to the kindness of friends.)

I had expected Bennett to be good. I hadn’t expected to be blown away. Naturally, he sang the standards: “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “All of Me,” “Sing Low,” “I Got Rhythm,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Fly Me to the Moon.”After years of interpreting the lyrics of others, he sang a song he’d written to music by Django Reinhardt. He looks magnificent—all class and elegance, silver tie and red pocket square. His profile still astonishes; on the big screen, it was Mount Rushmore-worthy. He’s still in fine voice. During an hour-long performance, he scatted, he held the long notes, he hit the high ones, he twirled on his heel and snapped his fingers, and he held 7,000 people in the palm of his hand. His final song of the evening was the Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic, “The Music Never Ends.” Believe it.

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.