Tuesday, September 19, 2006

MJF/49: From Brubeck to B3 at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival

It’s still light when we enter the Arena on the final night of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Actor Clint Eastwood introduces the first of two giant headliners: Dave Brubeck. Eastwood is a jazz buff, passionate Festival supporter, and lifelong Brubeck fan; in 2002, he told CNN, “I have been following Dave Brubeck since the Burma Lounge on Lakeshore Avenue in the mid '40s, but I was here in 1958, which was the first year of the festival. And Dave was there then. So I have been kind of a groupie for a lot of years.”

At 85 years old, Brubeck has a touring schedule that would make most of us tired just reading about it. In the past three months, he’s played 22 dates including Carnegie Hall, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Tanglewood. He’s here in Monterey to premiere a new work commissioned by the Festival, a tribute to American author John Steinbeck called “Cannery Row Suite.”

But first, Brubeck and the other members of his quartet—Bobby Militello on alto sax and flute, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums—warm up with an appropriately bright and cheerful “Sunny Side of the Street.” Brubeck opens “Stormy Weather” with a tender solo; in comes Militello with the melody and we’re off. The big screen flashes close-ups of Brubeck’s hands, sculpted by the gods and blessed by the muses. A wistful “Over the Rainbow” is the perfect song for the Festival’s last night.

Brubeck rises and goes to the mike to set up the next song. “It’s Sunday, and we’d like to play a piece sacred to this day. It started as a Jewish chant, then Roman soldiers came into Jerusalem and decided it would make a great march.” He pauses. “Are there any old Catholics in the house?” We laugh. He continues, “People say to me, ‘Why don’t you play some old tunes?’ This one is 2,000 years old.” The quartet performs “Tantum Ergo.” It’s part of a larger work called the Pane Lingua Variations. You can hear it in its entirety on Telarc’s Classical Brubeck.

Back at the mike, Brubeck tells the crowd, “When [Monterey Jazz Festival general manager] Tim Jackson asked me to write an opera for tonight, I said no, no way. ‘Only an hour? Please?’ No. ‘What if you only develop three or four characters and make it a half-hour?’ I said, ‘I’ll think that over. It sounds more like something that would work at a jazz festival.’” More laughter.

Working closely with his wife and collaborator, Iola, who wrote the libretto, Brubeck penned a tribute to John Steinbeck and Cannery Row, the novel Steinbeck set in Monterey during the Depression. It’s a tale of hard times and colorful characters. The ones Brubeck chose to portray are Doc, a marine biologist; Dora, a madam; and Mack, one of “the boys” who inhabit the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

“I wrote difficult arias,” Brubeck explains, “almost impossible to sing. Tim [Jackson] said ‘Let’s do it, I’ve got the best people hired; we’ll throw it all together when we get here.” Brubeck was motivated by the fact that he trusts the Festival audience. “I’ve done many things here without much rehearsal,” he says. “Please understand that yesterday was the first day we could all get together.”

Jackson wasn’t lying when he promised Brubeck the “best people.” In the world premiere performance that unfolds on stage, Doc is played by Kurt Elling, Dora by Roberta Gambarini, and Mack by one of the Brubecks’ musical sons, Chris. The narration is by Steinbeck’s son Thom; black-and-white slides of historic Monterey on the stage’s big screen set the mood. The music is catchy, hummable, and complex.

Dora’s aria is a killer. Let’s remember that Gambarini left her hometown of Torino, Italy, just eight years ago with dreams of being a jazz singer. I first heard her at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis in May 2004, where she sang with Roy Hargrove. I liked her a lot but noticed that her Italian accent was pronounced. She returned to the Dakota in March 2006 as a special guest with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio, and what a difference two years had made. Along the way, she shared stages with Hank Jones (with whom she also performed at Monterey), Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Michael Brecker, Christian McBride, and Toots Thielemans. Her recently released debut CD, Easy to Love, has won raves.

Tonight she assumes the role of Dora with no problem. Through high notes, low notes, intervals and scatting, she inhabits the character. And she does it without music or lyrics.

Elling met up with Brubeck in New York City in June, where he had a glimpse of the challenges in store for him as Doc. “Dave was very gracious,” Elling told jazz writer Andrew Gilbert. “He had it [Doc’s part] pitched way up there and he put it in another key for me, a key that’s humane for a baritone.” On stage at the Arena, he nails it, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard Elling perform live, spinning stories and scats out of the air.

As Mack, Chris Brubeck sings and plays the bass trombone in good company: Joel Brown on vocals and guitar, and Peter “Madcat” Ruth on vocals and harmonica, an instrument that features prominently in Brubeck’s piece. They’re accompanied by a chorus from the University of the Pacific. It all holds together so tightly that it’s hard to believe they have had one day to rehearse. On the other hand, these are jazz musicians, accustomed to doing things on the fly.

I can’t say I loved “Cannery Row Suite.” But I’m glad I was in the audience to see it, and I’m even more glad that organizations like the Monterey Jazz Festival are willing and able to commission major new works by jazz artists. (Side note: Three cheers for the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave Patricia Barber a fellowship to write songs based on characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Barber’s deliciously dark and dense creations can be heard on her brand-new CD, Mythologies.)

Brubeck and Co. receive a standing ovation. The red curtain closes and the Arena lights come on. People fill the aisles, hoping there’s time enough to score a latte from the Starbucks booth or maybe a barbecued pork sandwich before the second half of the evening begins. Before long, Clint Eastwood returns to bring Oscar Peterson to the stage.

I have never seen Oscar Peterson perform live. Shortly before coming to Monterey, he sold out a six-night engagement at Yoshi’s in Oakland that earned mixed reviews. Writing for InsideBayArea.com, Jim Harrington noted that Peterson’s playing was “tentative to start” and his hand speed “wasn’t really up to his standards.” In the Contra Costa Times, Andrew Gilbert was more forthright, calling Peterson’s performance “all too painfully human” and “a poignant reminder that time catches up to even the fleetest.”

I stay for the first song and a half. Maybe it gets better; I’ll never know. What I do know is that this is not how I want to remember Oscar Peterson.

Dr. Lonnie Smith by John Whiting
My 2006 Monterey experience ends at the Nightclub, a venue I’ve grown especially fond of because it’s enclosed, warm, and near the exit, all good things at the end of a long day and a crisp night. Mocha in hand, I find a seat as close as possible to Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Ph.D. of the Hammond B3. He’s joined onstage by Peter Bernstein on guitar and Allison Miller on drums. Both more than hold their own in the presence of the mad doctor.

I’m most intrigued by Miller, first because she’s a girl drummer (a rarity in jazz; Terri Lyne Carrington also comes to mind), and second because she’s a dervish on stage. I learn later that Downbeat named her a “Rising Star Drummer,” she’s based in New York, and she has also toured with Natalie Merchant (another dervish). Plus she already has a CD out called 5 a.m. Stroll featuring Ray Drummond, Steve Wilson, Virginia Mayhew, and Bruce Barth. Ms. Miller, please come to Minneapolis/St. Paul soon.

Dr. Lonnie is in the middle of some crazy thing. He’s playing and singing “Misty” in a voice like Johnny Mathis. I’m as helpless as a kitten trying to figure out why. Next, he holds a high note for a ridiculously long time (singing, not playing). Someone in the audience shouts, “It’s that yoga s***!” (Does Dr. Lonnie do yoga? He looks like he does.) Then he channels Stevie Wonder in “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” After that, he segues into a blues tune and some odd asides (“Hanky panky you shore is stanky/Hunky punky shore is funky!”). It’s surreal and hilarious.

Eventually, the white-bearded, turban-wearing Doctor gets down to business and gives us some songs from his new CD on Palmetto, Jungle Soul. A virtuosic “Willow Weep for Me.” A bluesy, bleak “And the World Weeps” with a she-done-me-wrong solo. A funky, hypnotic “Witch Doctor.” We’re under the spell of this hot little band.

And suddenly it’s over. Allison Miller packs up her drums. Peter Bernstein locks up his guitar. Smith signs autographs, poses for pictures, and hugs people. It’s a feel-good ending to an otherwise poignant evening. A few vendors are still holding on, but most are getting ready to go home. Time for us to do the same.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

MJF/49: Charles Lloyd at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival: Still drunk with the music

In one of the most highly anticipated events of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, Charles Lloyd reprised Forest Flower, the recording he made at Monterey in 1966 that sold a million, catapulted him to fame, became the soundtrack of the Flower Power movement, and drove him into the woods at Big Sur for more than a decade. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he came out of musical retirement, and he has graced us with numerous recordings since, most recently Sangam, recorded live in Santa Barbara.

Charles Lloyd
Earlier on Saturday, journalists and photographers were treated to a private Q&A with Lloyd. Moderated by Andrew Gilbert, a freelance writer whose articles about jazz frequently appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, the conversation proved as freewheeling and adventuresome as Lloyd’s playing.

Lloyd began by asking his audience, “How may I serve you?” When Gilbert invited him to think back 40 years to Monterey and his now iconic quartet of that time—Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Cecil McBee on bass—Lloyd replied, “We were drawn together; we were dreamers; we wanted to change the world with sound.” What were Lloyd’s expectations for this evening’s performance? None, he said, because “expectations ruin the greatest joy…. I’m happy to be here in this moment. I don’t resonate that the time was 40 years ago. I still feel younger than springtime in spirit because of the great beauty of this art form…. I’m still drunk with this music.”

Lloyd reflected on the loss of Billy Higgins, the drummer with the beatific smile who was Lloyd’s great friend and spiritual brother: “Master Higgins told me he often dreamed we played Forest Flower while flying on our backs.” Higgins died in May 2001 but is still very present in Lloyd’s life. Lloyd believes that Higgins guided him to Eric Harland, the drummer in his current quartet.

It happened during a September week in 2001. Lloyd was in New York City, scheduled to play the Blue Note starting on Monday, September 11. We know what happened on that day. Lloyd began his Blue Note stand on Friday, September 15, with the first in a series of free concerts meant to give New Yorkers hope. Later that night, he heard Harland play in a jam band. “I knew Higgins sent him to me,” Lloyd says, “because of that radiant smile.” Sangam is their first recording together. It’s a trio effort with table master Zakir Hussain, and a tribute to Billy Higgins.

Late in the Q&A, someone asks Lloyd, “How do you feel about playing Forest Flower tonight?” Never predictable, Lloyd answers, “I didn’t know I would be playing Forest Flower tonight. You’re assuming I’ll play Forest Flower…. No one has ever told me what to play. I’ve made a career of that,” he adds wryly, “but it’s not much of a career.”

Thankfully, he does play it, and we’re grateful. This time, Geri Allen is at the piano, queenly in a red silk caftan. Eric Harland is fierce and beautiful on the drums. Rueben Rogers mans the bass; sometimes a single note from his instrument is all we hear, and it’s enough. Lloyd’s saxophone whirls and caresses; his flute dances, as does Lloyd himself, standing behind Harland while the others play.

Is this music really 40 years old? It doesn’t sound dated. And it doesn’t sound modern. It’s music of the moment, and the forest flower blooms again.

P.S. The Arena at the Monterey Jazz Festival is very large. Thoughtfully, the Festival provides a giant screen and plentiful close-ups. Kudos to the camera operators, who almost make you forget you’re sitting hundreds of feet away from the stage.

Originally published at JazzPolice.com

Saturday, September 16, 2006

MJF/49: Eldar and Elling at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival

A great jazz festival is a frustrating experience. You want to be in several places at once, but ultimately you must choose: the Yellowjackets with Kurt Elling? Or the Robert Glasper Trio, or Roy Hargrove & RH Factor, or up-and-coming singer Sasha Dobson, or young powerhouse pianist Eldar? They all performed at approximately the same time on the opening night of the Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz festival in the world.

Now in its 49th year, presented by Verizon, the three-day festival boasts an impressive lineup of revered elders. Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Charles Lloyd are all scheduled to appear starting on Saturday night. As we made our way down the fairgrounds, peering into various venues—Dizzy’s Den, the Night Club/Bill Berry Stage—we stopped at the open-air Garden Stage, where Eldar was blazing through Oscar Peterson’s “Place St. Henri.”

Eldar by John Whiting
Backed by Sicilian bassist Marco Panascia and Brooklyn-via-Texas drummer Kendrick Scott, the 19-year-old prodigy from Kyrgyzstan continued with an original composition, “Daily Living,” a blend of thundering chords and lightning-fast runs. 

Eldar exudes strength; if you ever shake his hand in greeting (as we did at the Dakota in Minneapolis when he played there in November 2005), watch out. Yet he’s also capable of sweet delicacy and restraint. 

We stayed through a bluesy version of Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” whose center belonged to bassist Panascia. At times, Eldar’s playing sounded like piano, twelve hands.

The Garden Stage is an ideal place to start your Monterey experience. Like the larger Arena, where the big guns play (Arena tickets sold out months ago), it’s open-air. The combination of live, in-the-moment jazz with salty California breezes and starry skies is intoxicating. People bring in lawn chairs or sit on the benches or bleachers, often on foam cushions they bought at a festival years ago and have carted around ever since. It’s a diverse, relaxed, and enthusiastic crowd of all ages, including snoozing babies in strollers and elegant ladies in fancy hats. At a time when many jazz artists play to sparse houses, it feels good to be surrounded by people who love the music.

From the Garden Stage, we went to the Arena to hear Kurt Elling with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Elling is the festival’s Artist-in-Residence. He’s been visiting Monterey since April, performing at concerts and participating in youth education programs. The Festival completes his residency, and he’s omnipresent, headlining performances and discussions for all three days. On Friday, following an earlier performance with the Yellowjackets,  Elling waited backstage while the magnificent Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra warmed up the crowd with rousing versions of “Silver Celebration” (a tribute to Horace Silver) and Ray Brown’s arrangement of Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo.”
Kurt Elling and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra by John Whiting
Conductor and bassist John Clayton introduced the band (including 88-year-old trumpeter Snooky Young), explained that it has three leaders (himself, his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton) “to share the debt” and invited Elling back on stage. Elling began by performing three of the many songs he’s known for: “Close Your Eyes,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Man in the Air,” co-written by Elling and Hobgood for and about Wayne Shorter.

Elling was in superb voice. Surprising for those of us who’ve seen him in concert several times over the years (at the Dakota in Minneapolis, at Birdland in New York, at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall), he has cut off his trademark ponytail and shaved his goatee. With his hair slicked back, impeccably dressed as always, he’s looking sleek and wolfish.

He thanked us for staying up late and for “bringing your fleece-lined items.” By now, the night air was more than chilly, and the Arena’s infamous metal folding chairs were icy cold. Elling encouraged us to stuff our sleeves with sawdust (there’s plenty of it on the Arena’s floor; it doubles as an equestrian stadium) and get to know our neighbors. “As promised,” he said,” we have something new.” He and the orchestra premiered a work in progress: “Red Man-Black Man,” which explores connections between African-American and American Indian music. Clayton was inspired to write it when he heard Elling perform at Birdland last January; Elling contributed original lyrics and added poems by Native American poet Maurice Kennedy and African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

The “work-in-progress” description fits; I’m not sure “Red Man-Black Man” is entirely successful yet. It seems a little strange to hear Elling sing about being one with the grass and wrestling with the thunder, and at one point the percussion consisted of musicians dropping chains on the stage. But it had some lovely moments and a big finish. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy it and gave it a standing ovation. As people began to leave, Elling and the orchestra treated the rest of us to a lilting, affectionate “Lil’ Darlin’,”with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics bookended by Elling’s own.

Earlier, when Elling told the crowd to expect “something new,” a fan shouted “Winelight!” “Come to Dizzy’s Den,” he responded, giving us a hint of what to expect on Saturday night at 8:30…except we’ll probably be at the Arena celebrating the 40th Anniversary of “Forest Flower” with Charles Lloyd and his quartet. Or at the Night Club for the Jeff Hamilton Trio. Or at the Starbucks Coffee House Gallery for Hiromi. It’s so hard to choose.

Kurt Elling signs autographs after the show, by John Whiting