By Michael Katz
What happens when the world’s greatest jazz festival meets the era’s worst economy? The recession made its presence felt at the 52nd Monterey Jazz Festival, with arena seats available at curtain time for the first time in memory. Even the official program was slimmed down by about 20 pages. But by any other measure the Festival was a stunning success, a cornucopia of diverse musical formats and virtuosity unmatched in the decade or so I’ve been attending. From the opening warmth generated by saxophonist Roger Eddy, floating Brazilian melodies over the Garden Stage, to the closing chords of Chick Corea’s acoustic trio, the festival was a series of highlights, spread over 6 stages, far too much for one person to take in.
The Friday arena show opened with Esperanza Spalding, the young singer/ bassist who’s been causing such a stir. Tall and willowy, her hair styled a la Billie Holliday, Spalding presented a set full of verve and sensuality. Alternating between stand-up and electric bass, she bridged the territory between Wayne Shorter-inspired jazz funk and the lush Brazilian melody of Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta de Areia.” Though I’m partial to her upright, her vocals often seem more effective when she was playing the more compact electric bass, as on her bouncy hit, “Sunlight.” There is such a disparity in octaves between her alto voice and the deep, rich tones of the stand-up that they sometimes seem to compete, or at least give the illusion there-of. There were times when it might have been a better idea, especially on ballads, just to put the bass aside. Still, it was an appealing set that got the arena series off to a rousing start.
The second set was a breathtaking performance by the 2nd edition of the Monterey All Stars. Anchored by pianist Kenny Barron’s trio with Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums, the band featured violinist Regina Carter, Russell Malone on guitar and vocalist Kurt Elling. The fact that most of this group had played with one another previously in one shape or form more than made up for lack of rehearsal time. Starting with a swinging rendition of “When I Get Too Old To Dream,” with everyone providing an introductory solo, they moved on to the Billie Holiday standard “Don’t Explain,” featuring first Barron and then a heart-tugging violin solo by Carter. Malone took over with a nod to Wes Montgomery on “Road Song,” Kenny Barron chiming in with a spirited riff. Then Kurt Elling nearly stole the show with a Kerouc-inspired free-poetic reading of Barron’s “What If.” Everyone in the band was burning at this point, but there was more to come, with Barron’s composition “Calypso” featuring Malone and Carter, and then Elling with a nod to Jon Hendricks on “Soul Food.” Russell Malone is always terrific on up-tempo tunes, but when he does a ballad, the earth stops. He described the advice he had been given, that a ballad should be “like a kiss, sweet, deep and slow” and proceeded to show why with an achingly beautiful “Time After Time.” They closed with an Elling-led romp through “Nature Boy.” This group will be touring in the winter, and hopefully will release a CD of this performance, as did the first edition of the All Stars. They are not to be missed.
Friday’s arena program closed with trombonist Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side All Star Band, with veteran East Coasters including Bill O’Connell on piano, supplemented by the Festival’s featured artist Joe Lovano and Randy Brecker. It was Herwig who was the real revelation here, at least for those of us on the West Coast who hadn’t seen him. His tone is authoritative, his style swinging and technically brilliant, whether on ballads or Latin-peppered riffs. His band started with a salute to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, with Joe Lovano in fine form on the title tune and “Cousin Mary.” The band then moved to a Kind Of Blue tribute featuring Randy Brecker on “Flamenco Sketches” and a Latin funk version of “So What.” Brecker has a hard bop sound, closer in spirit to Freddie Hubbard than Miles Davis, and though the music was engaging, it seemed farther afield from its source than the Coltrane tunes. But no one could complain about the final number, “All Blues,” which has stood up to anything and everything over the years. Lovano returned to supplement the front line with Herwig and Brecker, and the three of them soared through to the conclusion. All in all, it was the most exciting opening night of a festival in I can remember. It was past one AM when the last stragglers cleared out of the fairground, and the festival was only beginning.
Photographs © Craig Lovell courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival