Friday, October 7, 2011

Monterey magic: Memories of the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival

Sonny Rollins by John Whiting
A press release sent yesterday, announcing that the Monterey Jazz Festival had received a $300,000 grant from California’s James Irvine Foundation, made me nostalgic for this year’s festival. Has it really been three weeks since we walked through the gates on opening day to hear Robert Glasper? Even less since we walked out for the final time, the sound of Sonny Rollins’ saxophone still hot in our ears?

I wrote about MJF54 for NPR’s A Blog Supreme, including a recap with Patrick Jarenwattananon. But I haven’t yet written my personal impressions—the time-stood-still moments I’ll remember from three days and nights of jazz on the California coast. So, as they say, without further ado.

Robert Glasper Trio. The perfect opener for a jazz festival with a history and a future. Glasper’s music, his band, and his whole demeanor say, “Don’t worry, jazz fans, I know my stuff, I can play the standards—but it’s 2011, jazz is changing, let’s go.” His music merges jazz with soul, R&B, hip-hop, pop, quiet storm, Mos Def and J Dilla. High points: a soulful groove that made room for “In a Sentimental Mood.” The playful wave of Glasper's hand whenever a plane flew over. (The festival site is on a direct flight path to the Monterey airport.) Watching young drummer Chris Dave play. Learning that a new Robert Glasper Experiment CD is due out on Blue Note in 2012, this one with guests including Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Meshell N’Degeocello, and Stokley Williams.

Richard Bona and Raul Midón. OMG this was gorgeous. Guitar (Midón) and electric bass (Bona), beautiful voices, touching lyrics (“I have waited all my life for you/But I didn’t know it…”), Latin and African beats. Midón has been to the Dakota in Minneapolis at least twice in the past few years and I’ve missed him every time, probably because I'm an idiot.

“First Family of Cool”: John Pizzarelli Quartet with special guests Jessica Molaskey and Bucky Pizzarelli. I felt like I was sitting in their “deluxe living room high atop Lexington Avenue,” not in an open-air arena among thousands of people.  Pizzarelli and his band—including the marvelous Larry Fuller on piano—and Pizzarelli’s wife, Molaskey, put us immediately at ease with their warmth, professionalism, and banter. Jessica joked that she kept her name after marrying John because “changing from Molaskey to Pizzarelli was a lateral move.” She introduced “I Want to Be Happy” (combined with “Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue”) as “a meditation on codependence.” It was a superbly swinging, enormously entertaining, smooth-as-silk show—and then the icing: the father-son duo of Bucky, now 85, and John, alone on stage. John told Bucky to “just press down hard and strum,” and the two played “Body and Soul.” Monterey magic.

Helen Sung. What an elegant, intelligent, expressive pianist/composer she is. A wonderful trio—Reuben Rogers on bass, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums—and new compositions inspired by unexpected sources: a poem by Dana Gioia, the repeat ostinato favored by Philip Glass. I loved Sung’s approach to Monk’s “Bye-Ya.” She took an already thorny rhythmic proposition, cut it into ribbons, then wove them back together into something elastic and spacious, with extra beats and flourishes. “Monk is one of my heroes,” she told us. “He never sounded like anyone but himself, which takes a lot of courage.” Her whole final set: “Hope Springs Eternal,” an original composition; “Touch,” the Dana Gioia piece; “Bye-Ya;” “Glasswork,” after Philip Glass; “In Walked Bud;” “The Song Is You;” “H-Town,” an original, a tribute to her hometown of Houston.

Sarah Wilson. A new discovery for me. (Isn’t that in part what jazz festivals are about?) I went mostly to hear Matt Wilson on drums but ended up being very taken by Sarah (no relation). Wearing a sleeveless print dress, cowboy boots, and glasses, the young composer/trumpeter/anthropologist looked like a punk professor. Her music was colorful and lively, with a narrative quality, as if it contained stories and movement. I later learned why: Wilson spent years with the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, then served as musical director and composer for Lincoln Center’s puppet program. Her most recent CD is called Music for an Imaginary Play. She played selections from that, and sang in a girlish, rather reedy voice. I liked her.

Geri Allen and Timeline. Allen was this year’s Monterey commission artist; her brand-new, world-premiere piece was “The Dazzler,” a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. With Allen at the piano, Kenny Davis on bass, Kassa Overall on drums, and Maurice Chestnut in tap shoes, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Chestnut was amazing to watch—fluid, graceful, precise. He was a second percussionist, the music made by his feet joining that of Overall’s drums. (The great pianist McCoy Tyner occasionally performs with tap dancer Savion Glover. That’s something I’d walk through hot coals to see.) It wasn’t a lengthy piece, but the audience dug it.

Bill Carrothers. I’m a longtime fan of this reclusive, self-effacing, eccentric pianist for the simple reason that his music pulls me in and won’t let me go. He has the softest touch of any pianist I know. When he plays four notes, they sound like twenty. (Go listen to Excelsior, his CD of solo improvisations, and weep.) This was his MJF debut, and though I’ve seen him several times in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I wasn’t going to miss him at Monterey. With his sympatico trio of Drew Gress on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, Carrothers played “George’s Dilemma” (from their 2010 release on Pirouet, Joy Spring); a ballad that morphed into “Puttin’ on the Ritz;” a Carrothers original, “Church of the Open Air,” written for a friend who died; another original, “Snowbound” (which Carrothers, a resident of Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, introduced by saying “This is something I know a lot about”); and the ineffably tender “Our House.” Each year, my affection for the festival’s Coffee House venue—a small, intimate listening room—is reinforced by performances like this one.

Sonny Rollins. What can I say about the Saxophone Colossus that hasn’t already been said? That except for his walk, he seemed ageless—and then, near the end of a two-hour set, he danced? That he blew with the strength of 10,000 men? That his music got hotter the longer he played? How about this: Now 81 and a frequent Monterey artist—he played the first MJF in 1958, then returned in 1972, 1994, 1997, 2005, 2007 (MJF’s golden birthday), and again this year—he ended his set with “See you next time! Long live Monterey!”

A few more, briefly:

A taste of the Saturday night set by Scott Colley, Chris Potter, and Antonio Sanchez. If only I could have been in two places at once. What I heard was blazing and explosive. Chris Potter rocks.

A few moments of Tia Fuller’s searing, powerful, take-no-prisoners saxophone during her Saturday afternoon set on the open-air Garden Stage. If Fuller doesn’t emerge as one of the most important and in-demand musicians of her generation, there is no justice in jazz.

Talking our way into Benny Green’s rehearsal with Donald Harrison, Ben Wolfe, and Kenny Washington, then catching part of their Monk set later that night. To all those pianists out there who are mainly about technique and pyrotechnics, I have two words: Benny Green. He really feels it. After I tweeted about the rehearsal, Matt Wilson tweeted back: “Benny is such a beautiful soul and I love him dearly. Allow Benny and welcome the loving flow. Love to BG w/ all of my heart!” Amen.

Strawberries. As everyone who goes to Monterey knows, the food court is a serious place. Whether they’re serving Korean BBQ or pizza, samosas or ribs, plantains or tamales, these vendors are not messing around. Most stay open late, wanting to catch the crowd on its way out. And some stay open very late, having the kind of food that won’t last until morning. On Saturday, after the music ended, plump, ripe strawberries glowed red under white mounds of whipped cream—with or without shortcake, chocolate or no. “Two for one,” said the strawberry man. Who could resist? Sweet strawberries 'round midnight in the nearly-empty food court, the final few stragglers of the night walking by.

I just now checked my email to find a press release from Tim Orr about next year’s festival. Talk about timing. MJF55: September 21–23, 2012. Artist-in-residence: Ambrose Akinmusire. Commission artist: Bill Frisell.

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