Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival stays true to the music

There’s a lot of complaining among jazz fans these days about the lack of jazz at some major jazz festivals. Not without reason; the big names at Montreal this year are James Taylor, Liza Minnelli, and Seal. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is presenting the Boss, Beach Boys, Eagles, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, Ne-Yo, and Cee Lo Green, to name just a few non-jazz draws.

And then there’s misty, magical Monterey. The longest continuously running jazz festival in the world is still mostly jazz. It’s jazz in a way that it needs to be at a time when boundaries are blurring: a mix of traditional and new, legends and rising stars, instrumentalists and vocalists, comfortable and cutting-edge.

Headliners for the 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, to be held Sept. 21–23, 2012, include Tony Bennett, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Esperanza Spalding, Ambrose Akinmusire, Bill Frisell, and Trombone Shorty and New Orleans Avenue. An all-star supergroup comprised of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, Akinmusire, Chris Potter, Benny Green, and Lewis Nash will represent three generations of jazz.

Ambrose Akinmusire (C) Clay Parick
Young trumpeter Akinmusire, whose 2011 Blue Note debut, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” won raves and earned Trumpet of the Year and Best Up and Coming New Artist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association, is this year’s Artist-in-Residence. New NEA Jazz Master DeJohnette returns as the festival’s Showcase Artist. Frisell is this year’s Commission Artist; he will debut his festival-commissioned piece in the Arena on Saturday night. All three will perform several times over the weekend.

NEA Jazz Master Bennett, who first sang at Monterey in 2005, is back for more. (“Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends,” a documentary about his life produced by Clint Eastwood and seen on PBS, includes footage from his 2005 Festival performance and chats with longtime Monterey supporter Eastwood.) Bennett just released his latest hit CD, “Duets II.”

Esperanza Spalding (C) Carlos Pericas
Spalding, winner of the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy, has recently released her latest CD, “Radio Music Society.” (She also gave a touching and elegant performance of “What a Wonderful World” during this year’s Oscars.) Her first time at the festival was in 2009.

Trombone Shorty and New Orleans Avenue were the sleeper smash hit of the 2010 festival. As one critic wrote, “Years from now, there will be about 100,000 folks all claiming they were there when Trombone Shorty kicked some major tail at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But only a few thousand will be telling the truth.”

Metheny brings his new Unity Band, with saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez. DeJohnette, a member of the Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette Trio for more than 25 years, makes his second festival appearance; he’ll perform in a trio with Metheny and Christian McBride, in a duo with Bill Frisell, and with his own group, which includes, among other musicians, the exciting saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Also on this year’s schedule: jazz harmonicist Gregoire Maret, the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra, vocalists Melody Gardot and Gregory Porter, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, the very fine pianists Mulgrew Miller and Gerald Clayton, Tierney Sutton, Stefon Harris, Nicholas Payton, John Abercrombie, Larry Goldings, José James, Kyle Eastwood, and violinist/violist Mads Tolling, a member of the Turtle Island Quartet, who brings his own quartet to the festival.

In all, 500 artists will perform on eight stages for three nights and two days at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, a WPA-era, 22-acre site that manages to feel spacious and intimate at the same time. Tickets go on sale today at the festival’s website. Note: Prices are the same as last year, not a penny more; a bargain for a jazz festival worthy of the name.

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