Thursday, September 27, 2012

Monterey Jazz Festival 55: A very good year

Tony Bennett
We missed Rudresh Mahanthappa’s performance with Jack DeJohnette. We missed Ninety Miles with Nicholas Payton and David Sanchez (so did the band’s vibraphonist, Stefon Harris, whose son was born that night). We missed Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Eddie Palmieri, Mulgrew Miller, Gregoire Maret, Christian Scott, Tierney Sutton, Ben Williams, the Cal Tjader tribute with Michael Wolff and Pete Escovedo (Sheila E’s dad), Antonio Sanchez & Migration, Mads Tolling (the former Turtle Island member, now heading his own quartet), John Abercrombie, even Esperanza Spalding.

And yet, at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival, we heard live music almost every moment of the weekend. From headliners we knew to artists we didn’t, the densely packed line-up kept us moving from Arena to Night Club, Garden Stage to Dizzy’s Den to Coffee House, with brief stops for food (Jamaican vegan stew, which was delicious; black-eyed peas and shrimp with grits; teriyakis; brats) and shopping (the usual array of eclectic vendors; I brought home a pair of tortoise-shell hoops and HH got his annual MJF T-shirt). As I have each year since 2005, when I first attended the world’s longest-running jazz fest, I arrived home already anticipating next year, when the artist-in-residence will be saxophonist Joe Lovano.


Our Friday night began at the Garden Stage, where we waited for José James to arrive for his 9:30 set. I had managed to get an interview with him (to my knowledge, the only interview he granted at the festival, and the only one he had time for), after which we stayed for most of his performance. This was a big week for James. Having just signed with Blue Note earlier this month, he’s riding the major-label high-speed train; his song “Trouble” was the iTunes Single of the Week, his EP launched, and his new album drops in January. During our talk in a small room backstage, Don Was dropped by with his son. Was seems like a nice guy. He laughs a lot.

Jose James
James’ set was very fine. Not our usual jazzy kick-off, but jazz infused with R and B, hip-hop, and soul. Sensual without being steamy. James doesn’t have the rumbling purr of Barry White, but he does have a delicious and velvety baritone voice, and this is easily turn-down-the-lights, pour-the-wine music. Highlights of the set: his new song “It’s All Over Your Body,” which included (in live performance) a nod to his earlier “Blackmagic;” the catchy single “Trouble;” his unique takes on Bill Withers’  “Ain’t No Sunshine When You’re Gone” (James sings a Bill Withers/Al Green show in NYC in October) and the Nancy Wilson standard “Save Your Love for Me;” and an amazing vocalese of Coltrane’s “Equinox,” with James’ own lyrics. (The Coltrane has been recorded but probably will never be released; read more/watchlive/download [legally] here.) Also every solo by his trumpet player, Takuya Kuroda.

From the Garden Stage, we headed to the Night Club for a taste of the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, enough to hear the young trumpeter blow one eloquent tune. We knew we’d catch him again over the weekend -- he was this year’s Artist-in-Residence – and in fact we saw him several times on the festival grounds. Yet another wonderful thing about Monterey: random artist sightings. Ours included Tierney Sutton, Chris Potter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pat Metheny, Christian Scott, members of various bands, and (twice) Clint Eastwood, a long-time festival supporter, trailed by his retinue. His son, bassist Kyle Eastwood, played a set early Sunday evening with the pianist Rick Germanson. (We missed that, too. Sorry, Rick!)

Gregory Porter
From the Night Club, we crossed two lawns to Dizzy’s Den, where the singer Gregory Porter held a packed house in thrall. Of the new artists we saw this year, Porter was for me the most memorable and profoundly touching. We arrived in time for his lilting, wistful “Be Good,” a ballad in waltz time. HH hears Sammy Davis Jr. in Porter’s voice; I’m too busy melting to hear anyone but Porter. My prayer to the jazz gods: please oh please let Porter become as big a star in the U.S. as he is in Europe so we can see more of him here. He has everything: a big, gorgeous voice, impeccable timing, natural swing, a tasty growl, and that clear and direct emotional connection we want from our singers. Plus he scats (bonus) and writes original songs. Okay, I love him. I kind of told him that when he came off stage after his second encore. I might have gushed a little.


DownBeat Blindfold Test
We began our Saturday at the annual MJF edition of the “DownBeat” Blindfold Test, during which journalist Dan Ouellette plays a selection of recordings for a featured artist, who does his or her best to identify the musicians. (This and other discussions held at the festival are rare opportunities to hear artists converse. Often, the moderator takes questions from the audience.) In this year’s hot seat: pianist Gerald Clayton, the immensely musical son of a musical family (John Clayton is his father, Jeff Clayton his uncle). He was stumped by the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and “Qbafrica,” the opening track to his debut CD, “Sounds of Space,” but ID'd him after a few hints from Ouellette. He also thought Rodriguez packed too much into the tune. And that’s all I’ll say about the Blindfold Test. You can read about it in a future issue of the magazine.

A small part of Trombone Shorty's crowd
We snatched a few moments of Trombone Shorty’s show in the sun-baked Arena, where a crowd of thousands stood and danced and waved handkerchiefs. Shorty played trombone, trumpet, and drums. He sang and danced. He’s a consummate showman, New Orleans distilled into a slim but muscular high-energy package. His 2010 Monterey debut was on the much smaller Garden Stage, but he’s an Arena man now.

Pedal steel master Robert Randolph and his Family Band played two sets on Saturday, the first in the Arena. We caught part of the second on the Garden Stage. Backstage, I had the chance to look closely at a spare pedal steel guitar, an odd instrument with a fascinating history. Randolph, whose version has 13 strings, made it moan, wail, and scream, sometimes pushing it forward on its front legs and bending over it in prayer, still playing. Bluesy, soulful, fiery, spiritual music. He’s one of the artists I didn’t know before Monterey and will never forget.

Bill Frisell's Big Sur Quintet
One of my must-sees is the annual Monterey Jazz Festival commission. Brand-new music by important artists, supported in part by the NEA, thank you very much. This year’s commission artist was Bill Frisell, whose “Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” composed in and about Big Sur, was lush and lyrical, spacious and pastoral – chamber music with grooves. Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet included Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, Hank Roberts on cello, and Rudy Royston on drums. It was good to see Roberts at Monterey again; his last appearance there was in 2009 with Buffalo Collision, a group with Ethan Iverson, Dave King, and Tim Berne.

Catherine Russell
Still going (Saturday is Monterey’s most star-studded and therefore challenging day), we heard some of pianist Gerald Clayton’s first set in the intimate Coffee House and a few moments of the wonderful vocalist Catherine Russell on the Garden Stage. Long enough to catch her heartbreaking “Don’t Leave Me” in its entirety. She’s a passionate, powerful singer. From there we bounced back into the Arena for the Jack DeJohnette Special Trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. DeJohnette was this year’s Showcase Artist; he’s also a 2012 NEA Jazz Master, and he’s spending his 70th year traveling and performing with friends. We settled in for the whole set, a display of musicality and camaraderie that seemed (to me at least) a bit Metheny-heavy. I wanted more Jack, a drummer I’ve seen live just once before.

Tony Bennett
For many with Arena tickets, the most anticipated event on Saturday was the return of Tony Bennett. I had seen his 2005 Monterey performance, which was unforgettable. He was 79 then; he’s 86 now. The seven years between 79 and 86 are not the same seven years one lives from 29 to 36 or even 59 to 66. Could this legendary entertainer still command the stage? Smack me for asking. He was fantastic. He spun on his heel. He slapped his knee. He bent down to the ground to pick up a piece of paper – which alarmed someone at the side of the stage, who ran to help. (We all held our breath. Tony! Don't fall!)  He reached out in expansive gestures that embraced all of us, chopped the air with his hands, smiled broadly (he is still so very handsome), and sang a ton of songs, all from memory (my loose count: 22). In most cases he sang one chorus each, but he has an immense catalog and he never sank to a medley. He may not land every note precisely on key, but he still has the volume, the chops, the exquisite phrasing, the charisma, and the heart to sing a big show in the open air before an adoring audience. When he stepped on stage, a woman beside me said, “I think I might cry,” then did. Bennett ended not with a grand, arena-filling “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (he sang that earlier), but with a hushed and tender “Fly Me to the Moon.” He gave us 90 minutes of greatness. Fill his heart with song and let him sing forevermore.

Done for the night? Not quite. We caught the last half of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band in Dizzy’s Den. Each year, festival artistic director Tim Jackson puts together an all-star superband, then sends them out to spread the Monterey spirit across the land. (The tour begins January 10 in Santa Cruz and ends April 28 in Anchorage. Check the schedule to see if it comes to your town.) The latest incarnation is, in short, awesome: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Benny Green, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Potter, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash. At Dizzy’s, Dee Dee (who gets hotter by the minute) sang a breathtaking “Don’t Explain” with Benny, Christian, and Lewis, after which the band played Bobby Hutcherson’s dynamic “Highway One.”


Our Sunday started late in the day with a Dizzy’s Den conversation between Jack DeJohnette and journalist/author Ashley Kahn. The topic was DeJohnette’s life in music; the questions came from other artists at the festival with whom Kahn had spoken. Kahn began by saying what a challenge it was to name an improvising musician with whom DeJohnette hadn’t played and noting that the drummer had been in the lead position of every jazz style since the 1960s.

Jack DeJohnette and Ashley Kahn
Words from DeJohnette: “Music chose me … When I was 4 or 5, we had a Victrola. I’d wind it up and drop the needle on 78s of Count Basie, Duke, Slim Gaylord … I used to listen to them before I could read well … In those days, it was the thing for kids to take piano lessons. A friend of my grandmother was a teacher, and she found out I had perfect pitch … At ages 5 and 6 I was giving recitals, and even then I’d want to improvise. My teacher would say, ‘Jackie, that’s not on the page!’ ”

After hearing Vernel Fournier on Ahmad Jamal’s “At the Pershing,” DeJohnette bought his first set of brushes. When his grandmother passed away and left him some money, he bought a car, a set of drums, and a portable Wurlitzer keyboard. “That put me on a good path,” DeJohnette recalled. “The keyboard let me get work in places without pianos.” He never took drum lessons because “the drums came naturally to me … I learned from listening and watching, and I started to practice 5 or 6 hours a day.” He finally made a choice – drums over piano – when he moved to New York City in the 1960s, paying $27 to send his drums by Greyhound bus (without cases, which he couldn’t afford). Renting a room at the Y for $2/day, he thought, “I’m going to be a drummer” and he never looked back.

How did he find his path? “You find your own voice, and the village of other musicians reinforces it.” When he plays, does he see colors or shapes? “Sometimes I feel colors … Sometimes I’m transported somewhere else – I’m in the library of cosmic ideas.” Which album first defined his sound? “Special Edition” with David Murray and Arthur Blythe (1980), something I’ll probably have to go out and buy.

Meklit Hadero
From there, we wandered, winding down. The temperature had dropped; it was chillier than usual, and you could tell by the audience sizes at the various venues that some people had given up and gone home. We heard a little of the Jack DeJohnette-Bill Frisell Duo in Dizzy’s Den, walking in on a lengthy solo by DeJohnette full of silence and thunder. On the Garden Stage, the fresh and exciting Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based vocalist Meklit Hadero braved the cold in not enough clothes, her breath blossoming white in the air around her. (Another festival discovery for me.) In the Arena, Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour gathered once more to wow us, starting with a spare but greasy duet between Dee Dee and Christian on “It’s Your Thing.” Dee Dee was wearing the highest heels and the thickest eyelashes I had ever seen. A few moments of Chester Thompson streaming live on a computer in the press room and it was over.

Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour
Why does Monterey always seem so long at the start, so evanescent at the end? The setting – grass and trees, sun and stars, the timeless feel of an old WPA-era fairgrounds (built from 1939-40) – lulls you into believing that time has slowed. The ambience – relaxed, casual, easy-going – adds to the illusion. And then you’re exiting through the gates for the last time, at least until next year, and it's bittersweet. Do I sound overly sentimental? Sorry, but that’s an unavoidable side effect of this gem of a jazz festival. Go once (I dare you) and you’ll want to return again, and again.



Singer José James  does 'the Minnesota thing' and makes music his way (link takes you to
Five New Singers at the Monterey Jazz Festival (link takes you to NPR's A Blog Supreme)
Ten must-see events at the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, from one person's point of view
The 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival stays true to the music

Click here to view John's photo set on Flickr

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