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.

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