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.
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!)
|DownBeat Blindfold Test
|A small part of Trombone Shorty's crowd
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
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
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.
|Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour
Singer José James does 'the Minnesota thing' and makes music his way (link takes you to MinnPost.com)
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