Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ten must-see events at the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, from one person's point of view

It’s that time again – time to decide what to see, what to miss, what to remember and what to regret at the Monterey Jazz Festival. You’d have to be five people to take it all in, since events take place on five stages on the festival grounds, and even though start and end times are staggered, you don’t want to skip across this festival like a stone on a pond. The music is too good. Artists bring their A-games to Monterey.

Choices must be made. Being something of a Monterey veteran by now (this is my eighth straight year), I know I love the Coffee House for intimate performances, the Jimmy Lyons for late-night magic under the stars (bundle up; it can get so chilly in the open-air arena that the local ladies wear their furs), the Garden Stage for the relaxed, tree-shaded outdoor experience, and Dizzy’s Den and the Night Club because you can run back and forth between them. I’ll hit all five several times over the weekend, but these ten events are at the top of my list ... for now.


Jose James, 9:30 on the Garden Stage. This is a big week for the young singer originally from Minneapolis, now living in New York and traveling the world; his latest Facebook postings were from Tokyo, and he leaves Saturday morning after his Monterey performance for the London iTunes Festival. James was recently signed to Blue Note, with a CD forthcoming in January; this week, his new song “Trouble” became the iTunes Single of the Week and his new EP was released. I’m expecting to hear a lot from the new CD, “No Beginning No End.” I like how James blends jazz with R&B, hip-hop and soul. I like his sexy, beautiful baritone voice. He makes it all sound sooooo easy. I’ll be meeting with him before he goes on stage (fingers crossed) for a brief interview, and to bring greetings from his hometown peeps.

Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, 10:30 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. The hot young trumpeter/composer is this year’s Artist-in-Residence, with several scheduled performances. I saw him live at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2010 and have very high expectations.

Gregory Porter, 11 p.m. in the Night Club. Porter is that relative rarity among jazz singers – male. He’s more classic and mainstream than James, more along the lines of Joe Williams and Nat King Cole with hints of Bill Withers. Porter writes a lot of his own songs. And, hallelujah, he scats.


“DownBeat” Blindfold Test, 2 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. I enjoy these annual conversations between jazz journalist Dan Ouellette and a festival artist; this year, it’s the amazing young pianist Gerald Clayton. Ouellette selects several recordings to play, then asks the artist to identify the players and rate each tune. It’s rather jazz nerdy but I always learn something. Plus it’s intriguing to hear the artists unscripted. Some are politic and polite; others are more up-front about what (and whom) they like and don’t like.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, 3 p.m. in the Arena.This will be a party, major festival fun in the sun. Shorty played the Garden Stage at the 2010 festival and fans were climbing trees to get a better look. That was before he was a star, before his appearances on Davis Simon’s HBO series “Treme.” There will be dancing in the aisles

Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet, 8 p.m. in the Arena. One of the events I most look forward to at each festival is the annual commission. Hats off to Monterey for supporting the creation of new works by important artists. This year, the masterful guitarist and spacious thinker Frisell has written a piece inspired by Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur. He was there earlier this week, adding the final touches. I love his band: Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman, Rudy Royston, and the great cellist Hank Roberts.

Jack DeJohnette Special Trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride, 9:20 p.m. in the Arena. It looks like I won’t make it out of the Arena on Saturday, despite the festival’s many other attractions: Antonio Sanchez, Catherine Russell, Ben Williams, Christian Scott. But I fully expect to be awed and transported by this trio.

Tony Bennett, 10:50 p.m. in the Arena. If you’re at the festival with arena tickets, you’d be insane to miss this. Don’t think for a minute that because Bennett is 86 and he’s sung “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” 10 million times that he won’t rip your heart out, because he will.


Jack DeJohnette-Bill Frisell Duo, 7:30 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. I will have already seen both artists perform, but this combination is too good to miss. During the 2008 festival, I wandered into a concert by Frisell and another drummer, Matt Wilson. That is still so fresh in my memory that the thought of seeing Frisell with DeJohnette makes me feel kind of faint.

Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, 9 p.m in the Arena. Monterey isn’t over even when it’s over. Each year, the festival puts together a superstar band, premieres it at the festival, then sends it out on tour across the US. This year’s version includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Potter, Benny Green, and Lewis Nash. One word: wow. Check the schedule to see if their tour includes your town or city. If so, go, and experience a taste of Monterey.

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