Saturday, September 22, 2007

MJF/50, Day 1: The Monterey Jazz Festival Opens in the Rain

Originally published on Jazz Police.

The first thing you realize about the Monterey Jazz Festival is you can’t see everything. Choose a headliner event at the Jimmy Lyons Stage (Arena) and you’re missing another live music performance you wish you could see at the Garden Stage, Dizzy’s Den, the Night Club/Billy Berry Stage, the Coffee House Gallery, or the new Lyons Lounge dance club venue.

The second thing you realize is you can’t get into everything you want. The golden anniversary of the world’s oldest continuously running jazz festival is drawing big crowds. If you bought an arena package, you have your own seat in the Arena, and that’s guaranteed; if someone else nabs it, he or she will vacate, with apologies, when you approach. Everything else is first-come, first-served, and the lines were already long on Friday, the opening night. If you planned to see the Terence Blanchard Quintet at the Night Club at 11:00 and you weren’t already inside for Geoff Keezer and Jim Hall at 9:30, good luck.

As we make our way across the Monterey County Fairgrounds toward the arena, it seems as if the more than 40,000 fans expected to attend have already arrived. The paths, picnic tables, and vendor booths are packed. We stop to buy 50th-anniversary T-shirts; traditionally, if you don’t buy festival stuff on the first night, anything you want is gone. Inside the arena, the dream team of bass giant Dave Holland, tenor sax master Chris Potter, powerhouse Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and young lion drummer Eric Harland are on stage. We arrive in time for “Step It Up,” a tune written by Holland for the occasion. If you know Holland’s music, you can imagine the general feel of the piece: upbeat, complex, jaunty, asymmetrical.

On stage, Holland looks like the happiest man in jazz. Harland has included a tambourine in his drum set, and it adds new flavor to the sonic mix. Potter is cool and professional, stepping back to showcase the trio. Rubalcaba is his sleek and impeccable self. A light rain is falling but doesn’t seem to concern the crowd, especially in Section J up in the bleachers to my right, where there’s a loud party going on. All around me, people are greeting old friends. Temporarily distracted from the music, I’m called back by one of those moments I love about Dave Holland: piano, sax, and bass in unison, cushioning Harland on a daring and ecstatic solo adventure. Then Potter takes back the tune and soars.

Following a lyrical, film-noir performance of Holland’s “Veil of Tears,” they close out the set with a new Chris Potter piece, “Ask Me Why.” Holland announces the song, and someone in the audience shouts “Why?” The crowd laughs. During Harland’s solo, with Rubalcaba and Holland in unison beneath him, the first plane of the festival flies overhead. There’s a direct link to Monterey Jazz Festival history. In 1958, the festival’s first year, Dave Brubeck was playing when a low-flying plane crossed the airspace above the arena. Without missing a beat, he quoted “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.”

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension are up next in the arena. We opt for Jim Hall and Geoff Keezer in the Night Club. There’s a very long line. Our press credentials get us in, after we promise to stand at the back.

Guitar legend Jim Hall played the first Monterey festival with the Jimmy Giuffre Three and Bob Brookmeyer; pianist Keezer (who began his career as a teen, with Art Blakey) wasn’t even born yet. The two recently collaborated on an ArtistShareFree Association. Tonight celebrates that virtuosic and elegant pairing and more. We hear the classic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II “All the Things You Are,” Keezer’s original piece “Wide-Angle Lens,” and Hall’s “Ougadoudou,” which begins with Keezer plucking the piano strings. After “Ougadoudou,” Keezer tells the sound guy to turn Hall up and him down. Then he turns the stage over to Hall alone, who gives us a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” so soft and delicate that people tiptoe in to score the few vacant seats. When Keezer returns, Hall jokes, “Now keep the piano that low.” The set ends with the Milt Jackson-inspired “A Merry Chase.” On the way out, we pass through multiple layers of the line waiting for Terence Blanchard at 11:00.

We head for the Coffee House Gallery, where the Craig Taborn Trio has held court all night, playing earlier sets at 8:00 and 9:30. We’ve heard Craig play before in various configurations at the Dakota Jazz Club and the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, and we plan to hear him again when he returns to the Dakota Jazz Club in February 2008 and performs at the Walker Art Center in March. But we like his music and we know his mom, so we don’t want to miss his moment in the spotlight at Monterey. (In the Festival program, the Craig Taborn Trio is high on general manager Tim Jackon’s Top 10 list of must-sees.) The other members of the trio are Thomas Morgan on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums.

Chris Potter (with whom Taborn will play the Dakota in February) is in the house; so is Astral Project’s James Singleton. Taborn tells the audience that Potter wants to hear “Little Red Machine,” so that’s where they begin. The music is complex, smart, and concentrated. Long passages become trancelike and hypnotic; there’s repetition, but repetition like a heartbeat; you don’t want it to stop. Taborn plays with a sense of fun (as the set winds down, he smiles frequently at the other members of his trio) and fierce intelligence. Following the tune he announces as their final piece, he nods and they segue into a lush, melodic, chord-filled version of Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” It’s breathtakingly beautiful and the perfect end to a music-filled night.

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