Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MJF/52: Day Three at Monterey

Originally published on jazz.com.

In the early evening, just before Jason Moran takes the stage in the Arena for his 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival commission, Clint Eastwood walks by. A man beside us at the bratwurst booth says, “Now I’ve gotten my money’s worth.” He laughs, but no Monterey experience is complete without at least one sighting of Eastwood, who has been a friend of the Festival for so many years.

Our day begins at a conversation between NEA Jazz Master Toshiko Akiyoshi, who turns 80 next year, and journalist Yoshi Kato. This is another thing that makes Monterey special: opportunities to hear from jazz greats like Akiyoshi and (yesterday) Bobby Hutcherson in the relaxed setting of Dizzy’s Den. We learn about Akiyoshi’s childhood in Manchuria; her early love of the piano; how, when she was 16 years old, a record collector named Mr. Fui invited her to his home to hear a recording of Teddy Wilson playing “Sweet Lorraine.” To Akiyoshi, each note was a pearl.

She tells us about her first recording and how Downbeat gave the album three stars and its cover five stars. That “it’s good to have music knowledge but…the most important thing is to have a musical mind, a musical attitude.” Kato asks about her 40-year relationship with Lew Tabackin, her husband and band member. “Every great band has a great soloist,” she says. “Lew is a supreme tenor player and a supreme flute player.”

I don’t know Akiyoshi’s music and won’t hear her play this year—her performance is scheduled at the same time as Moran’s in the Arena—but spending an hour in a room with her, listening to her stories and being in her presence, has made me want to listen to her music. Akiyoshi fans, I’m open to suggestions on where to start.

The Alfredo Rodriguez Trio is performing on the Garden Stage. A friend heard Rodriguez solo at the Detroit festival a few weeks ago and raved. Rodriguez’s story is fascinating. In January of this year, he defected from Cuba, leaving his family and friends, risking arrest, deportation, and imprisonment.

Backed by Nathan East on bass and Francisco Mela on drums, he plays two originals; then East begins a low, soft solo that whispers “Body and Soul.” We have to listen hard to hear it; planes fly overhead, it’s an outdoor stage, and the crowd in the nearby food court is noisy. But it’s worth it. And when the piano enters and Rodriguez brings his own interpretation to the American jazz standard, you can hear his great love of this music.

We can spend only a few moments with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Dominick Farinacci in the Coffee House. Just 25, the Juilliard grad recently released his first U.S. album, Lovers, Tales & Dances, which features jazz greats including Kenny Barron, Lewis Nash, and Joe Lovano. (Farinacci previously made six albums as a leader in Japan.) He connects well with the crowd and his tone is warm and golden. With Dan Kaufman on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, Carmen Intorre on drums, and Matthias Kunzli on percussion, he plays Piazzolla’s lovely “Libertango,” followed by a blues. Kunzli’s percussion adds new layers of sound and rhythm to the standard quartet.

Buffalo Collision played the late show last night at the Dakota in Minneapolis, then took an early flight west to make their afternoon date at the Garden Stage. Probably the most outside group at the Festival (I say “probably” because I haven’t heard everyone, but it’s a safe bet), Buffalo Collision is pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King (both of The Bad Plus), saxophonist Tim Berne, and cellist Hank Roberts, all monster improvisers. This show will later get at least one scathing review (“I’ve never witnessed a set so hostile to the notion of melody”) but to me it’s bliss.

Monterey took risks this year by booking Buffalo Collision and commissioning Moran, whose work is known to be progressive, but jazz is not made by Brubeck alone. I wonder how Ornette Coleman was received when he first played the Festival in 1959.

Buffalo Collision plays four or maybe five pieces during their hour-long set; it’s a little hard to tell and it doesn’t really matter. At one point Iverson stands and leans inside the piano, doing something with the strings—plucking? pressing?—while King and Roberts explore the outer limits of their instruments. Roberts coaxes sounds out of his cello that would have Rostropovich spinning in his grave: screams and growls, clicks and groans. For a time, his cello sounds like a stringed Chinese instrument.

There is an underlying rhythm to this music but who’s making it? Without a bass player, the timekeeper’s job logically falls to King, but that’s not where he’s at. Yet the rhythm exists somewhere between the notes, like a sympathetic vibration. It must exist because I’m tapping my foot.

The music rises and falls, with solos and duos and full-blast ensemble sections, blending tenderness and wit, cacophony and lyricism. In between are interludes by Roberts, like rope bridges stretched over canyons. Hold on, don’t look down, and you’ll make it safely to the other side.

In the Arena, Jason Moran and Bandwagon are playing a tune by Moran’s teacher Jaki Byard. It’s a warm-up for the reason they’re here: for “Feedback,” this year’s Festival commission. Moran is a risk-taker, an experimenter, a thinker, drawing freely from all of the resources available to him; standards, history, the Jazz Loft Project archives (for his recent In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959), technology, his own prodigious and playful imagination.

I see him whenever I get the chance; he often comes to the Walker Art Center, which has also commissioned new work by him, for performances and conversations with performing arts curator Philip Bither.

Tonight Moran tells us that Jimi Hendrix played this very stage in 1967 at the Monterey Pops festival. “I was intrigued by his performance and how he used the technique of feedback,” Moran explains. “He worked it into all of his music. I took all these sections where he used feedback and chopped them up.” He warns us that it might get loud, we might want to cover our ears, we might even want to leave. Several people do leave, but for those of us who stay, it’s a fascinating and rewarding experience.

Loops of feedback moan and screech, buzz and hum. Over them, Moran and his trio, the Bandwagon—Tarus Mateen on electric bass, Nasheet Waits on drums—play intelligent, melodic trio music. Moran moves between the big Yamaha grand and a Fender-Rhodes. The mood shifts from poetry to funk. Then Moran howls into the mic before inviting the audience to participate in the piece. One side of the crowd, he says, should sing a single note—a low ahhh. The other, a rising and falling whoop. They oblige. Human feedback, live and in the moment.

We spend ten minutes with the Shotgun Wedding Quintet—jazz meets rap, big band and boom-bap, tons of fun—before heading back to the Arena to see Dave Brubeck receive an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music. “A while ago I was offered an honorary doctorate,” Brubeck says, wearing full academic regalia, “and I asked my brother, ‘Should I accept it?’ He said ‘Do—you’ll never earn one.”

When the curtain opens again, it’s on the Dave Brubeck Quartet: Brubeck on piano, Bobby Militello on alto saxophone and fluted, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums. “I told my group we would play Ellington,” Brubeck says by way of introduction, “and asked them to please just follow me wherever I go.” A lively “C-Jam Blues” segues into “Mood Indigo” and “Take the A-Train.” They don’t play like young men—they don’t have the speed or the elasticity—but they play like the pros they are, with joy and generosity and mastery. And Militello still blows like a typhoon.

We’ll hear the end of the set—and the expected, beloved, thunderously applauded performance of “Take Five”—over the speakers inside the Coffee House, where we’ve gone to hear the Vijay Iyer Trio. Remember, Monterey is about choices, often hard choices. I’ve seen Brubeck often, Iyer only once, and I’ve been reading so much about Iyer’s trio and their new CD Historicity that I’m dying of curiosity.

Iyer is said to make complex, mathematical music (he has his B.A. in math and physics from Yale), and the radio announcer who introduced him quoted Iyer as saying “Music is mathematics in action,” but I don’t hear math. I hear beauty and emotion. Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” an original Iyer work, “Questions of Agency,” selections from Historicity. Solid, supple, expressive, inventive, intriguing stuff, played as one by Iyer, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and bassist Matt Brewer (replacing, without explanation, regular trio bassist Stephan Crump).

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White are still playing in the Arena when we leave the Coffee House, but I’m more than content with Iyer as my final Monterey show. We hang out for a while on the grounds, talking with friends, stepping briefly into Lyons Lounge, where DJ Logic is unplugging his equipment, watching the vendors tear down and pack up. Even at this late hour, if you want, you can still buy chili, a cup of green tea, or sweet potato fries. 

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