Live: Guitar Town’s 10 Latest Sculptures Unveiled In WeHo

July 27, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

Bruce Springsteen used to tell a story about how his father, tired of hearing him practicing electric guitar in the bedroom, never wanted to know if it was a Gibson guitar or a Fender guitar.  To him it was just a “God-damned” guitar. For budding guitar slingers like Bruce, Gibson and Fender were the two top shelf considerations in an instrument.   Though there are many more guitar makers now, these two remain the most desirable for those who know.  There is nothing that looks more iconic than the solid body, single cutaway shape of a Gibson Les Paul.   In clever fashion, Gibson has been lending this shape to artists to create something special for the community and tying it in with local charities.

Seashell guitar:
“Les Paul” Utopia guitar transformed with seashells, semiprecious stones, and iridescent paint treatment – by Kathy Rose.”

On Wednesday night at Hornburg Land Rover on Sunset Strip, ten more giant guitars were unveiled as a third installment of Guitar Town on the Sunset Strip. Guitar Town is a philanthropic project of the Gibson Foundation under the wing of the Gibson Guitar Company.  The format gives local artists a 10-foot tall Les Paul shaped replica guitar to work with.  Then, drawing on personal musical inspiration the artists go to town on their new canvases.   After the guitars are completed, they are displayed on the Sunset Strip or any of several other special locations, and then auctioned off for charity.

Joan Jett guitar:
“Les Paul guitar body sporting a striking rendition of Joan Jett rocking it properly – by Tsipi Mani.”

The Sunset strip in West Hollywood has now hosted Guitar Town three times.  Given its intimate history with the music industry and the clubs on the boulevard, the Strip could, at times, lay as strong a claim as any to being ground zero for rock ‘n’ roll.  That said, Guitar Town has also been on display in Nashville and London, for country and rock ‘n’ roll considerations, in Waukesha, Wisconsin (the hometown of Les Paul, who pioneered the solid body electric guitar), and in Miami.   The GT project is an obvious boon for the artists involved, for the charities, and for a while, the public gets to enjoy some very diverse, unique, larger than life, and beautiful artwork.

Mosaic Guitar:
“Detail of Les Paul guitar beautifully adorned with tile, dominoes, stones, glass and grout – by Juliana Martinez.”

The electric guitar has turned out to be one of the more powerful tools of personal expression ever seen in popular culture.   A good idea can grow enormous when electric guitars become involved.   So, it follows that a huge electric guitar would make a perfect canvas for an artist to develop a local or musical theme for a street display.    Much as an actual electric guitar can blow a song up for a musician and reach listeners everywhere, the huge guitars in Guitar Town draw the viewer in from far away and reveal more detail up close.

The new guitar art ranged from album cover graphics (Love’s Forever Change), to vivid acrylic portraiture (Joan Jett),  to gorgeous mosaic (Jose Feliciano), to actual statuary (Debbie Harry), to actual semi precious stone, seashells, and model seabirds (Alanis Morisette’s  Utopia album).  All of these guitars are attention grabbers and several are downright stunning.  Anyone who can find the time in the near future should check the guitars out along the Strip.  It is the perfect place for ten larger than life guitars.

* * * * * * * *

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CDs from Jesse Cook, Melvin Taylor and Saul Zonana

September 27, 2012

 Of Cooking, Burning and Breaking

By Brian Arsenault

Jesse Cook

The Blue Guitar Sessions (Entertainment One Music)

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

When I decided to review three guitar-based albums, I didn’t expect Jesse Cook’s The Blue Guitar Sessions to be my favorite.  I listened to it last, half expecting to largely dismiss it with a few lukewarm lines. Thus are prejudices to be avoided.

It is a remarkable album, I think, softly buffeting against a world perhaps too noisy for it.

To hear Cook’s acoustic, nylon stringed guitar supported and complemented by cello,  accordion, violin and piano, separately at times and in combination at others, is to be invited into a secret world with its own language.  The classic Miles Davis jazz album, Kinda Blue — to which it is a distant homage — did that. The best of Enya does that.

Here we are transported to guitar and accordion (Tom Szczesniak) buskers playing on the streets of  an imaginary Paris in “Witching Hour” and later a West Bank café, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” sung by Emma-Lee.  Cook spent his early years in Paris, of course, and Lee and he share a hometown of Toronto.

Emma-Lee also provides the vocal on the marvelous lead tune, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ recast “I Put A Spell on You.” Think it can’t be done soft and sultry? Give a listen.

Of course, I was prejudiced (there’s that word again) in favor right away since Cook chose a song with the immortal line: “I don’t care if you want me, I’m yours.”

“Broken Moon” is a moody night with Amy Laing’s dark cello perfectly complementing Cook’s guitar. “Miles Shorter,” with guitar and piano keeping company, reaches long into something deep. “Ocean Blue” in my estimation could be played in a classical program with wide acceptance. And “You,” well, it’s beautiful.

Most of the playing here is soft; linked by mood, themes, emotion. But it is not understated.  It is softly stated. Lyrical. Poetic. Ours is a harsh age but you may remember. Or yearn.

 Melvin Taylor

Beyond the Burning Guitar (TK)

Maybe Melvin Taylor shouldn’t have gone beyond. What is left is not a burning tour de force. Instead, it’s a two disc sampling of various styles and techniques and I‘m not sure which are his.

Maybe the problem is being compared to Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana when you’re really doing more of a jazz guitar album.  You can say, hey, that’s not his fault but that’s what’s on the album jacket and in the press packet.

Are those comparisons supposed to encourage “cross over” listeners.  They are more likely to set up the disciples of those rock guitar gods for disappointment.

Oh, it’s not that Taylor isn’t accomplished. It’s that he’s mostly playing jazz here and it’s probably jazz you have heard elsewhere.  The rock and blues numbers, not so many in number, seem thrown in to say, see, don’t forget I can play like that too.

Well done but who is he? He’s not terribly distinctive jazz like Graham Dechter, though really very good. He’s not living rock n roll like Stevie Ray or Jimi. So I’m left somewhere in the middle.

 Saul Zonana

Fix the Broken (TK)

Saul Zonana has a certain charm about him with a stripped down, neatly produced (and not the dreaded overproduced) album.  It seems largely like a collection of singles for radio during the era when it played three minute hits. Maybe a couple of country headliners will do some  hit-making with the songs here, now that he’s moved from New York to Nashville.

On his own, the problem may lie in the line “How do I get you to notice me?” from the CD’s first song, “Notice.”  Could be he’s asking all of us.

No doubt a strong road musician in a variety of bands and plenty good in the studio backing up whomever; he may not be broken, just not pushing the limits hard enough to get our attention.

There’s some Beatles harmonies on “The Music” and there’s a bit of Lennon later on. “Abandoned Sky” even sounds like a Lennon title. Zonana can slow it down on “A Kiss When I’m Gone”. Show his new Nashville base on “Fly”.

As he says on “I Don’t Either,” there’s “no need to apologize”.  It’s honest, even earnest, workmanlike. But it’s not inspired.

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Jazz: The 54th Monterey Jazz Festival — Sunday

September 19, 2011

By Michael Katz

Monterey, California.  Sunday at Monterey began with a group of precocious teenagers and ended with an ageless octogenarian, concluding a festival that had highlights from every corner of the musical world.  The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, MJF’s signature contribution to jazz education, is more than just a group of talented kids gathered from all precincts. Under the leadership of Paul Contos, it has become a first-class band that will challenge your perception of what young players can accomplish.  From their first notes Sunday afternoon at the Arena, it was clear that they had filled the one hole in the Arena’s scheduling: a bona fide large jazz ensemble.

One of the early highlights was a crisp arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Here Comes McBride,” an ode to the bassist that kicked off with a round of blues solos, anchored by the band’s own bassist Daryl Johns.  There were terrific soloists in this group, including pianist Chase Morrin, who contributed an award winning composition, “Mumphis,” and trombonist Calvin Barthel, who sat in admirably with the Berkeley Flamenco group Saturday and is headed there on scholarship, as well as trumpeter Tree Palmedo.  Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley did a stunning turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Vocalist Hope Flores wowed the crowd with simmering renditions of “Dancing Cheek To Cheek” and “Gee, Baby, Aren’t I Good to You.”  Then came the alumni. Joshua Redman joined the band for a scintillating chorus on “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” surpassing his brilliant performance of the night before. Tenor Donnie McCaslin had a soaring solo as did pianist Bennie Green,  joining the band for Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” closing the show to a standing ovation from the sun-kissed crowd.

From there I did some skipping around, making sure I didn’t miss my annual dosage of barbecue, cobblers and a cold microbrew. In between I managed to catch the end of an impressive set on the Garden Stage by pianist John Donaldson, featuring alto sax player Shay Salhov.  Walking in on their last two numbers, I wished I’d seen more. And I took in the last portion of a set on the Courtyard Stage with singer/keyboardist Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman on sax, Judy delivering a cool “Senor Blues” and Greg joining for a terrific version of “Four.”

Bruce Forman

The highlight of the mid-afternoon was guitarist Bruce Forman’s Cow Bop, a western tinged quintet that performed with zest and humor. Starting with the tune Sonny Rollins turned into a jazz classic, “I’m An Old Cowhand,” the quintet featured fiddler supreme Phil Salazar, Alex King on bass and Jake Reed on drums. “Pinto Pam” Forman provided western style vocals with pizzazz, adding just the right amount of swing on classics like “Besame Mucho” and Gene Autry’s “Back In The Saddle Again.”  There were some jazz standards like “Slow Boat to China,” where Foreman unloaded his considerable guitar chops, aided by bassist King, and a cha-cha version of “Comes Love.” Stellar western guitarist Rich O’Brien joined the group for Louis Armstrong’s “Sweet Temptation,” bringing the crowd to its feet, trading licks with Forman and Salazar.  There were more fireworks with “El Combanchero,” with Forman mixing in samples from Dizzy’s “Night In Tunisia” and “Bebop.”  Cow Bop finished off the set with their slant on “Get Along Little Doggies,” and the aforementioned “Back In The Saddle.”  The crowd, by this time jammed into every nook and cranny of the Garden Stage, roared their approval.

At 5:30, the Garden Stage crowd was treated to an extended set by emerging tenor sax player Tia Fuller. Fuller, who came out of the Stanford program and tours with pop star Beyonce, was a sight to behold in tight dress and stiletto heels, but she has the chops for straight ahead jazz. I caught about half the set, in which she played mostly songs from her latest recordings. Her band included a terrific young pianist, Shamie Royston.

Benny Green

Once again there was too much going on Sunday to catch everything, but I wasn’t going to miss the Benny Green Trio with Donald Harrison, doing a set of Thelonious Monk’s music at the Night Club. Green’s superb trio consisted of Ben Wolfe on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.  There are so many Monk tunes that it was possible to begin with one the casual listener might be unfamiliar with — the lilting, low-key “Jackie-ing.” Green moved on to the quieter “Reflections,” but the trio really caught fire with one of Monk’s first recorded tunes, “Thelonious.” Green’s dazzling technique on the infectious line was augmented by Wolfe on the bass. Donald Harrison then joined the group, occupying with fiery distinction the sax chair filled in Monk’s time by the likes of John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse. Harrison provided the emphatic melody to “Epistrophy,” with Green deftly adding the counter tempo. They followed with another of Monk’s engaging lines, “Nutty,”  Green and Wolfe reading each other’s minds on piano and bass, while Harrison, seemingly effortlessly, had complete command of his alto.  Lest you take him for granted, Kenny Washington was an exquisite performer, enunciating Monk’s complex rhythms, adding his own measures of dash and accent when called for.

There were too many highlights to mention in this set, but among them were an up tempo version of “52nd Street Theme,” with Benny providing a knockout piano solo, following Harrison’s insistent introduction of the theme. Compelling bass work by Wolfe ensued, then Washington broke loose with his own solo.  If there is one essential Monk tune it is “Round Midnight.” Harrison introduced it with a lovely run through the opening chords, then Green took over for a sensitive exploration of the familiar theme. There were a couple of more swinging numbers, including “Calling The Blues.” “Bye Ya,” was a natural finale, Benny Green contributing a delightful, bouncy solo, with a sprightly contribution by Harrison. The set concluded with the consistent brilliance of Wolfe and a final flourish by Kenny Washington.

Sonny Rollins

And then there was Sonny.  Taking to the spotlight in a flowing red shirt, bent forward as he roamed the stage, Lear-like, Sonny Rollins closed the festival with a performance that was sui generis.  The unmistakable Rollins intonation is still there.  If it has been stilted somewhat by virtue of his eighty-one years, it was hardly noticeable.  For much of the set this was classic Road Show Sonny, with Rollins establishing a theme, repeating it, embellishing it,  stalking  the stage as he explored every facet of a seemingly simple line.  Backed by his longtime stalwarts Bob Crenshaw on bass and Sammy Figueroa on percussion,  and drummer Kobie Watkins, Rollins had the additional support of world class guitarist Peter Bernstein. Bernstein’s rhythms gave the Caribbean numbers a breezy feel, and he was the main supportive soloist when Rollins needed a breather. The material alternated between ballads and island themes, with Rollins speaking only a few times to the audience. “Nice Lady,” which was included in Road Show Vol 1, was a typically bright Caribbean tune, with Figueroa’s congas and Bernstein’s rhythms pushing it along and Sonny wailing away. There was one new tune, “Professor Paul,” the literary connection unexplained, but the tune had enough quirky intelligence that you could get the picture.

Toward the end of the set, the tone shifted to vintage Rollins, the style he established in the heart of his career.  From the opening cadenza, when you could pick out the notes to Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” this was Sonny at his best, exploring the melody of a standard, challenging it with every nuance of his horn’s tonal depth,  moving in and out of the chorus,  placing his own emblem on the song.  It could have been the perfect ending to a show that had already gone well over an hour, but Sonny had much more in reserve. He went back into Caribbean mode and now the entire arena was up on its feet, swaying back and forth.  Sonny carried forth, trading solos with guitarist Bernstein, backed by Figueroa, Watkins and Crenshaw. Fifteen minutes later you got the feeling the audience was exhausted from dancing, but Sonny played on. A gentleman of a certain age standing behind me remarked, “I didn’t have that much energy when I was 21.”

Finally, Sonny put the horn down and addressed the crowd. “We’ll see you next time,” said the man who had had performed at the first Monterey Jazz Festival. “Long live Monterey!”

Amen to that.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Friday click HERE.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday click HERE.

Live Jazz: The 54th Monterey Jazz Festival — Saturday

September 18, 2011

By Michael Katz

Monterey, California.  Saturday at the Monterey Jazz Festival was a journey through eras, river basins, continents, climate zones, you name it. Mostly the volume was turned up, but if you navigated carefully, you could find some quiet pools for reflection amidst the soul, funk and a respectable helping of jazz, too.

For the second straight year, the gang from Treme took over the Arena for the afternoon show. This time there was no Trombone Shorty to tear the place up, but two groups, the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, combined under the stage direction of actor Wendell Pierce serving as MC.  The Soul Rebels marched through the front of the Arena and then onto the stage, bringing bright sunshine with them, blasting through Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For the City” and a stew of contemporary NOLA favorites.

Kermit Ruffins

Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who acts in HBO’s Treme, was a featured soloist with both the Soul Rebels and Dumpstaphunk. Trombonist Glen David Andrews had to bow out because of illness and was replaced by Terence Blanchard, so for the second day in a row, the Arena audiences was treated to some sizzling horn battles. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia,” the one Diz standard that was left out of Poncho Sanchez’s set Friday night, got the sizzling treatment from Blanchard and Ruffins. They provided a number of other highlights, including “Shake it Off” and “Turn It Up,” which could have been the theme song for the afternoon.

Huey Lewis and the News was the headliner for the afternoon, and they brought a large and devoted following to the Arena. His latest CD,  Soulsville, featured the Memphis sound of Stax records and included hits such as the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” the title tune, and some lesser known songs such as “Um, Um, Um” recorded by Major Lance. There’s a lot of talent in the News, starting with Lewis’s still robust voice and harmonica playing. He talked about both his and drummer Bill Gibson’s late fathers being longtime MJF attendees, and the Soulsville selections blended in perfectly with the Saturday afternoon atmosphere. Of course Huey and the News are a rock and roll band, and with 90 minutes to perform they rewarded their loyal following with their own hits, including “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “I Want A New Drug,” as well as a blues vamp at the end of the set.

Huey Lewis and the News

By late afternoon the Treme gang had commandeered the Garden Stage, for a repeat of last year’s Trombone Shorty spectacular, but I was in the mood for something a little quieter so I went to the Coffee House Gallery to see this year’s version of the Berkeley School of Music Ensemble, which was a Flamenco quintet that enthralled the capacity crowd. Led by Ariadne Castellanos of Madrid, this international group took the Spanish flamenco folk rhythms and wove them into a spellbinding performance.  Ali Amr, from Ramallah on the West Bank, played the Qunan, an Egyptian string instrument that is something of a cross between a zither and a small harp. Enrique Kalani, listed from Trinidad but announced from Puerto Rico, played a sparkling flute, offering up superb glissandos and more serene moments as well. Spaniard Sergio Martinez on percussion and Israeli bassist Noam Wiesenberg were a sterling rhythm section.  Castellanos had a beautiful interpretation of a Paco de Lucia song, and Amr had several lovely solos on the Qunan.  The only drawback to the show was the sweltering condition of the room, due to NPR’s streaming of the event. They dictated the suspension of fans and air conditioning, causing many folks to leave. It’s a tribute to the performers that so many stayed until the end. It’s nice that NPR is involved in the festival, but inconsiderate to the paying customers.

Richard Bona

The evening performances presented the toughest choice I had to make, as Geri Allen was performing the commissioned piece in the Arena and one of my favorites, Richard Bona, was performing in duet with Columbian singer/guitarist Raul Midon at the Garden Stage. I’d hope to catch a little of each, but sound problems delayed the start of the Bona/Midon set, so I waited it out and never left. I’d previously seen Bona, a singer/bassist from Cameroon, in settings with a larger, more percussive group, so it was a different experience seeing him with Midon, performing tunes from their Dulawa Malambo Project. Certainly the sound crew did their jobs; both voices were clear, both with engaging qualities, Midon singing in English, Bona mostly in a lilting Douala. It’s a lovely sounding language – much like Portuguese, it is pleasant to listen to even if you don’t understand any of the words. Playing in this duet setting, Bona has a gentle touch on the electric bass, sometimes playing along with the lyrical beat, other times countering it.  Midon, meanwhile, played several acoustic guitars. His lyrics tend to be slyly simple. “Don’t Be A Silly Man” was a response from a fawned-upon musician, with a touch of Paul Simon playfulness. He sometimes employs a tap style to his guitar, other times picking out melodies between the rhythms. At one point, performing solo, Midon, who is blind, had a surprise drop-in from singer India.Arie, who performs on the main stage this afternoon. Midon also employs a muted trumpet effect, which adds another instrument to the mix.  On top of everything else, both Midon and Bona  have infectious personalities that, combined with their delightful playing and singing, showed there was plenty of room on Saturday for a more subtle musical tone.

Joshua Redman

It was back to the Arena for Artist-In-Residence Joshua Redman’s set, with his band James Farm that featured Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The first thing you notice these days about Redman is his robust tone. He gets such a full, rich, sound out of the tenor, particularly in the mid to lower registers of the horn. It’s a pleasure to hear him stretch out, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. The set featured original compositions by all four members of the group, starting out with bassist Penman’s “1981” which began with Redman in a reflective mood, offering an expansive solo followed by Parks taking the baton on piano. “If By Air,” the next song, was Redman’s, followed by Parks’ elegant theme “Bijou.”  As the set went on, it seemed the compositions were less individual expressions than movements in a suite. It speaks to the overall cohesion of the group. The interweavings of Parks and Redman, backed by the rhythms of Penman and Harland make for a tantalizing hour. It’s a distinct, harmonic sound, though lacking a little in the lyrical sense. You don’t walk away humming any of the tunes.

Herbie Hancock was closing out the night at the Arena, but I opted for a quieter end to the evening. I returned to the Coffee House to see Bill Carrothers’ piano trio with Drew Gress on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. The crowd was rather sparse to start, but Carrothers adapted easily, speaking to the gathering without a microphone, playing a mix of originals and standards, slightly altered in his own off center way. “Peg,” named for his wife, was an introspective piece, given to  long harmonic interplays with bassist Gress. He followed with a playfully dark version of “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” again with nice bass work from Gress. There was an unnamed up tempo piece, which gave Stewart a chance to work out on the drums, and an engaging version of Clifford Brown’s “Gerkin for Perkin.”  A few more folks had straggled in by that point, looking for a last dollop of music to finish off a long, often loud, adventurous day. There was something poignant when Carrothers gently touched the keys with the opening to “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” You felt for a moment like you were alone in a bar somewhere. You didn’t really want the set to end, but it was the perfect ending. It was a  lovely version, a soft goodbye, then back out into the chill night Monterey air.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Friday click HERE.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Sunday click HERE.



Live Jazz: The 54th Monterey Jazz Festival — Friday Night

September 17, 2011

By Michael Katz

Monterey, California.  The weather was chilly and overcast for the opening of the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival Friday night, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of jazz fans who were treated to a superb series of performances. There was anticipation in the air from the opening chords, as Featured Performer Robert Glasper, because of a scheduling quirk, took over the 6:30 slot at the outdoor Garden Stage. Usually this set has in informal feel, as old friends gather and schmooze, while a young local talent performs. But Glasper and his trio of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave had the crowd at rapt attention.

Robert Glasper

Glasper is an engaging talent. When he plays on the acoustic piano, his style is impressionistic, with a sometimes dense chordal structure, building themes dramatically, filling them in with scintillating runs. Playing his own compositions, “No Worries” and “North Portland,” he had the crowd on the edge of their seats. He was ably assisted by bassist Hodge, but especially by drummer Dave, who was something of a revelation. Dave has a crisp, emphatic, rapid fire delivery. His physique and intensity reminded me a little of former NBA star Alan Iverson.

When Glasper switches to the Fender Rhodes, his style turns funky.  He did another extended original, with a nod to Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” and later ended up with a Monkish tune that again highlighted Chris Dave’s stickwork.  Glasper has two more performances scheduled with his Experiment version of the band, which will feature Lionel Loueke and vocalist Bilal.  In addition to his playing, he has a sense of humor and a stage presence – you could see him hosting Saturday Night Live.

As usual MJF has so much happening at once that you are forced to make choices.  Hiromi was opening the Arena stage at 8:30, but I didn’t want to miss young pianist Helen Sung, so I ducked into the Coffee House Gallery for her 8 o’clock set. When you haven’t seen a performer before and note that her trio consists of Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, it’s a good bet you’re in for a treat.

Helen Sung

Sung more than lived up to my hopes, performing the type of trio music that invites comparisons to Bill Evans, Chick Corea and George Shearing. She has a deft touch on the keyboard and a soft, bright style. She opened with a reimagining of Shearing’s “Conception,” which she called “Reconception.” She moved on to an original composition, “Touch,” which was more dense and mysterious, then segued into Monk’s “Bye Ya.” Sung studied at the Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and the next few numbers were a nod to that experience, most notably “In Walked Bud.” The interplay between these three suberb players was exquisite, but I’d draw special attention to the duet work between Sung and bassist Rogers. Rogers is lithe and melodic, and the two of them interlocked themes magically during the last two numbers. You could see many in the intimate Coffee House Gallery had dropped in for a peek prior to the Arena’s opening – a few were drifting off, but I wasn’t going anywhere until “In Walked Bud” reached its rousing conclusion.


When I walked into Hiromi’s performance about midway through her set, the stylistic differences couldn’t have been more apparent. She was standing in front of the piano, which had an electric keyboard on top of it, alternating between the two, trading licks with electric bassist Anthony Jackson. The drummer, Simon Phillips, was barely visible behind a massive drum set that featured six cymbals. But it was clear the audience was fully behind her.  If Sung was perfect for the Coffee House, Hiromi’s trio was equally so for an opening set at the Arena.  She has complete command of the piano – even her more reflective pieces are projected with an emphatic tone, and her arpeggios, visually dramatic, all seem to make perfect sense musically. She moves seamlessly from the funky, bluesy tunes to the more personally intense, even incorporating a Latin feel to her closing number.

I’ve seen the criticism of Hiromi’s playing, that she seems to have absorbed every aspect of jazz and fires it back out in a sort of random way, but I don’t buy it. I’ve seen her twice in live performance, once as a solo act and this time with her trio, and each time she has utterly captivated the audience. Yes, she has the pyrotechnics, but practically everything she does is original, there are no standards for the audience to hang their hats on, yet they are with her for every note. She didn’t speak much to the audience, but her virtuosity and flair didn’t require much in the way of interpretation.

Jessica Molasky and John Pizzarelli

John Pizzerelli’s First Family of Cool followed, and it spoke to the diversity in styles that can be absorbed by the Monterey audience.  If you were lamenting the absence of wit and sophistication on the American scene in general and music in particular, you couldn’t have had a more delightful respite.  The opening numbers featured John and his wife, Jessica Molaskey,  weaving together pairs of songs, the lyrics intersecting wonderfully.  First there was Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen While You Dance,” paired with Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” then George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly.”  Then Molaskey singing “I Want To Be Happy” with Pizzerelli dropping in the lines from “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Larry Fuller did terrific work on the piano, particularly when they moved into Ellingtonia later on in the show with a brooding version of “Don’t Get Around Much Any More”/”East Saint Louis Toodle-oo.”  Martin Pizzerelli on bass and Anthony Tedesco rounded out the tight rhythm section and they all shined on a rollicking “C Jam Blues.”

The emotional and artistic highlight of the night came when Bucky Pizzerelli, John and Martin’s dad, came onstage for a series of guitar duets with John. From Bucky’s first few notes, he had the crowd captivated. Playing mostly lead to John’s rhythm,  he introduced “Body and Soul,” demonstrating the emotive qualities that can still be wrung out of that standard. They romped through “Tangerine” and then returned to the Ellington songbook in closing for “In a Mellow Tone.” If there was a common theme for the evening, it was how a great performer, no matter the age or the style, can take command of an audience.  There is certainly a sentimental quality to father and son up there on stage, but what raises it to a memorable performance is when you’ve got the chops,  and Bucky still has them.

Poncho Sanchez

Pancho Sanchez’s Latin Band closed the show with a tribute to the Cubano oeuvre of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.  Sanchez is a terrific conguero and his eight piece band is filled with talent, particularly Francisco Torres on trombone and the whole rhythm section, but it was the addition of trumpeter Terence Blanchard that really lit the place up.  Blanchard had been honored the night before in the MJF Gala event, and he was in splendid form, beginning with a medley of Gillespiana, highlighting “Tin Tin Deo,” “Manteca,” and  “Wachiwado,” which Pancho performed countless times with Cal Tjader as “Soul Sauce.”  Sanchez,  who had earlier left the conga chair for vocals and cowbell,  was back on the drums for the remainder of the set. They moved on to “Con Alma,” with Blanchard augmenting the sweet familiar melody with a nice uptempo interlude before returning to the theme. The highlights of the set were the next two numbers, Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High” and the Pancho standard, “Besame Mama.” Blanchard’s fiery playing raised the level of everyone around him, especially the band’s front line. Robert Hardt contributed a spirited tenor sax solo, but it was the trumpet duels between Blanchard and Ron Blake that really stole the show.  Blanchard set the tone,  sending out spiraling cadenzas and Blake reached deep inside of himself to answer, bringing the crowd to its feet.

All in all it was a spectacular night, and of course there were was much else going on – it was overall the most loaded Friday night I can remember in my 12 festivals.  MJF 54 is certainly off to an auspicious start.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday click HERE

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Sunday click HERE.

A Guide to the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival

September 8, 2011

By Michael Katz

In 1995 I decided on a whim that it might be fun to drive up the coast and see the Monterey Jazz Festival. A bunch of my favorites were performing there: Chick Corea, Gene Harris, Toots Thielemans and John Scofield. I hadn’t been to the Monterey Peninsula since a family trip in high school. I didn’t have tickets. I didn’t know where to stay. By sheer luck I found a B & B just off Del Monte Beach, about a twenty minute walk from the Monterey County Fairgrounds, where the festival takes place. After a brief encounter with some friendly scalpers, I found myself sitting in the Arena on a lovely fall evening, listening to a Friday night program from the side boxes. I was in Jazz Heaven. Everybody around me loved jazz, breathed jazz, spoke jazz. As I moved from the main arena into the smaller venues on the grounds, I noticed a phenomenon unheard of on the club scene: people listened to the music. They knew the players, or if they didn’t,  were willing to give them a chance. I heard Stephane Grappelli play hot jazz on the violin. I heard Steve Turre play cool jazz on a conch shell.

For the next several years I was an on-again off-again attendee, making my plans around family events and other interventions of life. By 2003, I noticed that an empty feeling pervaded when I missed the festival. I’d made friends in the Arena, among the regulars who sold me their extra seats. I’d made friends kibitzing around the festival. Even the scalpers remembered me. I became a regular, and next week will mark my 12th MJF. For those of you who are going for the first time, or are thinking about it, this year presents a great opportunity. The lineup is terrific, the economy has left some tickets available. So here’s one man’s guide to getting the most out of one of the world’s great music events.

MJF 54 takes place September 16-18. You could analyze the festival by days or music styles or food groups, but I’m going to approach it by venues, starting out with the Arena, also known as the Jimmy Lyons Stage. An Arena ticket gets you into all the venues at the festival, though if you only have a ticket for Saturday or Sunday night, you can’t gain admission onto the grounds until 4 pm. A Grounds ticket gets you into everywhere but the Arena, and is good all day.


The Arena, located on the west end of the fairgrounds, is the original venue for the festival. It seats 6500 and the tickets are renewable;  the audience thus includes many long term festival goers, which is great for financial continuity, but presents challenges for Artistic Director Tim Jackson, who must satisfy a loyal but aging base, while continuing to pump new blood into the lineup.

Joshua Redman

The headliners you see on the ad banners   all appear in the Arena: Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, though many of them appear on the grounds as well. There are five concert blocks, three evenings and two afternoons, with themes that run throughout the festival. Friday night has an international flavor, with Japanese virtuoso Hiromi opening the session on piano and Poncho Sanchez closing with a Cubano Bop salute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie featuring festival favorite Terence Blanchard. In between is John Pizzerelli with his wife, Jessica Molaskey and his dad Bucky; don’t be surprised if they get in with the international spirit of things. Saturday afternoon is the blues/roots program. Last year Trombone Shorty tore up the place, and this year the New Orleans jazz/funk returns with “An Afternoon in Treme,” an all-star collection of musicians from the HBO series, with Huey Lewis and the News bravely following.

One tradition at the Arena is the commissioned piece. It’s a particular challenge for an artist to compose something for a single performance. I’ve always found it a hit or miss proposition — try and be too profound and you will lose the spontaneity that jazz requires. Some of my favorites over the years were Gerald Wilson’s 40th Anniversary “Theme For Monterey,” Carla Bley’s 2005 “Appearing Nightly At The Black Orchid” and Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “Cannery Row  Suite” in 2006.

Geri Allen and Timeline

This year Geri Allen and Timeline will present a tribute Saturday night to Sammy Davis with tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Following them is the MJF’s  Artist-in-Residence Joshua Redman, who will appear with his band James Farm. Herbie Hancock closes out the program. ‘Nuff said.

Sunday afternoon is dedicated to the high school and college bands. It tends to be a harder sell to veteran audiences, but it’s lots of fun. The Next Generation Band, a touring all-star group, has young musicians that will make you wonder just what the heck you were doing in high school and college. Chipping in will be three of the band’s alumni, the aforementioned Redman, pianist Benny Green and saxophonist Donnie McCaslin.

The second part of the program is designed to bring younger audiences in, and traditionalists sometimes chafe at the programming. They are often delightfully surprised;   two years ago young Brit Jamie Cullen gave a thoroughly engaging performance and last year West Africa’s Angelique Kidjo lit up the audience with her world rhythms. This year features Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel and vocalist India.Arie. Sunday night closes the festival with a re-creation of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans oeuvre featuring Terence Blanchard and Miles Evans, followed by the indomitable Sonny Rollins.


I’ve always felt that the soul of the festival can be found at the Garden Stage, a small amphitheatre with bench and bleacher seating. There’s plenty of room to recline on blankets or set up portable chairs – some folks even climb into the oaks that surround the bowl. The festival opens up there Friday with a 6:30 set.

Robert Glasper

Usually a local Monterey area artist has that spot, but this year Featured Artist pianist Robert Glasper performs with his trio. Glasper will present different combos each night on the Grounds and Friday provides a wonderful opportunity for Arena ticket holders to catch him. The Garden Stage rollicks on Saturday afternoon with the blues/roots line-up. It’s great fun all day long, highlighted by the Treme group coming over from the Arena at 5:30. Saturday night, Cameroonian bassist/singer Richard Bona and Columbian singer/guitarist Raul Midon are a must see (they also perform Friday in Dizzy’s Den). I’ve always loved the late afternoon Sunday shows at the Garden Stage. The Festival seems to catch a second wind, with creative and sometimes unusual groupings. This year guitarist Bruce Forman brings his western themed Cow Bop in at 4, followed by saxophonist Tia Fuller at 5:30. Steve Coleman, who has been turning a lot of heads with his self-described “Spontaneous” music, closes the Garden slate at 7:30.



1. Bring a seat cushion. Both the Arena card chairs and the Garden benches are hard on the keister. There’s usually some freebies given out by sponsors or themed ones for sale, but if you are like me and tend to donate your cushion to the person who follows you, it helps to have extras.

2. Dress for excess. You may find the fairgrounds shrouded in fog upon arrival in the afternoon, but the sun can be intense when it burns through. Bring a hat, shades, sun tan lotion and light long sleeves. At night, it can get downright chilly. I usually bring light-weight polypro layers in a rucksack and a warm hat. Remember, if you have a grounds pass you may not be able to leave the fairgrounds and come back.


These two venues, located across from each other on the east end of the grounds, are spacious yet intimate compared to the arena. When Arena artists come over for their late set, it is like a second set at a club– loose and swinging. While the Arena sticks to it’s time limitations, these venues give them room to stretch out. A few years ago Dee Dee Bridgewater started late and went well into the night.


This year Hiromi and Joshua Redman will follow up their Arena performances with late sets at Dizzy’s Den, and the Pizzarelli family will also perform a Saturday night set there. Friday night has a Latin feel in the Night Club, kicked off by vocalist Carmen Souza. Vocalists tend to do better in the intimacy of these venues. Check out Pam Rose and her “Wild Women of Song” at the Night Club on Saturday. Earlier this year I saw adventurous drummer Antonio Sanchez with his Migration band featuring bassist Scott Colley and tenor player Donnie McCaslin put on a great show in LA. Saturday night at the Night Club, Sanchez plays under Colley’s leadership, with another MJF favorite, Chris Potter on tenor. Donnie McCaslin follows with his own group.

Sunday afternoon has the dynamite high school bands at the Night Club. I heartily recommend that you support these kids and urge you not to forget that music programs in the schools are in jeopardy everywhere. Once at the festival, you can help simply by purchasing a program, and you will hear about other ways as well.

There are some great pairings Sunday night. The traditional B-3 organ blowout is in Dizzy’s Den, starting with Will Blades and concluding with Joey DeFrancesco and  renowned vibist Bobby Hutcherson. Over at the Night Club, Benny Green leads a program of Monk tunes with Donald Harrison on the sax. The Robert Glasper Experiment concludes with Stokely Williams.


There may not be a better place to hear small combos than the Coffee House, located between the Arena and the Garden Stage, annexed to a photo gallery. The place is usually packed, the audiences cued in; you can hear a pin drop during the performances. Pianists are featured each night, playing multiple sets.

Helen Sung

Helen Sung, a native Houstonian who has been getting lots of attention in New York, brings her trio in Friday night, with the versatile Bill Carrothers leading a trio on Saturday night and former prodigy Eldar Djangirov, from K.C. via Kyrgyzstan, playing two solo sets Sunday night. There’s an eclectic assortment of music in the afternoon sessions, including this year’s Berklee College of Music group, a Flamenco quintet. If I have one regret at the festival’s end, it’s usually the failure to spend enough time at the Coffee House.


Known to us Chicago folk as the Backroom West, this small stage just off the main entrance features our favorite singer/pianist Judy Roberts playing seven sets over the course of the festival accompanied by Greg Fishman on sax. Judy is a delight whether singing or playing the Yamaha AvantGrand, so take your dinner to the nearby picnic tables and check her out.


1. There’s all sorts of great food on the fairgrounds midway. I’m partial to barbecue and peach cobbler, but there’s everything from salads to Thai to kabobs. Eat ‘N Enjoy. Plenty of beer and wine, too.

2. There are also panel discussions and films shown mostly during the afternoon. Check the schedule for details.

3.  Amoeba Music has taken over the festival CD sales, so look for a dramatic improvement over the last couple of years when Best Buy had the concession.

4. If you want a tee shirt, get it Friday night, when all the sizes and colors are in stock.

5. It ain’t over til it’s over. If you’re coming out of the Arena, check out the grounds venues on your way out. Last year drummer Roy Haynes’ extended closing set provided a perfect coda to the festival.

 All the MJF information is available at:

Joshua Redman photo by Tony Gieske


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 237 other followers