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.

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