Live: 51st Monterey Jazz Festival

By MIchael J. Katz

Ryan Shaw
Ryan Shaw

It’s 6:35 p.m. and the first few strains of music are flowing over the Garden Stage, a small outdoor amphitheatre adjacent to the main arena at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. The main stage show doesn’t start for two hours, but the fans are already flowing in, filling up the funky metal benches. Lawn chairs sprout up in the green space in front of the bleacher sections, and by tomorrow there will be folks perched in the surrounding oaks. The crowd is listening to George Young, a sixtyish tenor player who opens the festival with a program of Billy Strayhorn tunes.  Young’s renditions of Take The A Train and Rain Check seem the perfect backdrop as old friends reunite and plot strategy for three days of jazz and blues spread over five stages of music.

Although the big names are centered on the Arena, I’ve always thought the Garden Stage is the soul of the festival. Its smaller size promotes intimacy, yet the outdoor setting gives it a raucous environment.  Good vibes spill out over the grounds, across the midway, where the smell of barbecue wafts over wooden picnic tables; fans of all ages and backgrounds find themselves thrown together, comparing the virtues of Ghanaian salmon and Texas ribs.

I duck into the Coffee House, the smallest of the indoor venues, to catch a young Israeli pianist, Yaron Herman and his trio. Herman plays with a furious virtuosity, all his own compositions, in a free form whirlwind that will be book ended late in the festival by Wayne Shorter’s soaring performance at the arena. Shorter’s legion of fans will take flight with him anywhere, whereas Herman hasn’t found his audience yet. People wander in and out, and I wonder if sprinkling his repertoire with a few identifiable tunes wouldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, at the arena, a dense fog has settled in, and some in the crowd who thought last year’s downpour on opening night was an anomaly are beginning to mutter about the effects of global warming.  By the time Cassandra Wilson finishes an adventurous set with a nod to Sarah Vaughn in A Day In The Life of A Fool and Til There was You, the fog has turned into light rain and many folks don’t stay for the final act, flutist Maraca’s Cuban Lullabies. That’s a shame, because they miss an exhilarating performance, augmented by sax players David Sanchez and Miguel Zenon.  Three days hence, Zenon will be awarded a $500,000 MacArthur grant – one can only imagine the Monterey crowd partying over that news.

Saturday afternoon is the blues show, and I am back at the Garden Stage where Ryan Shaw, a young R and B singer from Georgia, simply tears up the place. Singing a mixture of his own songs and gospel-tinged covers from the Beatles (Let It Be) to Otis Redding (Try a Little Tenderness), Shaw has the crowd standing and cheering.  Aided by superb bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsey, Shaw encores for half an hour, causing me to miss Maceo Parker at the Arena. That is the joyful serendipity of Monterey.

The biggest splash of the festival is made Sunday afternoon by young Brit Jamie Cullum. Hyped as the next  Harry Connick, Jr,  or maybe the third coming of Sinatra, Cullum wins over skeptics from the start with a foot stomping (in this case on his own keyboard) version of I Get A Kick Out Of You. Cullum has the jazz chops.  His Twentysomething is a brightly funny take on leaving the nest, set against the altered chords of Charles Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song.  He bounces around the stage, leaping on his piano — his vertical leap would make NBA scouts drool, were it not for the fact that he is about half the size of a standup bass.  It’s the best main arena debut I can recall since Diana Krall knocked everybody out in 1997.

A few words about jazz education, the principal mission of the Monterey Jazz Festival. The kids in this festival, supported generously by Verizon, are stunningly talented. A Latin Jazz septet from the Berklee College of Music, its members hailing from Israel to Peru, played to packed houses at both the Garden Stage and the Coffee House. I caught the winning High School vocal groups from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Folsom High School, both of whom played crisp arrangements with outstanding young voices.  A combo of high school students from the Jazz School Advanced Workshop in Berkeley was equally outstanding. When you listen to these kids and see the enthusiastic crowds that support them at Monterey, it’s hard to accept the slight recognition jazz gets in the broader media, or the widespread belief that the music isn’t healthy.

There is way too much going on at Monterey to do justice to everyone. My favorites this year included Kurt Elling’s tribute to the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration, with saxman Ernie Watts and the ETHEL string quartet; Christian McBride’s straight ahead jazz quintet with Steve Wilson on woodwinds and Eric Reed on piano, and Maria Schneider’s lush, symphonic jazz compositions, also featuring Wilson,  highlighted by Willow Lake, her commissioned piece.

When it was all over, Herbie Hancock launching into an electrified encore of Chameleon at the arena, the crowd emptied out, taking the joys of music and camaraderie back to the workaday world.

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