Impressions from MJF 56, Saturday
By Michael Katz.
Saturday at MJF is a sprawl of music, food, and a friendly wave of humanity washing over everything. After years of vacillating between the supposedly bigger names in the sun-baked arena and the fun of the Garden Stage, I opted this year to grab a bench seat at the Garden and soak it all in. As it turned out, you could have camped out for 3 days and nights there in your lawn chair and done just fine. Saturday afternoon was opened by the California Honeydrops, a band from Oakland with a distinct gumbo flavor, augmented by the blues-tinged piano of guest artist Charlie Hickox. Lech Wierzynski was a genial leader on vocals, guitar and trumpet. He varied the pace, from a sultry “Let The Good Times Roll,” to the New Orleans standard “You Rascal You,” and some rollicking blues.
When the metaphorical Honeydrops turned to real raindrops, the band marched into the crowd for a spirited “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Johnny Bones wailed away on the tenor, with Lorenzo Loera on bass. Benjamin Malamont and Warren Jones handled drums and percussion. In recounting their adventures playing in the BART tunnels, they brought out a washboard, Jones spinning out a tactile tap dance through “Pumpkin Pie.”
Somewhat regretfully, I left the Honeydrops behind to drop in on baritone sax player Claire Daly at the Night Club. She was doing a set of Monk tunes from her Baritone Monk CD, and the promise of an hour of Thelonious tunes was enough to draw me inside. Daly opened up with “52nd Street Theme,” then switched to some lesser known compositions, including “Light Blue,” which featured an arco solo by her bassist, Mary Ann McSweeney. It was nice to bring tunes like “Teo” and “Two Timer” to light, but there was a lot of mileage left in the more familiar compositions as well.
Daly has a graceful touch with the bari sax, strong chops and an easy patter with the audience. She knew when to vary the tone, switching to flute for “Ruby, My Dear,” where she had some fine support from Steve Hudson on piano. Her “Merrier Christmas” medley was quite amusing, especially given the hot and sticky conditions inside the Nightclub. When she mentioned the word “cool” in introducing “Let’s Cool One,” the very sound of it was refreshing; her version of it was brisk and swinging. I especially liked her interpretation of “Bright Mississippi,” which, despite the intended irony in Monk’s title, was bright and bouncy. Drummer Peter Grant had a nice flourish toward the end to conclude a terrific set.
There were a few quick stops before the evening program kicked in. I caught the end of George Benson’s Arena show, walking into a blazing (if way too heavily amped) “Mambo Inn,” which was followed by a couple of his pop standards, and then a foot stomping signature version of “On Broadway.”
Back at the Garden Stage, bassist Charnett Moffett kicked off the 10 Years of Motema Music celebration with 20 minutes of solo bass. It was a triumph of rhythm and dexterity, his nimble fingers reminiscent of Ron Carter, deftly weaving from Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” There was “Frere Jacques” as you’ve never quite heard it, and a stand-up bass/electronic-assisted nod to Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
I started the evening at the Arena, where Artist-In Residence Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas led their Sound Prints quintet. Lovano has been much into free jazz of late – I had caught the end of his Us Five band Friday night. His soloing is vigorous and full of extemporaneous glee, while Douglas has always been out there on the edge. But I thought that pianist Lawrence Fields was superb – his chordal structures and gentle prodding formed the background to the band, a kind of gravitational pull that kept the soloists from breaking too far from their orbits. The centerpiece of the show was two Wayne Shorter compositions commissioned for the festival, “Destination Unknown” and “Sail Beyond The Sunset.” The first was a somewhat basic line augmented by some more nice work by Fields. I found the second more compelling, with trumpeter Douglas providing some clarity with his voicings. Lovano soaring as usual and Linda Oh adding some insistent bass work. Joey Baron backed it all up nicely on the drums.
I cannot go through an MJF without at least one piano trio set at the Coffee House, so I headed over to catch Orrin Evans’ 9:30 set. Evans is a unique talent. Start out with a muscular style, a la the late Mulgrew Miller or McCoy Tyner, then add in the ability to find calm in the center, like the eye of a hurricane. Evans has had a long association with his bassist, Eric Revis, and the interplay between the two was fascinating throughout. They opened with a Revis composition, “Black Elk Speaks,” which had some abstract qualities, but later moved on to standards like “Autumn Leaves.” Drummer Donald Evans contributed precise stickwork, and Evans again demonstrated his ability to produce thunderous riffs and then segue to lovely, quieter moments. The hour flew by, ending on the spiritual side with Luther Vandross’ “Brand New Day” from The Wiz, and then Evans singing a gospel-like, “The Eternal Truth,” by Trudy Pitts.
There was no shortage of reverence and appreciation for the late Dave Brubeck at MJF 56, but nothing quite brought his spirit to life like the Brubeck Brothers Quartet at the Nightclub.
Bassist and trombonist Chris Brubeck, as affable as he is talented, kept everything in perspective, adding family insights to a collection of standard and not-so-standard compositions by his father. Brother Dan was quiet verbally but boisterous on the drum set. The band itself stood out for its contrast to the basic Dave Brubeck quartet. Instead of a sax, there was superb guitarist Mike DeMicco. He shared the leads with pianist Chuck Lamb – the two of them often alternating bars on the main lines. The substitution of guitar for sax presented opportunities for fresh arrangements, and here the band excelled. I especially liked “Kathy’s Waltz,” which had a bright, energetic swing to it, with a terrific solo by Lamb. “The Jazz-anians” was a tour de force for Dan, and emphasized the cultural impact Dave had. There was a quiet interlude for Lamb, who soloed in “Strange Meadowlark,” then Chris picked up the trombone, offering a sweet and lovely interpretation of one of my favorite Brubeck tunes, “In Your Own Sweet Way.” There was also recognition of the recent passing of Marian McPartland. Dave Brubeck had recorded a series of wonderful compositions in which he took a performer’s name and worked out tunes that seemed to match them. “Marian McPartland,” which he recorded with her on “Piano Jazz,” was wonderfully re-invented with Chris providing nimble bass work. The Brubecks understood that the audience still wanted the most famous tunes – but Chris added to the understanding with a narrative of the quartet’s tour under the aegis of the State Department, which inspired “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” If you wondered how they’d pull this off without a saxophone, Mike DeMicco answered with an intricate reading, carrying the melody with Lamb, then pulling off the “Blue” part with some raucous guitar licks.
Capping it off was “Take Five,” in which Dan Brubeck breathed new life into the obligatory drum solo, taking a turn that might have become de riguer and treating the audience to as fine an extended performance as has been rendered on one of jazz’s most famous tunes.
That put the cap on a wonderful day 2 at Monterey, with the promise of one more afternoon and evening to come.
Photos of the California Honeydrops, Charnett Moffett and Chris Brubeck by Michael Katz.
Photos of Claire Daly, Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas, and Orrin Evans courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.