By Michael Katz
Sunday afternoon I was determined to spend some time at the grounds venues. Armed with my folding chair and an appetite for grazing, I set up camp under an oak tree at the front of the Garden Stage amphitheatre. First up was the Cal State University Long Beach Jazz Orchestra led by Jeff Jarvis. Clad in beach shirts, the band breezed through standards “Where Or When” and “Green Dolphin Street,” as well as some original compositions and featured some outstanding young talent, including Dan Kaneyuki and Chase Baird on saxes and Steve Wade on trumpet.
Between sets, I visited an addition to the midway, the Artisan Salad Bar, in an attempt to become more green, or at least a little more healthy. Located as they are in the middle of America’s salad bowl, it was bound to be a success, and festival patrons devoured everything well before the stand’s 4 PM closing time. This didn’t stop me, of course, from topping things off with a peach cobbler a la mode. But I digress…
I’d been looking forward to hearing Scotty Barnhart, whose CD “Say It Plain” had received a lot of airplay on K-Jazz the past few months. The 45 year old Barnhart, a long time educator and lead trumpet for the Count Basie Orchestra, has a clear, mellow tone and a gently swinging style that was perfect for a breezy Sunday afternoon. His CD’s title song, which opened the set, was a tribute to Martin Luther King, Sr., and featured Barnhart on muted horn, Bill Kennedy on tenor and Rick Lollar on guitar. Barnhart tiptoed into the opening of “All of You,” and shone dramatically on “Haley’s Passage,” a tribute to Roots author Alex Haley. The set reached a rousing crescendo when vocalist Jamie Davis joined the group for “Night and Day” and finished off with a tribute originally composed for a friend in the Desert Storm campaign but now intended for our soldiers in Iran and Aghanistan, “The Burning Sands,” which started as a trio and stretched out to include the entire group in a stirring finale.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez arrived in Monterey without much of the fanfare that had preceded his appearances in LA. Few in the Garden Stage crowd knew much about him, but it only took a few notes to establish his authority on the keyboard and hush the audience. His playing on the first two unannounced compositions was mysterious and dense, leading to dramatic interplays with his trio, bassist Nathan East and drummer Francisco Mela. Mela, whose wiry physique and lithe counter rhythms reminded me of Brian Blade, was especially effective. Nathan East delivered a lovely intro to the one familiar number, “Body And Soul,” and then Rodriquez took over for a gorgeous interpretation. By this time the crowd had caught on, photographers scrambling to the front of the stage for pictures, the benches and bleachers filled to capacity. Rodriguez closed with another brooding melody, tinged with hints of foreboding, and left to a standing ovation.
The Coffee House is the smallest venue at the festival, a great place for small acoustic groups. I’d stopped in between sets at the Garden Stage to get a taste of guitarist Terrence Brewer’s trio doing a Wes Montgomery tribute. The venue was packed solid; after standing for a few minutes I was able to sit down for a couple of numbers before heading back to see Rodriguez.
I returned at 5 PM to see Dominick Farinacci, a 25 year old trumpeter from Cleveland who had been a member of the MJF’’s Next Generation Band and toured with them to Japan before attending Julliard. Again, the venue was SRO, and Farinacci put on one of the best shows of the festival. To say he is a heartthrob-in-the-making – one of his biggest ovations was for taking off his jacket – would be accurate, though unfair to his talent. He has a rich, luxurious tone which leans toward the romantic. With Hollywood good looks and a ready wit, he had an ease about him that connected with the audience. He also put together a thoughtful program, starting with an Argentinean tango, then moving to a muted blues and a nod to Nina Simone with “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Following that, he did a medley beginning with a Puccini aria and segueing to the theme from the movie “Babel.” While in Japan, Farinacci had seen the animated film Ponyo, since released in the U.S. and dubbed in English. He was so taken with the film that he transcribed the theme and arranged his own interpretation, which was utterly charming. It was released as a bonus on the Japanese addition of his CD, Lovers Tales and Dances, and hopefully he will include it on a release here. His quintet, which featured Dan Kaufman on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, Carmen Intorre on drums and Matthias Kunzli on drums, played for ninety minutes, the closing numbers highlighted by Farinacci’s composition, “Vision.”
My plans for a relaxed break before the final arena concert were scuttled by Farinacci’s extended performance – I had only a few minutes to retrieve my folding chair from the Garden Stage lawn, dash outside the fairgrounds to deposit it in my car and bundle up for the last act as the fog rolled in. There was barely time for BBQ’d chicken-on-a-stick and a dash to the arena for pianist Jason Moran’s commissioned piece, “Feedback,” which turned out to be one of the few misfires of the festival. Harkening back to Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 Monterey Pop Festival appearance, he somehow transcribed Hendrix’ guitar feedback, chopped it up into some sort of composition and played alongside of it, as well as leading the audience in some chants-in-the-round. I’ll leave it to Hendrix devotees to explain this one. To me, it sounded like a flock of seagulls on acid, but hey, it’s a big tent.
In between sets, Dave Brubeck was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, with Clint Eastwood and Chick Corea joining in the ceremony. Brubeck, still possessed with a quick wit and agile fingers, was soon back in front of the piano, leading his quartet of bassist Michael Moore, drummer Randy Jones and Bobby Militello on alto and flute. I don’t know what to say about Brubeck that hasn’t already been said, so let me say a few words about Militello. He has played with Brubeck for over twenty-five years and deserves to be known as more than the guy who followed Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan. Militello has a robust style. If Desmond’s alto was, as famously described, the sound of a dry martini, Militello’s is the sound of a Heinekin Dark — full bodied and hard-charging. It’s no surprise that Brubeck, in the live appearances I’ve seen, stays away from most of the Desmond material except the obligatory “Take Five.” He began his set with Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and segued into “Take The A Train,” both of them fine vehicles for his own swinging style as well as Militello’s vibrant sax. They next did a terrific version of “Yesterdays,” again featuring Militello, who then switched to flute for a ballad, providing a fine counterpoint to his alto playing. He has a haunting style – check out “Tritonis” on the MJF recording, “50 Years of Dave Brubeck at Monterey” for an example. All in all, another wonderful set from the Brubeck quartet.
The festival closed with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. I had just seen them in a memorable performance at the Hollywood Bowl, but when the curtain opened at Monterey revealing only a Yamaha Grand piano, the chance to see Chick in an all acoustic setting was irresistible. He opened up with an improvisational dance around the chords of “Green Dolphin Street,” embellished by the interplay with Clarke, and continued with Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debbie.” He moved on to what he called his “No Mystery Tour,” featuring the title song from the Return to Forever album that featured White and Clarke. That album was largely electric, but the music was haunting on acoustic piano, and seemed well-suited to the occasion. Next up was a ballad featuring Clarke with a beautiful solo, starting with some extended bow work, then progressing to a plucking, slapping tour de force. The group finished up with “500 Miles High,” featuring White on the drums, along with Chick on a closing flourish.
Then it was time to tie a ribbon around one of the great MJFs in memory, bid goodbye to friends seen once a year, grab a cup of hot cocoa for the road, to chase the memories and margaritas. So long til next year.
Photographs of Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea © Craig Lovell courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Photograph of Jame Davis and Scotty Barnhart by Michael Katz.