Sunday, October 4, 2009

MJF/52 wrap-up: A musical feast

Our fourth year at the Monterey Jazz Festival was as delightful as our first; more so, now that we know our way around. Meeting festival publicist Tim Orr in the press office when we picked up our credentials; greeting the Hat Man at the entrance to the Arena (dear, kind Paul Aschenbrenner, who’s been ushering for 25 years and always wears a funny hat); seeing some of our favorite vendors; running into friends; breathing the California ocean breezes; watching planes fly low over the Festival grounds; walking the half-mile or so from the Hyatt Hotel to the Festival site on the Monterey Fairgrounds…. It all felt like home.

At the 52nd annual Monterey Jazz Festival—that’s 52 years without a break, making MJF the world’s longest-running jazz festival—the economic downturn was in the air, like the smoke from the Cuban/Caribbean kitchens, the Korean barbecue, and the ribs vendor. Sometimes (especially Friday evening) the crowds seemed smaller, and for the first time in the Festival’s history, you could buy single tickets to Arena events.

thought perhaps the number of performances was down as well, but checking past years’ schedules, I see I was wrong. As always, there was more to see and hear than we could possibly fit in, simply because we couldn’t be in two or three places at once.

Toughest choices: The Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars (Kenny Barron, Regina Carter, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone) or the John Patitucci Trio with Joe Lovano and Brian Blade? I’m a big Kurt Elling fan and John (my photographer husband) knows better than to try talking me out of that, so we saw the All-Stars. Forro in the Dark or pianist Jonathan Batiste? We caught a few moments of Batiste earlier in the evening so went with Forro (who performed in Minneapolis at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday the 25th).

Staying for the first part of Pete Seeger’s performance—not jazz, but deeply meaningful for many in the audience—meant missing much of a conversation about the history of Blue Note Records with journalist Ashley Kahn, Blue Note’s Michael Cuscuna, vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Picking pianist Vijay Iyer over the Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White trio might seem insane, but we had seen Corea/Clarke/White at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis earlier this month, and Clarke/White return in October with pianist Hiromi. Plus I was curious about Iyer, and my curiosity was amply rewarded. What a fine, exciting, complicated, intriguing, satisfying young pianist he is.

We went to Buffalo Collision on Sunday afternoon because we had missed them at the Dakota the night before. The group—Ethan Iverson on piano, Dave King on drums, Tim Berne on saxophone, Hank Roberts on cello—finished playing in Minnesota around 1 a.m. on Sunday, caught a few Zs, then an early flight to California for their 5:30 p.m. Monterey set on the open-air Garden Stage.

Many people who experienced Buffalo Collision’s unique brand of avant-garde music didn’t care for it, to put it mildly. Props to MJF’s Tim Jackson for bringing the Festival into the 21st century with performers like BC and Jason Moran, this year’s commission artist. Moran’s “Feedback” (jazz trio mixed with the looped and manipulated sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s feedback from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival) also drove some Festival attendees to the exits. They returned later for Dave Brubeck’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Time Out.” As I looked out over the Arena crowd, it seemed that all 6,500 seats were full for that event. MJF loves Brubeck and it’s mutual; he’s been a friend to the Festival from the beginning.

We chose Moran over a performance by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Quartet; both were scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday. That one really hurt. I’ve never seen Akiyoshi perform, but at least I was able to hear her speak earlier in the afternoon, in a conversation hosted by journalist Yoshi Kato. We learned how a Japanese girl growing up in Manchuria in the 1930s and ’40s fell in love with jazz and started on her path to NEA Jazz Master. Think about that.

High points: Russell Malone’s achingly beautiful take on “Time After Time.” When Malone plays a ballad, he’s a dangerous man. The infectious rhythms of Forro After Dark. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: a peerless performance, plus a sweaty hug afterward from bassist Carlos Henriquez (and, later, running into much of the band at the Hyatt Hotel lobby bar). Seeing Elling sprawled on the lawn among the picnic tables. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s no-holds-barred late-night show at Dizzy’s Den. Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s ravishing version of “Body and Soul.” Moran, Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits, always exciting. Vijay Iyer.

Low points: The afternoon sun baking my head during Scofield’s Piety Street Band set in the Arena. Not being able to see/hear everyone/everything I wanted—Raul Midon, Ruthie Foster, the screening of the new Oscar Brown Jr. documentary, the Peter Erskine-Alan Pasqua Trio, Akiyoshi and Tabackin, Soulive with John Scofield, more of dishy young trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, more of Jonathan Batiste. And finding out too late that the chowder cart also sold lobster rolls. Besides all that, the Festival was perfection.

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