Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Monterey must-sees: our Top Six picks for the 57th annual Monterey Jazz Festival and why

Cecile McLorin Salvant by John Abbott
Deciding to attend the Monterey Jazz Festival is easy, especially once you’ve been there. It only takes one time to fall in love with the music, the ambience, and the setting, a WPA-era fairgrounds with winding paths and mature trees and a mixture of buildings that three weeks ago hosted the Monterey County Fair, complete with pig races. This will be our 10th consecutive year at the longest continuously running jazz festival in the world, co-founded in 1958 by Jimmy Lyons and Ralph J. Gleason with a big helping hand from Dave Brubeck, who paved the way by performing for the Monterey City Council in 1957 with his quartet. He charmed them, then graced the festival 15 times in 55 years.

Deciding what to see once you’re there and the gates open Friday night is hard. Except for a single half-hour at the start, when the fine young pianist Jeremy Siskind will sit down for the first time at the piano on the Courtyard Stage, music will happen on multiple stages simultaneously all weekend long. (This year’s numbers: 500 artists in 86 performances, four conversations and a film, squeezed into a short Friday night and two days that start at noon.) And except for the 15 minutes between 6:45 and 7 p.m. Saturday, there’s music happening somewhere all the time. So you can’t see everything unless you dash from venue to venue up and down the fairgrounds, grabbing a few notes here and there. We’ve tried that, sort of, and what happens is you get sucked into a tune, a solo, or the sound of a duo or trio or band, and the next thing you know, you’re cheering and clapping and calling for an encore like the rest of the crowd.

We’ve done the festival many ways: planning every minute, which doesn’t work for us because we’re easily distracted; making few to no plans, which means we end up missing things we really want to see; and running around like crazy people. Whatever you end up doing, you’ll have a good time. How can you not, in such a beautiful place with such terrific music and exceptional fair food? We think the perfect MJF experience lies somewhere between adhering to a schedule and hanging loose. With that in mind, here are our top six picks for 2014 and why.

Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Because nobody bridges jazz and classical music like the Grammy-winning pianist and composer – not by swinging Bach or arranging Monk for string quartet, but by writing original music that draws from both. Because his new Laura Nyro project is way more than a tribute; it’s a love child that joyously mixes jazz with chamber music, soul with Brill Building pop. Because this performance will also feature Shawn Colvin, Becca Stevens, and Lisa Fischer, the runaway star of the Grammy-winning documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”

Davina and the Vagabonds. Because they were last year’s Monterey moment: the band nobody knew that everyone ended up talking about. Because band leader, singer, keyboardist, and composer Davina Sowers can channel Ma Rainey and Etta James and a long line of blues singers while still remaining entirely herself. Because she has put together a killer brass section. Because their new album, “Sunshine,” is terrific. (DownBeat gave it four stars. Tip: buy it early if you want it signed.) Because Davina just got engaged. (Unless you’re her Facebook friend, you probably didn’t know that, but now you do.)

Geoffrey Keezer. Because he’s an exceptional pianist with an amazing resume. Now in his early 40s, Keezer joined Art Blakey’s band at 18 and toured with Ray Brown in his 20s. Because he’s someone who can accompany singers (Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves) and superstars (Chris Botti, Sting, Wayne Shorter) and still have much to say as a composer and soloist. Because he can play anything with anyone, which is why he’s in such great demand. Because his trio dates at Monterey in the intimate Coffee House will honor two artists we miss a lot: Mulgrew Miller and James Williams.

Charles Lloyd. Because jazz is more than sound and rhythm. It’s also spirit and soul, and no one makes that more clear than 76-year-old sage and guru Lloyd. Because his music lifts you up, which is not the same as saying it’s feel-good music; it’s far more profound than that, and more satisfying. Because he’s a master, which is why all the great younger musicians – people like Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, Eric Harland, and Reuben Rogers – want to play with him. Because if you’ve never heard him live, you owe that to yourself, and if you have, you know.

Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party. Because Moran is a shaper of jazz and culture, someone whose influence will be felt far into the future. Because he’s a 21st-century jazz man, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center (the position formerly held by Dr. Billy Taylor), a composer, performer, band leader, educator, visionary, standard-bearer and provocateur. Because his Fats Waller project is the sort of thing he does really well: rooted in history, brand-new, smart, and wide-open.

Cecile McLorin Salvant. Because she’s the hot new female jazz singer (the 2010 Monk Competition winner, a 2014 Grammy nominee, winner of four categories in the most recent DownBeat Critics’ Poll). Because she’s the real thing. Because what she can do with a single note will astonish you. Because she sings with conviction, precision, and passion; because, at the tender age of 26, she’s an old jazz soul; because everything about her is just right.

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