Saturday, September 19, 2009

MJF/52: Day One at Monterey

Originally published at

There are many ways to experience the Monterey Jazz Festival: as a sit-down meal of many courses, as a buffet, as a snack tent (like the new-this-tear Taste Tent on the Midway, where you can sample foods and beverages from a variety of festival partners). This is my fifth year here and I should have a routine by now but I don’t.

The happy problem with Monterey, and any festival where you have to make choices, is you have to make choices. You can’t be in two places at once, or in this case six, the number of venues where you can hear live music. I start with a plan but it always falls apart as I’m distracted by a new name, a buzz, or sounds coming out an open door.

On Friday, the opening night of the three-day festival, we enter through Gate 3 and duck into the Night Club for a few moments with the Scott Amendola Trio. Screaming guitar. Too much, too soon. I learn later that the show worked up to this level of frenzy and had we been there from the beginning it would have been fine. I promise to get a CD.

Next brief stop, the Garden Stage for the Berklee-Monterey Quintet 2009, a reminder of the MJF’s ongoing commitment to jazz education and featuring young artists. (Much of Sunday afternoon will be devoted to performances by young artists.)

My photographer husband and I catch the end of New Orleans piano player Jonathan Batiste’s first set at the Coffee House Gallery. (At the Coffee House, artists tend to stay put for the evening, playing more than one set.) A bit of “We Shall Overcome,” then something in which Batiste sings “you got to hold on.” He sings, he plays piano with his hands and his fists, he plays melodica and piano at the same time. He’s amazing.

His fired-up band includes Eddie Barbash and Matt Marantz on saxophones, Philip Kuehn on bass, Joseph Saylor on drums, and someone on trombone whose name I didn’t catch. All look almost too young to be out without their mamas.

It’s near the end of Esperanza Spalding’s set at the Arena. This year, the young bassist/vocalist/composer is the Arena opener, a sign that You Have Arrived. We saw her earlier this year at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, and she also played the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June, an outdoor event during which Prince sat in his limousine behind the stage, listening and calling her on his cell phone.

Earlier, as we walked toward the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the Festival site, we overheard a woman ahead of us tell her companions “Esperanza Spalding is a good bass player, but she also wants to be a singer, and if she asked me, I’d tell her to stick to the bass.” Perhaps she felt differently after tonight. Spalding’s singing and bass playing are intertwined. Although I can’t begin to understand how someone plays bass the way she does and sings at the same time, which often includes complex scatting, I’ve seen it enough to believe that this is who she is and how she expresses herself. Her supportive and intuitive band is Lee Genovese on piano, Ricardo Vogt on guitar, Otis Brown on drums.

The Arena’s second event of the night, one we’ll see in full, is this year’s version of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars supergroup: Kenny Barron on piano, Regina Carter on violin, vocalist Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone on guitar, with Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. As the curtain opens, the band is already playing and Elling is already singing: “My Love, Effendi,” his vocalese spin on the McCoy Tyner tune. He slides from words into scatting, which many in the audience have come to hear (someone yells “Go, Kurt!”).

Throughout the set, Elling acts as unofficial emcee, announcing the group members and occasionally passing the mic to someone else. He and Carter take the spotlight for the lovely old Sigmund Romberg/Oscar Hammerstein song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” after which Carter and Barron play a ballad that acts like a big, gentle, quieting hand on the crowd; it seems that everyone listens and no one wants to miss a single sweet note from Barron’s piano or sigh from Carter’s bow.

Malone is featured next in a quartet with Barron, Kitagawa, and Blake, then the mic goes to Barron, who announces his original composition “What If?” It’s a Monkish tune that opens up midway for an Elling vocalese that begins “What if Jack Kerouac showed up tonight with his pockets full of snippets of ideas?” Then he tosses out several—“Girls running up library steps with shorts on,” “boys smashing dandelions with a stick,” “all day long, wearing a hat that was not on my head,” “drunk as a hoot owl, writing letters by thunderstorm”—and someone in the band responds to each in a playful back-and-forth.

More highlights of this generous set—for which, Elling explains, the group prepared with only two short rehearsals together, “but together we probably have over 300 years of rehearsals, all so we could be ready for you tonight”—include the saucy Jon Hendricks/Horace Silver collaboration “Soul Food,” and Malone’s take on “Time After Time.” After a naughty introduction—something about an older singer who taught him how to treat a ballad like a kiss—Malone does that thing he does: plays guitar so beautifully you could swoon. Backed by Barron, Kitagawa, and Blake, he hands us soft, feathery notes, delicious chords beneath the melody, and an elegant ending.

All four of the All-Stars shine tonight, but it’s Malone who steals my heart.

Festival director Tim Jackson has made Forro in the Dark one of his Top Ten picks, so we head next to the Night Club. Forro is the rural party music of northeastern Brazil, and this Brooklyn-based group of Brazilian expats probably isn’t used to playing to a seated crowd. They urge us to get up and dance, and a few do, but it’s hard on a carpeted floor. This is a fun, energetic group I would like to hear on their home turf, which for now is the East Village nightspot Nublu, where they play weekly.

As they update the sounds of their traditional music, they do it with a blend of new and old instruments: electric bass and guitar, pifano (bamboo) flute, zabumba (a type of bass drum that is worn by the musician and played on both sides), saxophone, percussion. They play originals, at least one song by Caetano Veloso, and a ballad.

The band members are Jorge Continentino on saxophone, pifano flute, and vocals; Joao Erbetta on guitar an vocals; Gilmar Gomes on percussion and vocals; and Adriana dos Santos on zabumba and vocals. The only non-Brazilian among them is bassist/vocalist Masa Shimizu, who’s originally from Tokyo and met the others in NYC. The house is nowhere near full but no one is sitting still.

Across the way at Dizzy’s Den, Esperanza Spalding is still playing her second set of the night, and we score seats near the front in time for her final tune, the audience sing-along she’s becoming known for: She scats a simple phrase, we repeat, another, repeat, and then she lets loose with a long, showy verse that makes everyone gasp and laugh. It’s a joyous end to the evening.

Back at the Hyatt, the hotel where most musicians stay (it’s within walking distance of the fairgrounds), the bar is full and noisy. We spot Regina Carter right away; Kurt Elling walks in wearing a white baseball cap. New Orleans pianist Henry Butler, who performs on Saturday evening, plays “Caravan” on the piano; Jonathan Batiste joins in on his melodica. My only regret: missing the John Patitucci Trio earlier tonight, which I’m already hearing was awesome.

Random first-night memories: Tepanyaki rice bowl from the Korean BBQ booth. The kids at the Best Buy tent (Best Buy is this year’s seller of CDs) playing “The Beatles: Rock Band” game and paying no attention to the jazz on the Garden Stage across the way. The Hat Man at the Arena gate, wearing a felt moose head hat and telling everyone “It’s my chocolate moose.” A couple here for the first time, wondering what to hear and see, up for anything. That’s the spirit. 

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