Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dhafer Youssef

Walker Art Center, 9/27/07: The first event in the Walker's New World Jazz mini-series was exquisite. Tunisian-born composer, singer, and oud player Dhafer Youssef led five other musicians (Todd Reynolds, violin; Daisy Jopling, violin; Caleb Burhans, viola; Mark Helias, double bass; Satoshi Takeishi, drums/percussion) in a concert I hoped would never end.

Dressed in white, head shaved, the 40-year-old Youssef was radiant and charismatic; his voice gave me goosebumps. To get a taste of it, go to the iTunes store, search for Dhafer Youssef, then click on these songs for 30-second snippets: "Man of Wool," "Tarannoum," "A Kind of Love," "Yabay."

This was Youssef's first appearance in the US performing his own music. It was also the first time this particular group had performed together in public. If Youssef hadn't told us that, we wouldn't have known; they seemed comfortable together, and joyous.

Was it jazz? Was it New World Jazz? It was powerful, seductive, and enormously entertaining.

Photo (C) Jessica Chaney & Vincent Knapp from Dhafer Youssef's Web site.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Marcel Marceau is dead. Long live Marcel Klevesahl.

Photo by Chelsea Johnson.

Lavay Smith and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers

The Dakota, 9/26/07: The International Diva of Swing and her band took their sweet time returning for their second set (scheduled for 9 p.m., they started at 10), then gave us an hour-plus of classic 1940s and '50s jazz and blues: songs made famous by Horace Silver, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, and Dizzie Gillespie. The seven-piece band was solid and smooth. Lavay seemed to sleepwalk through the first several tunes, then opened up and knocked us silly for the final two: Bessie Smith's "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" ("I need a little hot dog on my roll") and its odd successor (raunchy blues to gospel?), "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." We loved the tenor sax player, whose name we didn't catch.

Reunited and it feels so good

Reunited 'cause we understood
There's one perfect fit
And sugar, this one is it
--Peaches and Herb

When we travel, Lily (the black-and-tan weenie) stays home, and Carmen (the red weenie) visits her second family. They miss each other, and we miss them.

MJF/50, Day 3: In a Sentimental Mood

Originally published on Jazz Police.

The third day of the Monterey Jazz Festival is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the final evening in the Arena is invariably a star-studded event. On the other hand, it’s the final evening. You want the barbecued ribs, the reunions with friends, the interesting conversations with strangers and fellow jazz fans, the mellowness despite the crowds, and especially the music to go on and on.

I’m kicking myself for missing Ornette Coleman, but who scheduled him for 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, anyway? Could I have handled his complex, unpredictable, audacious music with the California sun beating down on my head? Plenty of other people did, and many enjoyed it, according to reviews I read later. Coleman played with three basses: Tony Falanga (bowed acoustic), the marvelous Charnett Moffett (acoustic with wah-wah), and Al Macdowell (electric), all accompanied by Coleman’s son Denardo on the drums. Although it won’t be anywhere near the same as the live performance, I’m getting Coleman’s Sound Grammar (with Falanga, Denardo, and Greg Cohen) ASAP. This is the album that just won Coleman the Pulitzer Prize.

Later that afternoon, we stopped by the Night Club to hear the Monterey County High School All-Star Band directed by Paul Contos. Several school bands performed that day, dubbed “Family Day” and sponsored by Macy’s. It’s part of MJF’s tradition of spotlighting student artists and supporting jazz education; Joshua Redman, Benny Green, and Patrice Rushen played the Festival with their high school bands. The All-Star Band recently toured Japan. In the Night Club, vocalist Simone van Seenus performed a challenging duet with bassist Ryan Grech, and the band came together for “Cry Me a River.” The room was full of parents and grandparents.

Over lunch in the Festival’s outdoor food court—a grassy area filled with picnic tables surrounded by food booths, many with smoke billowing from grills and most with long lines in front of them—we spoke with people from Miami who’d met people from Wisconsin who’d met a couple from Dubai.

Shortly before 7:00 p.m., we followed the crowds into the Arena for the closing show. Fifty years ago, comedian Mort Sahl emceed the first Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie. Sahl returned solo this year, joking that “you wouldn’t call this a steady job.” He introduced the MJF 50th Anniversary All-Stars, a dream band featuring Festival artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard (trumpet), James Moody (saxophones), Benny Green (piano and musical director), Nnenna Freelon (voice), and Blanchard trio members Derrick Hodge (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums). In January, the All-Stars will begin a national tour, bringing jazz—and the Monterey Jazz Festival brand—to over 50 cities.

Brand? This is the age of the brand. Why shouldn’t the Monterey Jazz Festival trade on its good name and reputation as one of the world’s preeminent music events? In addition to the All-Stars, there’s now a Monterey Jazz Festival Records label, which just released a series of live-at-Monterey recordings. The size and depth of the Festival’s vaults (more than 1,600 tapes, over 2,000 hours of concerts) ensures future recordings should the first six (Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and a festival sampler) prove successful. The Festival has become a book publisher as well. Its debut release, The Art of Jazz: Monterey Jazz Festival/50 Years is a hardcover coffee-table book with a foreword by Clint Eastwood, classic photos, and full-color images of posters and program covers spanning the Festival’s history. If you want, you can order a limited edition copy signed by Eastwood. While you’re at the official MJF/50 online store, buy a mug. This year’s posters are totally sold out. We watched a woman buy the last one at the official MJF stuff booth. It had been taped to a box for display and had to be cut off with a knife.

We were hoping to get hooded sweatshirts, but they were gone. Later, we found some at the Brother Thelonious booth. Brother Thelonious is a Belgian-style abbey ale; sales benefit the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It’s tasty and it supports jazz education, which makes it the ideal beer for every occasion. Brother Thelonious normally comes in a big (750 ml.) bottle topped with a traditional cork-and-wire, though the Festival served it in plastic cups.

The All-Stars were terrific, even though Benny Green claimed that playing together was so new for them they hadn’t yet figured out the timing of a 60-minute show; they ran over, but nobody seemed to care. Someone had written lyrics to Gerald Wilson’s “Monterey Moods,” which Wilson premiered in instrumental form the night before. Freelon sang them beautifully. Blanchard’s cinematic horn starred in John Coltrane’s “Straight Street.” At one point, Benny Green called Blanchard “the most positive presence in the music today,” an apt description of the amiable, accessible, prodigiously talented musician and composer. The set ended with “Time After Time” and Freelon’s voice—warm, pure, and bright—soaring over the crowd.

Next up: living legend Dave Brubeck, the man whose music inspired the Monterey City Council in 1957 to okay the first jazz festival despite strong misgivings. “The very idea: bringing jazz to a respectable community,” Ira Kamin noted in the first book about the Festival, Dizzy, Duke, the Count and Me (1978). “[Festival founder Jimmy Lyons] had to convince the community that jazz (which meant black people and junkies) wouldn’t spoil the children, wilt the vegetation, or corrupt the coastline.” Brubeck was an ideal ambassador, and he has been a Festival supporter and performer ever since. At the closing concert, he and his trio—Bobby Militello on alto saxophone and flute, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums—gave us exactly what we hoped for: elegant, swinging jazz under the stars.

Midway through his set, Brubeck introduced guest Jim Hall, who had also been at the first Festival. “We haven’t had a chance to play one note together,” Brubeck said, “but we’ll start in right now.” Hall opened with the first sweet notes of “All the Things You Are” and Brubeck’s quartet made a perfect entry. Everyone on stage had silver hair. At one point, I was struck by how extraordinary it was that in a large open-air stadium filled with thousands of metal chairs, Brubeck was able to play a solo so quiet it seemed he was whispering in my ear. How lovely to be in a crowd of people who listen…and three cheers for the sound system. After a series of seemingly unrelated chords, Brubeck made a sharp turn into “Take Five,” one of the great jazz tunes that, like “’Round Midnight,” will still be played when the MJF celebrates its 500th year.

The grand finale was Sonny Rollins, the Mount Rushmore of the saxophone. He came out blowing and blew so hard the clouds retreated. I mean it. When he walked on stage, there was a solid ring of clouds all around; by the time he finished, the sky was all moon and stars. Of course he played “St. Thomas” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” and there were other songs I recognized but can’t name. Every member of his band—Clifton Anderson on trombone, Bobby Broom on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Kimati Dinizulu on percussion, and Willie Jones III (fresh from Saturday’s Ernestine Anderson show at the Night Club) had a chance to shine. People with early flights were rising to leave, but quietly, taking care not to disturb the rest of us. And then it was over. In one night, we had heard the old and the new, the founders and the future.

Earlier, over lunch, a woman from San Francisco asked how often we’d come to the Festival and whether we’d return. I told her three times and hopefully yes. “This festival is addictive,” she said, stating what’s now obvious to me. There are worse things to get hooked on than jazz by the sea.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


En route to Monterey from San Francisco, we discovered the Swanton Berry Farm and had the best strawberry shortcake in the world. Real shortcake, fresh-picked organic strawberries (deep red, fragrant, naturally sweet), and thick whipped cream, eaten at a blue picnic table strung with cobwebs with a view of the ocean. I could swoon just thinking about it. We stopped again on the way back to the airport and met the lovely Laura, who told us that Swanton is the oldest organic berry farm in California. Come in on a bicycle and get a 10% discount, but only if you're wearing a helmet.

A bakery in Monterey

Parker-Lusseau is the place to go for delicious coffee, exquisite French pastries (the chocolate eclair! Mon Dieu!), and perfect egg salad sandwiches on buttery, flaky croissants with crunchy sprouts and not too much mayo. They now have two locations; we like the one in the historic building on Hartnell next to the P.O., with the cozy front porch and side garden.

Monday, September 24, 2007

MJF/50, Day 2: From Blues to the Silvery Moon

Originally published on Jazz Police.

It was one of those days that made you vow to attend the Monterey Jazz Festival every September for the rest of your natural life, even if it means bringing your walker. Which plenty of people do.

Saturday is blues day, and we had two chances to hear James Hunter and Otis Taylor: first in the Arena and afterward at the Garden Stage. We chose the up-close-and-personal Garden Stage.

Hunter is an English guitarist, singer, songwriter, and arranger with an old-school soul man’s scream, rubbery knees, and a wicked wit. Raised in a mobile home in an onion field in Thorrington, formerly a railroad worker and busker, he has won fans including Van Morrison, who calls him “one of the best voices…in British R&B and soul.” Backed by his solid band, he delivered song after song to an audience that wanted to dance and did, including an elegant couple who dipped and twirled as if they were on a ballroom floor.

We chased the fast-moving Hunter to the Borders’ autographing station after his performance, hoping to score his Grammy-nominated CD, People Gonna Talk, and a signature, but the CDs sold out shortly after we got in line. At his manager’s invitation, we chased him back to the Garden Stage, where they happened to have a few copies in reserve, cash only please. His manager told us they had been on tour in the US for months having a wild time. No doubt.

Back at the Garden Stage, Otis Taylor was presenting his unique brand of certified trance blues. Like Hunter, Taylor was at Monterey for the first time. Unlike Hunter, who sounds like Sam Cooke and looks like a 1950s bad-boy movie star, Taylor looks like a bluesman: cool, menacing, nobody’s fool. When he sings of social injustice, homelessness, murder, and infidelity, he is not messing around. His band—no drums, just guitars, harmonica, and pedal steel—includes his daughter Cassie on a powder-blue electric bass. For most of the Garden Stage set, they were joined by David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, who had followed Taylor earlier at the Arena. Unforgettable, and now I want to hear more blues.

As 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night approached, we faced one of Monterey’s glorious dilemmas: the stellar line-up at the Arena or the temptations of the grounds? At the Arena, Terence Blanchard and his quintet would be joined by the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra for Blanchard’s heart-wrenching A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina). Gerald Wilson would follow and premiere his Monterey Moods, this year’s Festival commissioned composition. And Diana Krall would return after a seven-year absence to wrap up the evening. We had seen Blanchard earlier this month at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis; I had listened to an advance CD of Wilson’s lovely music; I’ve seen Krall perform. But someone I had never seen was playing the Night Club at 9 p.m. The lines were already forming. We would see Ernestine Anderson. Like Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, and Jim Hall, Anderson was at the first Monterey Jazz Festival a half-century ago. She recently turned 78 and rarely performs live anymore.

Because we arrived at the Night Club early, we caught the last part of Christian Scott's set. There’s been a lot of talk about this bright young trumpeter, and now I know why. Just 22 years old, the New Orleans native, Berklee graduate, and nephew of alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. is thrilling to see and hear. He plays and records mostly his own compositions, and we heard his full, live “Litany Against Fear,” which Scott preceded with a story about its origins. He was back home in New Orleans visiting the Ninth Ward when he noticed a little boy crying on a corner. When he asked the boy why he was crying, the child explained that he was afraid. Why was he afraid? Because, the boy replied, he couldn’t tell the difference between the bad police and the good police: Both wear blue. Scott’s “Litany” is expressive, emotional, and ultimately freeing. I can’t wait to hear more when he comes to the Dakota Jazz Club on October 7, and I hope he brings the quintet he played with here.

The crowd rose to its feet when Ernestine Anderson came on stage. She sat during her entire performance, saying more than once how she wished she could stand and dance, but that was the only sign of frailty in her performance. Impeccably dressed, perfectly coiffed, she sang with power, conviction, affection, and grace. Beginning with “I Love Being Here with You,” she treated us to “Night Life” and “This Can’t Be Love” before asking to have the lights turned up; “I want to see the faces.” Next, a luscious “Skylark” and a bossa nova arrangement of “Never Trust the Stars.” Earlier, the man sitting to my right told me that he had been listening to Anderson’s recordings for years but had never seen her live. Between songs, I asked him if this was what he had expected. “Better,” he breathed.

When Anderson announced, “We have now reached the blues portion of our show,” the crowd went wild. Backed like Betty Carter often was by a hardworking trio of brilliant young musicians—Lafayette Harris on piano, Michael Zisman on bass, and the wonderful Willie Jones III on drums (we last heard him with Kurt Elling; Anderson calls him “Baby Boy”)—she gave us the “Down Home Blues,” “A Song for You,” and a sung-and-spoken version of “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” She more than deserved her standing ovation. As we left, people all around us were calling this the high point of the festival.

Back at the Garden Stage, we arrived in time to hear Sean Jones introduce singer Carolyn Perteete. She appears on Jones’s most recent CD, Kaleidoscope, on which he backs several singers including Gretchen Parlato and J.D. Walter. Jones met Perteete in Pittsburgh, where both live, and calls her one of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets; her day job is teaching school. She sang Kurt Elling’s “Esperanto,” written to Vince Mendoza’s music and featured on Elling’s Live in Chicago. Of all the songs on Kaleidoscope, that’s the one I most wanted to hear live, and I wasn’t disappointed. Perteete’s voice is pure and clear, with almost no vibrato; think Astrud Gilberto. As a bonus, she was wearing a killer pair of patent leather pumps. Jones ended his set with a blazing piece by alto sax player and bandmate Brian Hogans. The lead trumpeter for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Professor of Jazz Studies at Duquesne University, and now leader of his own sextet, Jones recently played the Dakota. Backstage after his set, he tells us he might be returning to Minneapolis in June of 2008.

We’re off to the Coffee House Gallery, where we last saw Craig Taborn, for the Cyrus Chestnut Trio's final performance of the evening. We walk into a whole different sound than the night before. This trio—Chestnut on the piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, Neal Smith on drums—is as tight as a screwtop jar. The soft-spoken, gentlemanly Chestnut alternately caresses the keys and brings them to Jesus, handing us gorgeous single notes and waves of impossibly fast arpeggios. From ballads to blues and “Don’t Be Cruel” (his next CD, due out in January, is all Elvis tunes), it’s a terrifically exciting, energizing set, full of joy and improvisation; when someone’s cell phone gives an annoying breep breep, Chestnut instantly quotes it, to the delight of his audience. He ends (or thinks he’s ending) with a beautiful “Body and Soul,” full of unexpected chords and trills, followed by a New Orleans-style “You Are My Sunshine,” but even when the band stands up and the background go-home-now music switches on, the crowd won’t let him leave. People shout “One more!” “The night is still young!” “I promise I’ll buy your CD!” and the trio returns for a boogie-woogie encore.

We think our night is over, too. It’s not. As we exit the Gallery, music wafts through the air. It’s well after midnight; could Diana Krall and her trio still be performing? They could and are. Inside the dark Arena, thousands of rapt listeners snuggle beneath their blankets. Stars dot the sky and a silvery moon shines overhead. It’s too perfect. A day packed with terrific music, and now a tall, cool Diana Krall nightcap. “East of the Sun,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Why Should I Care” (written by Clint Eastwood), and finally “’S Wonderful.” Big sigh.

Later, I learn that Ernestine Anderson and Diana Krall have something in common: Both were discovered and encouraged by Ray Brown.

Free iTunes!

Cool Monterey Jazz Festival card-on-a-lanyard worth 17 free downloads on iTunes. (It says 15, but you get 17.) The songs are all by artists related to the festival (either they performed this year or during previous years): Oscar Peterson, Geoff Keezer, Sonny Rollins, Terence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, Christian Scott, James Moody. Every time we turned around, someone was asking "Free iTunes card?" and we always said "Sure!" We ended up with 12 and gave them away.

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.


When a big jazz festival comes to town, it pays to keep your eyes open. And it helps if you're staying at the Hyatt, which seems to be Jazz Central.

So far, we've seen the following people walking around, meeting friends at the bar, waiting for shuttles, or dining at the restaurant: Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Benny Greene and Belinda Underwood, Geoff Keezer, Sean Jones, Gerald Wilson, Anthony Wilson, Craig Taborn (to whom we delivered a hug from his mom), Gonzalo Rubalcaba...and Dave Brubeck, leaning politely toward the piano in the hotel lounge while someone well-intentioned but utterly clueless played a few bars of "Take Five."

John wants to add a few car sightings from our stay: Ferrari, Maserati, and the Bentley Continental GT in Beluga Black, with windows tinted so dark it could have been filled with clowns and we wouldn't have been able to tell.

Point Lobos

We spent the afternoon in this beautiful place. Looking down toward China Cove; we sat for an hour (more or less; we lost track) on the last rock to your right. A little guy sunned himself on the stairs leading up from the white sand and blue water. Finally, a view of Gibson Beach.

We're authorized!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fresh Cream

The Insiders' Guide to the Monterey Peninsula says this about Fresh Cream: "Since its opening in 1978, Fresh Cream continues to be recognized as one of the Top 100 restaurants in the nation. The stylish interior, dazzling Bay view, and impeccable epicurean reputation make this a distinctive favorite."

Our corner table gave us floor-to-ceiling windows to the bay and views all the way to Santa Cruz. The food was exceptional. Five-mushroom soup topped with an intricate lattice of creme fraiche and aged balsamic...mushroom velvet. Heirloom tomato caprese...classic. Lobster ravioli...perfect pasta stuffed with lobster mousse in lobster butter with caviar. Rack of lamb with fingerling potatoes. Grilled filet mignon with truffle madeira sauce. A local pinot. Grand Marnier souffle with hot rum sauce. All served perfectly by the lovely Emily, who acted as though we had all the time in the world even though most other patrons had left or were leaving when we arrived for our 8:00 reservation. This is an early-bird town.

The guide book gives Fresh Cream four dollar signs but the bill was less than we expected...and probably a good deal less than we would have paid at La Belle Vie. If you go, get good directions and avoid driving back and forth on Pacific and getting sucked into the Lighthouse Ave. tunnel.

Back at our hotel, we went to the bar for a nightcap. A jazz trio was playing. The bar, so dead for the previous three nights that they closed early, was full. Gerald Wilson was seated at the table in front of us.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why We're Here

The Monterey Jazz Festival begins tomorrow. There are two levels of tickets: arena packages (which get you into everything including the big shows in the 7,000-seat equestrian arena) and grounds packages (everything but the arena). Arena packages have been sold out for weeks. Saturday and Sunday grounds tickets are also sold out.

The lineup includes John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Diana Krall, Los Lobos, Terence Blanchard, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Gerald Wilson, Joey De Francesco, Otis Taylor, Cyrus Chestnut, Craig Taborn, Sean Jones, and on and on. Clint Eastwood and John Sayles are scheduled to talk about jazz in the movies.

We can pick up our press credentials starting at 10 a.m. After that, if time allows, we're off to Point Lobos. We spent today exploring Monterey proper and adjacent Pacific Grove: antiquarian bookstores, art galleries, shops. The people we met in Pacific Grove were friendly, warm, and chatty. The guidebooks say it's a place with a small-town feel, and it is, except even small houses are valued at $1 million.

Dinner tonight at Fresh Cream. We'll be eating fair food for the next few days.

Overheard... the bar at the El Torito restaurant on Cannery Row overlooking Monterey Bay and its creatures--cormorants, gulls, sea otters:

"I have mixed feelings about wildlife. On the one hand, they're cute. On the other hand, they eat too much of our food."

Images from Hearst Castle

The tiled bottom of the outdoor pool. Venetian windows and loggia at the back of the castle, facing the tennis courts. One of many views from the Enchanted Mountain.

Hearst Castle

Words fail me when I attempt to describe Hearst Castle. Awe-inspiring? Wretchedly excessive? Ginormous? Impressive? Weirdly beautiful? 75,000 square feet (give or take 10,000). 165 rooms. Built on a mountaintop from which (at one time) everything you could see in any direction belonged to William Randolph Hearst, only son of George Hearst, whose character was deliciously defamed in Deadwood in a chilling performance by Gerald McRaney, Hearst Castle is filled with antiques (tapestries, furnishings, entire ceilings) that once graced European castles and were sold by cash-strapped Europeans to wealthy Americans following WWI. We took two tours: Tour 1, the starter tour, and Tour 2, which shows more of the inside of the Casa Grande (the Big House). Let me digress for just a moment here to say how much I loathe most tourist sites: the visitor centers with their crappy souvenirs, the buses, the crowds (there were 60 people on Tour 1), the people who step on carpets or sit on chairs or take flash pictures even though the patient-as-Job tour guide has repeatedly told them not to, the people who push past you to be first on (or off) the bus, and especially those who bring crying babies on tours that last over an hour. Aggggh! Argggghhhh! Ahhhhhhh!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hwy 101 South

There are two routes from Monterey to San Simeon: Highway 1, appx. 90 miles, average speed 30 mph, and Highway 101, appx. 130 miles yet faster because it's not so curvy. We got a late start and took 101.

The radio spoke Christian, Spanish, and oldies as we drove through a valley of mostly farmland. Workers in the fields bent low to pick our asparagus, our celery, and the tender California greens we'll enjoy in Minnesota and the rest of the country in the next few weeks. Faded windowless ex-school buses waited beside Port-a-potties to take the workers back to wherever they stay. Sleek white air-conditioned tour buses passed us on the highway.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Carmel, city of 3,900 people and 10,000 art galleries. We visited the Rodrigue Studio, lunched at La Dolce Vita (upstairs on the patio: seafood risotto, spaghetti with roasted eggplant and balsamic vinegar), shopped for red-glazed Sicilian ceramics from Pesaresi on Dolores Street, and enjoyed the view of Carmel with mountains in the background, Hummer in the foreground, and Abbey Road in between. (Four people crossing a street = John, Paul, George, and Ringo.) The weather is perfect.

Not a PT Cruiser

On Highway 1 at Half Moon Bay

Driving south from San Francisco to Monterey: Pelicans and para surfers. A surfer riding a dragonfly wing. A very happy dog. (Click on pix to supersize. Subsequent pix are not this big, but you can still click on them to see larger versions.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Kurt Elling’s “Nightmoves”: CD Review

In which Jazz Police/JazzINK writer Andrea Canter and I talk about a new CD by a mutual favorite. Originally posted on both JazzINK and Jazz Police.

Released in 2007, Nightmoves was Elling's 7th CD and his first for Concord. It's a dusk-to-dawn progression that begins with the title rack and ends with Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise."

Personnel: Kurt Elling, vocals; his working trio: pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, Rob Amster (bass), Willie Jones III (drums); guests Christian McBride (bass), Bob Mintzer (tenor saxophone), Guilherme Monteiro (guitar), Rob Mounsey (keyboards), Howard Levy (harmonica), Grégoire Maret (harmonica), Escher String Quartet

PLE: The DownBeat Critics' Poll recently named Elling Top Male Vocalist of the Year for the seventh year straight. He just keeps getting better. Nightmoves is a terrific CD.

ASC: The sequence of tracks juxtaposes a wide range of music that, with lesser artists, would sound like a mishmash of R&B, Brazilian, liturgical, and so on, but Kurt makes it all a unified whole that works. When I listen to this CD, I think, “Who else would be at the top of the DownBeat poll?”

PLE: It’s a fun and interesting collection of songs: “Nightmoves” by Michael Frank, who also wrote “Popsicle Toes.” Betty Carter’s “Tight.” Kurt sings the first few bars like he’s channeling Carter, with broad vowels.

ASC: After those first big chords from Laurence Hobgood. You can tell these guys have been collaborating for years. I love Kurt’s staggered rhythm in the opening verse, then Laurence kicks in a swinging interlude.

PLE: An interlude by Laurence is always a good thing…followed here by some tasty scatting. Nice back-and-forth with Kurt and Laurence; Laurence plays a descending phrase, and Kurt follows by scatting the same notes—ba-da-da-da-da-ro.

ASC: It’s like he possesses a unique horn that sputters before he goes back into the lyric. Very cool and very Elling! There’s surprisingly little scatting on this whole recording, considering what he does in live performances. So maybe this will appeal to all those people who hate scatting, who accuse singers such as Elling as obscuring the lyric.

PLE: I know people who hate scatting. They think it means a singer is being lazy, or has forgotten the words.

ASC: It’s a rigid, conservative view of how the human voice should be used. Do those same people think that instrumentalists shouldn’t improvise? I know some singers who aren’t comfortable scatting themselves and seem a bit intimidated by those who do. It probably takes a lot of self-confidence to try it. But it can be fun, too—I saw Vicky Mountain [Minneapolis-based singer and educator] do a mini-workshop where she had about 30 nonmusicians standing up in a circle and doing a collective scat—each “bop-a-do-ing” just a couple notes and passing it on. It was fun and very freeing.

PLE: Self-confidence is something Kurt Elling has in spades. “The Waking,” a duet with Rob Amster, is full of vocal leaps and perfect two-footed landings, and the part where he turns the word “sleep” into a 20-second aria, dipping way down and rising up and up to a high note he holds—goosebumps.

ASC: You have to have such control of your voice, your pitch, to duet with a bassist, who’s playing only a counterpoint line, not the melody…and yes, Kurt has all that. Rob Amster is also playing percussion, with an occasional well-placed slap on the bass. He’s such a brilliant musician, it sometimes sounds like there are two instruments at work.

PLE: So beautiful, and I love that Kurt used a Theodore Roethke poem as his lyric. When Liane Hansen interviewed Kurt for NPR, she asked, “Do you often go to literary references for inspiration?” He said, “Yeah, I do. It’s called stealing from the rich.”

ASC: “Sleepers,” the Fred Hersch piece with Walt Whitman’s words, sounds like it belongs on stage at Orchestra Hall with a symphony, probably because of the strings. Or like something Maria Schneider would orchestrate. Has she recorded anything with voice as a significant component? Maybe Kurt Elling could partner with her. Kurt’s already teamed with Hersch (one of my favorite pianists) on the Leaves of Grass project [Palmetto, 2005] with an instrumental octet and another fine vocalist, Kate McGarry. Why not the Maria Schneider Orchestra?

PLE: I can’t listen to “Sleepers” without bursting into tears. When I heard Kurt sing it at the Dakota, I had to hide behind a menu. Whitman’s words are so lovely, and Kurt sings them with such tenderness.

ASC: When we heard him sing “Leaving Again/In the Wee Small Hours” at Birdland in January 2006, it really grabbed me. So I am really pleased to see it recorded here.

PLE: All in all, this is a very romantic CD. Late night, candlelight. With an awful lot of Sinatra connections.

ASC: I hear a little Frank Sinatra in him, more so here than I had realized before. But then every effective male vocalist has a little Sinatra inside!

PLE: He sings three Sinatra songs on this CD—four if you count “Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me” as two. Sinatra also sang “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Where Are You?” Kurt puts his own vocalese spin on both of those, adding and changing lyrics.

ASC: When I first heard it, I thought he had just written a really long prologue to “Wee Small Hours,” which by itself is a gorgeous ballad. I didn’t realize the intro was a Keith Jarrett tune. Kurt gives it so much more meaning with this pairing.

PLE: When Jarrett plays it on his Blue Note set [Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings, ECM, 1994], it’s an improvised lead-in to “Wee Small Hours.” Kurt turns it into a reason to sing that song, a first-person explanation of the sadness and wistfulness it expresses…. What about “Undun”? We heard that at Birdland, too. It was a surprise then and it still is, though I’ve seen the original song described as “quasi-jazz,” so maybe it’s not such a stretch. Especially with Mintzer opening on saxophone. And Kurt swings it.

ASC: That song makes me think that if Kurt wanted to, he could bring some dignity to smooth jazz. Let’s hope he doesn’t want to. Here he did what you’d expect a jazz musician to do: slowed down the original tempo, changed the rhythm, and gave it a totally different emotional feel. And Mintzer is a perfect foil on this track—smooth but with enough bite to steer clear of Kenny G!

PLE: It’s not quasi-jazz any longer…. The tour-de-force track, of course, is “A New Body and Soul.” To me, it’s right up there with “Resolution” from Man in the Air [Blue Note, 2003], Kurt’s vocalese based on the Coltrane tune. These long pieces are opportunities for Kurt to go every which way with his lyrics, bringing in beat poetry and mythology and stars wheeling in the heavens and whatever else comes into his hyperactive mind.

ASC: And I remember being so taken with Coltrane’s “Resolution” when we heard it last year at Birdland. His original lyric seems so perfect that I forgot it was not the Billie Holiday version! I think she would approve of the changes. I need to go back and listen to Dexter Gordon’s rendition, which he used as the foundation… We haven’t mentioned the fabulous Willie Jones III on drums, but here in particular he adds some brilliant rolls and cymbal work. What’s really cool is that this tune, despite the very modern approach to the vocal, swings all the way.

Images from last year's Monterey Jazz Festival

Top to bottom: Kurt Elling signs autographs. Charles Lloyd talks with the press. A squint at Clint. Dr. Lonnie Smith, B-3 master, "a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban" (Jazz Times). Photos by John Whiting.

September means Monterey and jazz

Two years ago this September, I attended the Monterey Jazz Festival for the first time. John and I returned last year with press credentials and reported on the festival for the Jazz Police Web site. We're going again this year for the festival's 50th anniversary. Join us as we spend a few days in California, then work the festival starting on Friday the 21st. We'll be filing articles and photos with the Jazz Police; I'll link to them here. We'll also post pictures of Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur, and Hearst Castle.

Today's Big Question: Will we really get the Mustang convertible that Budget Rent-A-Car has sort of promised us, or will we be stuck with a PT Cruiser?