Monday, September 21, 2009

MJF/52: Day Two at Monterey

Originally published at

The weather changed on the hour and the music was just as eclectic on the second day of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Morning haze gave way to hot afternoon sun in time for John Scofield and the Piety Street Band, fog rolled in and saved my brain from boiling (the Arena is open-air), the temperature fell along with the evening, and by the time the big red curtain opened on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, people were wearing coats and gloves. The Festival is its own collection of microclimates.

We enter the Arena in time for “The Angel of Death,” guitarist Scofield’s take on the Hank Williams tune. He introduces it as “the scariest song he knows” but it’s hard to be scared in a happy crowd of people in floppy hats and sunglasses.

I have not been a close follower of Scofield, my bad, but I do like this group. Rootsy, rollicking, soulful. The set closer, “It’s a Big Army” (“I’m a soldier in the army of love/I’m a soldier in the army”), rocks the audience. Roland Guerin takes a slappy bass solo, drummer Shannon Powell bangs the tambourine, and pianist/organist Cleary shouts the lyrics. I want to be a soldier, too.

Next up in the Arena: one of the Festival’s most anticipated events, the first-ever appearance here of folk music icon Pete Seeger. I’m not a folkie but I hold Seeger in highest respect for his lifelong political activism, plus he has written some fine songs: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” His band is family and friends; at one point, his guitarist (and grandson) Tao Rodriguez-Seeger urges, “Come on, Grandpa, play some banjo for me.” Standing at stage left, out of the sun, we hear “Midnight Special” and Woody Guthrie’s “Dustbowl Blues.”

Off to a conversation at Dizzy’s Den: “70 Years of Blue Note Records.” On stage: host Ashley Kahn, Blue Note’s Michael Cuscuna, and two great Blue Note artists, Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Lovano. Kahn lets his guests do most of the talking and they share stories and memories.

By now we’ve met up with friends and spend the next couple of hours parked at a picnic table in the grassy food court. The open-air Garden Stage is nearby and the music of Ruthie Foster is our soundtrack. It’s glorious. According to Festival tradition, the end of the table we’re not using is taken over by a changing cast of characters bearing chicken wings, mud pie, and stories of why they’re here and what they’re enjoying.

The first Arena show of the night was originally pianist Hank Jones and the Joe Lovano Quartet. When Jones cancelled for health reasons just before the Festival began (he recently played the Detroit Jazz Festival, lucky Detroit), Scofield stepped in. So the set we hear is completely different from what it might have been.

With the dream team of John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums, the group powers through Lovano’s “Fort Worth,” Scofield’s “Since You Asked,” and what I think is a Monk tune. Lovano starts the set by telling us what they were playing, then stops, caught up in the music. (Not for the first time, I submit this humble request on behalf of writers everywhere: Please, mighty jazz greats, take a second and tell us what you’re about to play or have just played.) It’s raucous and wailing, a showcase for four remarkable musicians; at one point, Lovano plays two soprano saxophones simultaneously. People sitting near me think it’s a bit too squawky.

The group Wayne Wallace and Rhythm & Rhyme takes a long time setting up on the Garden stage, and we soon know why: It’s a big Latin band, complete with at least twelve musicians and seven vocalists. This is a group I don’t know, chosen partly because when we duck into the Night Club for the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet (with the wonderful Gerald Clayton on piano), it’s steamy inside. So we wait while the crew brings out what seems like an endless supply of microphones and instruments, then someone tests every microphone, and finally the band members take their places.

A big Latin band is a thing of beauty, its leader the eye of a musical hurricane. Seeing Wallace, I’m reminded of the estimable Pancho Sanchez. A lot of people play a lot of instruments and several rhythms simultaneously. It’s exciting. I’m especially interested to see a woman saxophonist on the front line, and I’m sorry I don’t catch her name.

The band plays music from their acclaimed CDs, The Reckless Search for Beauty and The Nature of the Beat, including Wallace’s arrangement of Gerry Mulligan’s “Jeru,” Duke Ellington’s “A Chromatic Romance,” and Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.” They throw in something by Earth, Wind & Fire. Wallace calls them “transmogrified songs,” a perfect description for what we’re hearing: tunes we think we know turned into something new.

It starts out a bit uneven and fusiony (to my ears) and at first I wonder how long I’ll stay on the cold, hard metal Garden Stage bench, but I’m soon won over by Wallace and his band, who now have two more fans in Minnesota.

We think we might be late for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Arena but we’re just in time. The curtain opens on a band that gets better every time I hear it. It’s JLCO’s first time at Monterey since 2001 (when the Festival happened very soon after 9/11; I wasn’t present for that one but it must have been something). Tonight they’re all heat and excitement and precision, a wall of brass held together by the splendid rhythm section of Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, and Ali Jackson on drums.

The set is simply thrilling from the first notes of Kenny Dorham’s “Stage West” (arranged by the fine young trombonist Vincent Gardener) through Henriquez’s final notes on his arrangement of Joe Henderson’s “Shades of Jade.” In between: Lou Donaldson’s “Blues Walk” (arr. Sherman Irby, so swinging), Wayne Shorter’s “Free for All” (arr. Wynton Marsalis), and Lee Morgan’s “Ceora” (arr. Ted Nash). Nash’s take on this tune is sweet: breathy flutes, muted trumpets, room for a sparkly solo by Nimmer. Say ahhh.

The band is billed as Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, but nearly everyone had his turn in the spotlight tonight. The whole set was ridiculously stellar. I stood the entire time (at the side of the stage) and if they were still playing I’d still be standing.
It’s late. After midnight. Time to head back. But first, a Dee Dee Bridgewater nightcap. She’s playing at Dizzy’s Den (her second set of the night; she preceded JLCO in the Arena), it’s on our way to the gate, and she must be wrapping things up by now, right? Wrong. She’s just getting started and she’s on a tear.

I’ve seen Bridgewater several times before—an October 2007 date at the Dakota with her Malian project has a permanent place on my Top Five list of live music performances—but never as she is tonight: Dee Dee unbound. She sings, she talks, she flirts with the audience, she flirts with her band: Edsel Gomez on piano, Ira Coleman on bass, Vince Cherico on drums, Luisito Quintero on percussion. She tells us about her upcoming divorce (her third), she scats and growls, she makes her voice a horn, she fills the room with her personality and broad, sweeping gestures. She pulls no punches and she’s spicy tonight, a little too spicy for some people. The man sitting next to me hates her. And yet, he doesn’t leave.

We get a taste of her forthcoming CD, a tribute to Billie Holiday. “All Blues.” “Speak Low” from her Kurt Weill project. “My Favorite Things,” Dee Dee style—not the perky whiskers-on-kittens ditty but a dangerous song about a girl who knows what she wants and you’d better not stand in her way. She follows with a down-and-dirty “Dr. Feelgood” blues. And finally a magnificent “Afro Blue.”

We stagger out the door at 1:45 a.m., after the patient stage manager (a 25-year veteran of the festival) has politely asked Gomez to politely ask Bridgewater to please wrap things up so folks can go home. I’m guessing this is one of those Monterey shows that will go down in the history books. Dee Dee Bridgewater, force of nature, shaved-head warrior queen. 

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