By Michael Katz
Saturday dawned in a Monterey fog; the sun was just starting to burn through in what proved to be a cameo appearance as the MJF reconvened. Patrons entering through the main gate were greeted by one of the festival’s ongoing treats: singer/pianist Judy Roberts and alto sax player Greg Fishman at the Courtyard Stage. Really just a small platform surrounded by a pond, the Courtyard Stage has for years been an outlet for Yamaha to show off its keyboard instruments, with a pianist tinkling favorites for diners at the surrounding picnic tables. Yamaha upped the ante considerably by bringing in Judy Roberts at the last minute, to the considerable delight of the many Chicagoans at the festival who have followed her at clubs like the Backroom over the years. The new digital Yamaha Avant Grand will never sound better than it did with Roberts in front of the keyboard, mixing vocals in with standards like “What A Difference A Day Makes” and “Route 66,” and bossas like “Desafinado.” Fishman accompanied her with supple interpretations on “Stan’s Blues” and a wonderful vocal/piano/sax version of “Take Five.” The two of them played eight half-hour sets during the festival, and many of us couldn’t get past the opening gate without spending a half-hour with Judy and Greg.
A lot of folks were scratching their heads when Pete Seeger was booked to play the Saturday afternoon arena show, usually reserved for blues/funk/New Orleans rhythms. I wasn’t one of them. Though a longtime jazz fan, my first love was folk music: the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and behind it all, the voice and music of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Clearly I wasn’t the only one; Seeger and his eight person band were greeted with a standing ovation when they walked out, and the bond between performers and audience never faltered. Launching right into “Midnight Special,” the group featured Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger on vocals, guitar and harmonica. Tao was the lead voice of the group – a tad higher than Pete’s rich tenor, but equally effective when he took the lead on “Cuban Cowboy Song” and “Guantanamera.” Mike Merenda played guitar and banjo and assisted on vocals, and his wife Ruth took the lead female vocals on “Golden Thread” as well as soloing on banjo and fiddle, with Laura Cortese also on fiddle and Jacob Silver on bass. Jason Crosby contributed a honky-tonk piano on “Dust Bowl Blues” and “Blue Skies.”
The trademark of Pete Seeger, though, is audience participation, and from the first strains of “Midnight Special,” the crowd was a more than willing accomplice. Tao led the crowd in “Sailin’ Up The River,” documenting their work to clean up the Hudson. A bit later, Pete told the story of a record company executive who extolled him to “Quit writing those protest songs and give me something I can sell.” Seeger set up his tape recorder and wove some verses from the Bible into “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the executive sent to the Byrds. On this Saturday afternoon, generations later, Seeger bade the audience to sing along, reading the words in advance of the chords. I noticed not a few tears streaming down cheeks around me – perhaps because the meaning of the verses hasn’t diminished over the years, though of course our youthful times have. It was the most poignant moment of the festival. The show ended with “This Land Is Your Land,” Seeger again reading all the verses so the audience could join in. This remarkable group left as they arrived, to a swell of emotion and approval from the audience.
Susan Tedeschi closed out the arena afternoon show, with a spirited blues performance. At first glance she seems somewhat after the style of Bonnie Raitt, but her blues renditions recalled Janis Joplin and had the fans in the front up and dancing. Her group had a robust sound, aided in no small part by Matt Slocum on keyboards. Slocum spent most of his time on the organ, and the sound filled out the group in a pulsating manner. Highlights of the set included Alan Toussaint’s “Breaking The Rules” and her New Orleans-tinged “700 Homes.” Following Pete Seeger was a tall order, but Tedeschi sent the crowd back onto the fairgrounds with a flourish.
It’s hard to tell where the afternoon ends and the evening begins at Monterey – though the fog will tell you if you’re not bundled up. At 5:30 the New Orleans All-Stars took to the Garden Stage, featuring Cyrille Neville on vocals and percussion and Henry Butler on piano. The Garden Stage, an outdoor amphitheatre with several sections of benches and bleachers, was filled to the brim and hundreds more took up every available green space with blankets and portable chairs. Even the surrounding oaks were populated with fans. I caught about thirty minutes of a set that lasted ninety, highlighted by Butler’s rousing, funky piano.
Joe Lovano anchored the first arena show of the evening, fronting a quartet that featured Brian Blade, John Patitucci and John Scofield replacing the scheduled Hank Jones. Exchanging Jones for Scofield, who had performed earlier in the day with his Piety Street Band (reviewed on these pages a few weeks ago) would seem a pretty drastic change. The band came out amped up, especially Patitucci’s bass, and it needed a tune or so to calm it down. In the meantime, Lovano was burning through solos on “Fort Worth.” Brian Blade was lithe and lightening-like on the drums, contributing a mallet solo on the next number, which featured some wicked byplay from Scofield and Patitucci. Lovano brought out a double soprano sax for the finale, conjuring up the ghost of Roland Kirk and bringing the set to an exciting conclusion.
Dee Dee Bridgewater followed with what seems to have become de rigueur for female vocalists – a percussion heavy ensemble with jazz drums and congas. Bridgewater is a compelling performer, comfortable entertaining a large crowd. She started with “AfroBlue” and moved on to her own lyrics for Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” retitled “Long Time Ago.” The highlights of this set were her final two numbers. The first, “Four Women,” an homage to Nina Simone, was performed with just the right mix of anger and compassion, Bridgewater displaying an actor’s flair for inserting herself into the psyche of the four women. Finally, she implored everyone to get up and dance, sing or anything else that would get them shaking along to the Eddie Harris/Les McCann 70’s anthem, “Compared To What.” It occurred to me that the arena crowd, having already joined in on Scofield and the Piety Street Band’s “When The Saints Go Marching In,” Seeger’s “This Land Is Your Land” and now “Compared To What” had in one day participated in every cultural anthem this side of “La Marseillaise.”
Wynton Marsalis was this year’s Artist-In-Residence and he took the stage with his Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra for the final act Saturday Night. Curiously, he never left his chair in the trumpet section’s back row, except to stand for solos — it took the cameras shooting for the big video screen to find him – perhaps he was thinking of Sunday’s Children’s Day program (Where’s Wynton?) Not that this band needed a figurehead. Crisp, clear and dynamic from start to finish, there is so much talent in this orchestra that there hardly is time in one set to feature them all. Wynton took the spotlight with a searing solo on the opening “Stage West.” Next came “Blues Walk,” a Lou Donaldson tune that featured Sherman Irby on alto and Chris Crenshaw with a terrific muted trombone solo. Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All” provided a star turn for trumpeter Marcus Printup and Walter Blanding on tenor sax. The depth of this orchestra is mind boggling, with Ted Nash, Victor Goines and baritone saxist Joe Temperley rounding out the sax section; Ryan Kisor and Vitaly Golovnev on trumpet; and Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason on trombones. “Ceora,” the lovely Lee Morgan composition, featured gorgeous section playing from the trumpets, saxes and trombones, as well as solos by Ryan Kisor and pianist Dan Nimmer. You could almost forget that we hadn’t really heard from Wynton since the opening number. He remedied that in the closing “Shade of Jade,” also featuring Ali Jackson on drums and bassist Carlos Henriquez. Not to be greedy, but it seemed the set could have used another number or two. It wasn’t that the audience was shortchanged time-wise – but there was so much talent in this group that an hour just didn’t seem long enough. Fortunately, the Orchestra had another set scheduled for Sunday night. No one should miss this group if they come to your area, or if you get to New York.
[Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform over the next week on Saturday (Sept. 26) at the Thousand Oaks Civic Plaza, on Sun. (Sept. 27) at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, on Tues. (Sept. 29) at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego, on Thurs. (Oct. 1) at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, and on Friday, (Oct. 2) a UCLA’s Royce Hall.]
Photographs of Pete Seeger, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Joe Lovano © Craig Lovell courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival