Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 3 of Monterey 56: Masters

Davina Sowers by John Whiting
Monterey 56, Day 3, was a celebration of NEA Jazz Masters and a likely career breakthrough for a band from Minnesota.

A conversation with Jazz Master Lou Donaldson is an exercise in hilarity. At 86, he may look sleepy and frail, but he's quicker with a comeback than most 20-year-olds. We learned that Sunday afternoon, when Willard Jenkins, jazz journalist (and coauthor with Randy Weston of Weston's autobiography, "African Rhythms"), interviewed Donaldson in Dizzy's Den.

The conversation was also supposed to include fellow Jazz Master Bobby Hutcherson, who couldn't make it (but performed later; more on that below).

A few moments from the Jenkins-Donaldson exchange:

Willard Jenkins: "What would you say to a young person today who comes to jazz without knowing the blues?"
Lou Donaldson: "I'd say he should look for a day job."

WJ: "What advice would you give a young person who wants to be a jazz musician?"
LD: "I'd have to hear them first."
WJ: "If you hear them and they have some possibility, what do you tell them?"
LD: "I tell them, you got some possibilities."

WJ: "How did it feel to receive the NEA Jazz Master award?"
LD: "I didn't feel nothing, because I should have got it 30 years ago."

Willard Jenkins and Lou Donaldson by John Whiting
When asked by an audience member, "When is your book coming out?" Donaldson demurred; he fears that when he writes his book, it will jeopardize his future employment, because he plans to spill some major beans. "I can tell you about musicians in any town that had jazz in it," he claimed, and when Jenkins said, "I'm from Cleveland. Tell me about Cleveland," Donaldson obliged with a string of names. "Music keeps you young," he offered at one point, and you'd better believe it.

At the Arena, Bob James and David Sanborn drew a huge crowd. Their Quartette Humaine with famed drummer Steve Gadd and bassist James Genus was one of the most talked-about events of the Festival, and the line that formed later for CD signings one of the longest.

Bob James David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, and James Genus by John Whiting
Sanborn and James at their signing by John Whiting
We knew that Davina and the Vagabonds would be a hit; we've heard them several times in their home city of Minneapolis and have seen first-hand their ability to wow a crowd with their rollicking, bluesy, jazzy New Orleans-based sound. But we couldn't have predicted they would be a huge hit -- this year's Trombone Shorty. Scheduled for a perfect time, when the evening sun lit the garden stage and both the Arena and the Night Club were on break, they pulled an audience that filled the benches, bleachers, and lawn, then spilled out past the entry and onto the sidewalk.

Davina and the Vagabonds by John Whiting
Dan Eikmeier and Ben Link by John Whiting

Part of Davina's crowd
Not only were audience members enthusiastic; they listened and stayed put. When bandleader and pianist Davina Sowers sang the Etta James classic "I'd Rather Go Blind," you could have heard a pin drop on the grass. People teared up. They loved her originals as much as her covers. They adored her band -- Dan Eikmeier on trumpet and vocals, Ben Link on trombone, Alec Tackmann on drums, Andrew Burns on sousaphone and bass. Overheard: "Who is she? She's great!"

A Monterey insider called this performance "one of those rare Monterey moments when everything comes together -- the band, the music, the audience, the weather." Their CDs sold out before their signing, scheduled for after the show, but people lined up anyway to meet them, holding out tickets and programs and scraps of paper to be signed. Afterward, a spur-of-the-moment interview was recorded, and the interviewer's first words were, "You're being called the break-out act of this year's Festival." Read a profile of Davina here.

NEA Jazz Master Wayne Shorter celebrated his 80th birthday in the Arena with a transporting concert by his brilliant, telepathic, and committed quartet (together 13 years now and counting) of Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. (Shorter's actual birthday: August 25. Close enough.) It was a whirlwind of music, a tsunami that lifted you up to where the planes flew overhead. Dense and intense, with Shorter on the soprano saxophone the whole time. Others who were there could distinguish bits of melodies from Shorter's book, including "Plaza Real" and "Orbits." For me, it was an immersive experience where nothing was immediately recognizable but everything felt familiar - and new. This might not make a bit of sense, but that's how it was.

Danilo Perez, Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade by John Whiting
John Patitucci and Brian Blade by John Whiting
Wayne Shorter by John Whiting
Danilo Perez and Wayne Shorter by John Whiting
The Wayne Shorter Quartet by John Whiting
Monterey is always about choices -- Solomonic, draconian, and coin-toss -- because with 500 artists on five stages, you can't see it all. Having heard Diana Krall's closing night performance in the Arena in 2007, the same key position on the schedule she held this year, we opted for Bobby Hutcherson in the Night Club and Dr. Lonnie Smith in Dizzy's Den as our final concerts of 2013. Hutcherson was a replacement for NEA Jazz Master Cedar Walton, who died on August 19. Now 72, Hutcherson has emphysema and is hooked up to oxygen, a transparent tube trailing across his face and shoulder. He has slowed down and rests often while performing, but he still plays with passion and elation, whether on a slow ballad, when his vibes are crystalline, or the fiery "Bolivia," one of Cedar Walton's most famous tunes. (The concert was a tribute to Walton.) Hutcherson seemed to gather energy as the set went on; shouting "Here we go!" during the final number, before his final mighty flourish, mallets flying. He played until 10:15, then closed with "Don't forget Cedar Walton! Goodbye, Monterey."

Bobby Hutcherson by John Whiting 
The Bobby Hutcherson Quartet by John Whiting
The crowd streamed across two green lawns and a sidewalk to Dizzy's Den, where Lou Donaldson was performing with his old partner in crime, Dr. Lonnie Smith. There was no room. We flashed our creds (sorry, but it's true) and squeezed in the side door. Donaldson launched into "She's a Whiskey Drinking Woman," then sang all the verses and probably added a few. "She drinks whiskey every morning/She drinks whiskey every night/She drinks whiskey when we're loving/She drinks whiskey when we fight ... She puts whiskey in her cornflakes/She puts whiskey in her beer/She can't stand strong perfume/So she puts whiskey behind her ear ..." The crowd roared. "I'm glad to see that you all appreciate classical singing," Donaldson remarked. "The Doctor and I played together for 20 years, and when we get together now, we talk about all the places we got thrown out of."

Dr. Lonnie Smith by John Whiting 
Lou Donaldson by John Whiting
Dr. Lonnie Smith and Lou Donaldson by John Whiting
Donaldson has famously said that when he can no longer play "Cherokee," he'll give it up, so he played it -- the real bebop, fast and furious, accompanied by the Doctor's smoking B3 and the other members of his trio, Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar and Johnathan Blake on drums, both youngsters who held their own with the two crafty elders. When Donaldson ended his set, Smith remarked wryly, "And you thought I was Dorian Gray."

The rest of the night -- which lasted well beyond the official 11 p.m. end time -- belonged to the Doctor, his amazing instrument, and his colorful music: a sepulchral tune that began with his low-pitched warning to "Get out of the woods!" and morphed into "My Favorite Things;" a song from "The Healer," released in 2012 on his own label, Pilgrimage; a slow and lovely ballad with a gospel feel. We thought -- this might be the end, and he'll close with a kind of blessing, as Bobby McFerrin did on Saturday.

Jonathan Kreisberg, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Johnathan Blake by John Whiting
Johnathan Blake by John Whiting
We were wrong. Those were not the mad Doctor's plans. He scatted, he sang falsetto and he made his B3 rumble and wail until the crowd stomped and shouted. Then he stood up, stepped back, and walked off stage. Was this the end? It was not. With a buzz that knocked us flat, he was back with his secret weapon: the cane he uses to walk with, which doubles as an electric percussion instrument (thanks to a company called Slaperoo; check it out). People who had started to leave turned around, came back, and climbed on chairs for a better look. Monterey's finale was pure funk, played by a man in a turban on a cane that burned.

Now that's the way to close a festival.

Jonathan Kreisberg and Dr. Lonnie Smith by John Whiting
Dr. Lonnie Smith by John Whiting

All photos copyright (C) 2013 by John Whiting

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