Live Country Music: Willie Nelson and Family at the Greek Theatre

September 28, 2010

By Mike Finkelstein

Last Friday night, Willie Nelson and Family delivered a quickly paced and very satisfying 90-minute set to a Greek Theatre nearly full of his devoted fans.   Performing below an appropriately huge Texas state flag, Nelson and his band held court to present the songs in his inimitably sparse style.   Perhaps it was the balmy weather or just the nature of his appeal, but the ladies in the audience seemed to also be sparsely dressed to impress on a breezy summer evening.   And the smell of burning medicinal herbs intermittently wafted through the air all evening long.

Each song was a carefully timed jaunt through the changes of the tune, allowing just enough time for the flavor of the piece to sink in — and for a bit of improvisation, too.    Nobody played through an amplifier much bigger than a microwave oven and Willie’s amp had a grill in the shape of Texas (of course).

Backing him were his sister Bobbie Lee on piano, long-time cohort Bee Spears on bass, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, his son Lukas on guitar, his son Micah on percussion, and brothers Paul and Billy English on drum (singular!) and percussion.   The band’s sound was subtle and distinctive, in large part because Paul English — mostly playing with brushes and a single snare drum — tickled and coaxed the music along for the whole evening. There was no full drum kit, and it was the lack of bottom heavy percussion that gave the sound so much room to breathe, with Micah playing an assortment of percussive accessories to add some flourishes to the mix.

For those of us who had never seen a Willie Nelson show before, it was gratifying to realize just how involved Willie’s guitar playing actually is and just how beautifully he weaves it together with his voice.  He would typically sing a line in his trademark style of doing the first part of the stanza melodically, but trailing off into a speaking voice at the end of the phrase.   Then, he would quickly counter the vocal line with a lyrical run on his guitar.  These sophisticated runs, short and sweet as they were, lent a remarkable sense of intimacy to the moment, as there was clearly a running dialogue between the two voices.

Nelson’s iconic instrument, Trigger (named after the famous horse), is a one-of-a-kind, weathered old Martin nylon string guitar, so permeated with sweat, smoke, autographs and good music that there is an always widening crevasse between the bridge and the sound hole.  He played Trigger with a pick and let his remaining three fingers sometimes tickle the chords’ upper registers.   This guitar sounds nothing short of magical in his hands and it should eventually wind up in a place like the Smithsonian.

The program Friday night covered a tremendous amount of musical ground and the quick pace of the show seemed born out of necessity.   From standards and chestnuts such as “Move It on Over” to “Shoeshine Man” to “City of New Orleans” to “Georgia on My Mind” and with many of his own hits in between, he offered something for just about every taste.   He had the crowd dancing and singing along with songs like “Crazy,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”   He took the mood into contemplative spaces with songs like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and boozier ones with “Whiskey River,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.”   A song like “On the Road Again,”  about being anxious to get back out on the road and make music with his friends, really does seem to paint a true image of himself.

At the age of 77 Nelson is both a national treasure and a veteran of the road and many of its excesses.   But it was inspiring to see that he was so at ease with the pace of it all onstage.   Absolutely adored by his audience, he spent several minutes shaking hands and signing autographs as the show ended.

Ryan Bingham

The evening was opened by Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses.   Bingham, a gritty rising star in the country field who co-wrote “The Weary Kind” for the Academy Award winning movie Crazy Heart , delivered a fine set and had the crowd with him and building steam towards the end.   Bingham sang songs from his new release, Junky Star, about maintaining his roots and staying true to his values in these difficult times with a rich yet dusty voice that you couldn’t help but be drawn to. Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, sat in for most of the Dead Horses set and, on ballads, played the chromatic harmonica beautifully without the typical blues nuances.

There were times when the Dead Horses had two cranked slide guitars playing in unison and even two harmonicas at one point.   It all worked like a charm.  In marked contrast to many opening acts, the Dead Horses were notable for the ease with which they commanded the stage and for the huge, but not too loud, sound they got out of small amplifiers.   Bingham thanked the crowd for “putting up with (them),” but that was far from the case, as the band’s set was hugely successful.

All in all, a show like this one would stimulate somebody new to country music, or just unconvinced by it, to take an interest in both of these fine artists.

To read more of Mike Finkelstein’s reviews click HERE.

Picks of the Week: Sept. 28 – Oct. 3

September 28, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

– Sept. 29. (Wed.)  Strunz & Farah. The dynamic guitar duo display their fast-fingered magic.  Click HERE to read an iRoM review of a recent S&F appearance.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

McCoy Tyner

– Sept. 29 – Aug. 3 (Wed. – Sun.)  McCoy Tyner Quartet. The ever-exploratory Tyner,  leads a group that features the similarly adventurous alto saxophonist Gary Bartz Catalina Bar & Grill. (323) 466-2210.

– Sept. 30. (Thurs.)  Alfredo Rodriguez. Cuba’s latest jazz piano prodigy has been startling listeners with his improvisational virtuosity since he arrived here a year ago.  Click HERE to read an iRoM review of one of Rodriguez’s first L.A. appearances.   Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.   Musicians Institute Concert Hall.  (310) 271-9039.

– Sept. 30. (Thurs.) John Cale.  When Past and Future Collide – Paris 1919. Cale presents a complete live performance of his classic 1973 album, Paris 1919, with members of the UCLA Philharmonia and special guests Ben Gibbard and Mark LaneganUCLA Live.  Royce Hall.   (310) 825-2101.

Lorraine Feather

– Oct. 1. (Fri.)  Lorraine Feather.  She’s an engaging singer, as well as a brilliant wordsmith, and she doesn’t make many appearances in L.A.  So don’t miss this one. Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

– Oct. 1. (Fri.)  Betty Buckley.  “Broadway by Request” with Seth Rudetsky.   She’s starred on Broadway in Cats and 1776, in television (Eight is Enough) and films (Tender Mercies), and she’s at her best with an audience and a song.  Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University.  (310) 506-4522.

– Oct. 1. (Fri.)  America.  The 40th Anniversary Tour. Forty years after their glory days, America can still turn on a crowd with tunes such as “A Horse With No Name,” “Tin Man” and more.  Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.  (562) 916-8501.

– Oct. 1. (Fri.) Mary Stallings.  With the Eric Reed Trio.  Her resume reaches back to appearances with the likes of Ben Webster, Earl Hines, the Montgomery Brothers and more in the ‘50s, and she can still deliver a song. The Culver Club at the Radisson.   (310) 649-1776 ext. 4137.

– Oct. 1 & 2. (Fri. & Sat.)  Yoko Ono. We Are Plastic Ono Band.  An extremely rare live performance from Yoko, surrounded by a posse of performers empathetic with her envelope stretching ideas.  With Nels Cline (10/1), Iggy Pop (10/1), Mike Watt (10/1), Lady Gaga (10/2), Kim Gordon (10/2), Thurston Moore (10/2), Cornelius, Perry Farrell, Carrie Fisher, Vincent Gallo, Yuka Honda, Haruomi Hosono, Sean Lennon, RZA, Harper Simon, Tune-YardsThe Orpheum.  (877) 677-4386.

Lee Konitz

– Oct. 2. (Sat.)  Lee Konitz New Quartet. Alto saxophonist Konitz is one of the few certifiably original practitioners of his instrument in the post-Charlie Parker era.  At 83, he continues to approach improvisation as a new adventure every time he plays.  He’s backed by the international rhythm team of bassist Jeff Denson, German pianist Florian Weber, and Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz. UCLA Schoenberg Hall.  Friends of Jazz at UCLA.  (310) 206-3269.

– Oct. 2. (Sat.) Alan Pasqua Trio. Pianist Pasqua, a first call rhythm section master on everyone’s list, takes time away from his day gig as Chairman of USC’s Jazz Studies program to lead his own trio – in the supportive company of bassist Darek Oles and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

– Oct. 2. (Sat.) Luckman Jazz OrchestraA Tribute to Lee Morgan. The LJO, one of the Southland’s finest, and least appreciated, large jazz ensembles, dips into the memorable music of Lee Morgan. Luckman Fine Arts Complex. (323) 343-6600.

– Oct. 2 & 3. (Sat. & Sun.) Angel City Jazz Festival. The ACJF kicks off its week-long run with a pair of stylistically far-ranging events.   Sat.: Dwight Trible and John Beasley, REDCAT.  Sun.: Ravi Coltrane/Ralph Alessi Quintet, Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quartet, Vinny Golia Sextet and Kneebody.  Ford Amphitheatre.  Angel City Jazz Festival.

– Oct. 3. (Sun,.)  Tamir Handelman: Solo Piano. Pianist Handelman’s diverse skills are coveted by everyone from Barbra Streisand the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.  Here, he does it all himself.. Atelier Concert.

San Francisco

Dave Liebman

– Sept. 28 & 29.  (Tues. & Wed.)  Dave Liebman Quartet. Saxophonist Liebman and his quartet have a knack for taking their audiences on fascinatingly exploratory musical journeys.  Click HERE to read a recent iRoM review of the Liebman Quartet.  Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200.

– Oct. 1. (Fri.)  Roy Ayers. Vibist Ayers transforms every performance into soul and r&b-driven excitement.  Yoshi’s San Francisco (415) 655-5600.

New York

– Sept. 28 – Oct. 2. (Tues. – Sat.) Wallace Roney Sextet.  Trumpeter Roney molds the Miles Davis sound into his own, unique expression. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.

Anat Cohen

– Sept. 28 – Oct. 3. (Tues. – Sun.)  Anat Cohen Quartet. Woodwind specialist Cohen can do everything from down-home, bar-walking tenor saxophone playing to brilliantly virtuosic clarinet stylings.  Village Vanguard.  (212) 255-4037.

– Sept. 28 – Oct. 3. (Tues. – Sun.)  Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi.  Bassist Clarke and pianist Hiromi have found illuminating common ground enhanced by their individual instrumental virtuosity.  The Blue Note.   (212) 475-8592.

– Sept. 30. (Thurs.)  Jimmy Webb.  One of the most successful singer/songwriters of the late ‘60s and ‘70s continued, over succeeding decades, to expand his catalog of music well beyond the limits of song.  But expect to hear some very familiar tunes, as well as something new.  Iridium.   (212) 582-2121.

– Sept. 30 – Oct. 3. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Joshua Redman Trio. Tenor saxophonist Redman continues to find improvisational treasures in an instrumental format reaching back to Sonny Rollins’ classic recordings of the late ‘50s. Jazz Standard.   (212) 447-7733.

Photos of Dave Liebman and Anat Cohen by Tony Gieske.

Live Jazz: The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra at Royce Hall

September 27, 2010

By Don Heckman

The mission of the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra is “perpetuating the uniquely American genre of symphonic jazz.”  There’s no disputing the desirability of that goal, and Saturday night’s concert at Royce Hall was clearly intended as a display of the Orchestra’s current achievements toward that end.

The program began promisingly, with co-Music Director Mitch Glickman conducting “Elements,” a new work from composer Charles Floyd, in which a jazz soloist – tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb – was positioned within rich orchestral rhythmic densities.

Next up, a “Tribute To Jobim,” arranged by Vince Mendoza for singer Luciana Souza and the SJO, was even better.  Mendoza’s multi-hued palette provided the perfect setting for Souza’s far-ranging voice, with especially memorable versions of “Aguas de Marco” and “Modinha.”  Closing the program’s first half, Souza whipped through the intricate melodic and rhythmic byways of Hermeto Pascoal’s delightful “Chorinho Pre Ele,” arranged perfectly by Gil Goldstein.

So far, so good.  But the program’s second part – largely devoted to the music of the SJO’s co-Music Director, George Duke, and singer/songwriter Raul Midon – slipped into different territory.  A movement from Duke’s “Muir Woods Suite” attractively displayed the SJO’s instrumental resources.  Other Duke pieces verged close to the string pad timbres and back beat rhythms of contemporary smooth jazz and r&b.  Midon’s segments, often with minimal orchestral involvement, were largely devoted to his brisk, jazz-tinged vocal/guitar offerings.  And it remained for the return of Souza, dueting with Midon on Duke’s “Festival,” to bring the proceedings to a dynamic conclusion.

But it was hard to see how this particular presentation reflected the SJO’s stated mission.  Excellent orchestra though it may be, there was little in the program that applied its skills to the “uniquely American genre of symphonic jazz.”  A meaningful expression of that concept might include, say, music by George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, a revival of Eddie Sauter’s remarkable suite for Stan Getz’s tenor saxophone and strings, “Focus,” any one of a large number of works associated with the “Third Stream” movement of the late ‘50s.  And, of course, new original works – perhaps from composers such as Maria Schneider — exploring the full creative possibilities of “symphonic jazz.”

Jazz Review: The Charles Lloyd Quartet at a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast

September 26, 2010

By Tony Gieske

Charles Lloyd was mesmerizing  everybody in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center Saturday night, and the place was full. The former Howlin’ Wolf sideman is an expert at this, nor was he in the least hampered by his own sidemen.

On the contrary, young star Jason Moran was first among equals in the latter bunch, and his piano playing was refreshingly Rachmaninoffian. His intuitive powers had plenty to do, because equal Reuben Rogers was playing bass and equal Eric Harland was behind the drum kit, and they were all equally spiritual.

Intuition was the watchword of the night. The sidemen targeted each other and the leader, and the leader targeted God.

Not that Lloyd always hit the target. But almost always.

That sound of his: a whisper with bones. He played the main notes only after draping them fore and aft with delicious little curlicues, like smoke from a thurible.

He was all sweetness and light, in the European vernacular.  Everything was the opposite of rock, with no remnant of his work with the Beach Boys. But he can play a part nobly no matter where he happens to land.

“Monk’s Mood,” with its miniaturized concerto format, came out as a long curve; “Beyond Darkness” showcased his flute powers. Late in the program, “Forest Flower” was as moving as ever. All of them surely came straight from a 72-year-old heart.

That heart lifted “Come Sunday” to a place in many other hearts present, underscored by the work of the fresh-faced  young disciples: Moran from the piano, Rogers from his bass, and Harland at the drums.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.

Latin Jazz CD: Issac Delgado’s “L.O.V.E.”

September 26, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Issac Delgado

L-O-V-E (Calle 54)

Well before the concept of “crossover” became a commonplace in music marketing, Nat “King” Cole and his Honduras-born, Spanish-speaking manager, Carlos Gastel made a bold move to expand Cole’s fan base by recording an album of songs from the Latin repertoire — in Spanish. Some of the choices they made were, well, curious, and Cole didn’t speak Spanish and sang the lyrics phonetically (pianist, arranger and bandleader Bebo Valdés was a vocal coach).  But the tracks were recorded in Havana by Cuban musicians and the music sounded true. Cole Español, released in 1958, was a hit. So much so that it inspired Cole, and Capitol, to create a trilogy of Latin albums, following Español with  A Mis Amigos (1959), recorded in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, while Cole  was touring the country, and including three songs in Portuguese, and More Cole Español (1962) recorded in Mexico City.

Many of us, growing up in Latin America, first heard of Nat “King” Cole on these albums. And be it because of Cole’s voice and charm, or the fact that an American star of his caliber would perform these songs in our language (even though some of us made fun of his pronunciation at the time and no, we didn’t know what an extraordinary jazz piano player he was, either …), these records were ubiquitous and enormously popular and made Nat “King” Cole an improbable household name.

Cuban singer Isaac Delgado’s L-O-V-E is a beautifully executed tribute to Cole en Español.

Issac Delgado

Eight of the 12 songs in L-O-V-E come from the Cole trilogy, while the rest are Cole signature songs, sung in Spanish. (In fact, the title track was one of his last hits.) On two songs, (“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” and “Green Eyes/Aquellos Ojos Verdes”) Delgado shares the leading role with Cole’s brother, singer and pianist Freddy Cole,  an appearance made more poignant when considering Freddy Cole´s great efforts, for many years, to escape Nat´s shadow.

Trading ballads with Nat “King” Cole is a losing proposition for most singers, but Delgado, who was not a balladeer but a salsa star in Cuba before moving to the United States in 2006, holds his own here by under-singing. Consider his understated version of “A Su Mirar Me Acostumbré”  ( a translation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”) or “Tiernamente,” (“Tenderly”) especially back to back with the salsa treatment of “Ay Cosita Linda.”

When he can sing out and bring to bear his sense of swing (on “Perfidia,” “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” or “Piel Canela,” which here gets a cha cha cha treatment) Delgado does so always under control, in the Cole spirit as it were. Knowing Delgado’s previous work and listening to him here feels like watching a great actor losing himself in a role.

Something similar happens with pianist and arranger John di Martino, and the soloists: trumpeter Brian Lynch, reedman Ken Peplowski and trombonist Conrad Herwig all seem to know exactly how far to go. They are playing on a Nat “King” Cole album, where the song and the voice and the telling should be front and center and there is no place for vanities.

Freddy Cole

And perhaps this album might make more people aware of Freddy Cole, an exceptional story teller with a voice that probably can make poetry out of the reading of a software manual. He draws you in and you end up listening to his “Green Eyes” mesmerized, waiting for the next line.

Tribute records can be dreadful, lazy affairs, little more than  marketing ploys to cash in on a dead artist’s name. L-O-V-E feels like a thoughtful, soulful response to a dialogue  Nat “King” Cole started, en Español, more than 50 years ago. It took a while — but it is a worthy response.

To see videos of Issac Delgado and L-O-V-E, click here: L-O-V-E EPK.   “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” with Freddy Cole.

To read more reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE.

Live Jazz: The Dave Liebman Quartet at Vitello’s

September 26, 2010

By Don Heckman

Earlier this year, Dave Liebman received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts.  And it was about time.  At 64, Liebman can look back on a remarkable sequence of achievements, on his own and in association with the likes of Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and more.

Dave Liebman

But his performance Friday night at Vitello’s was a convincing display of the fact that Liebman – despite his already significant “lifetime achievements” – still has much to say and do as a cutting edge jazz saxophonist, composer and leader.

Dave Liebman and Tony Marino

All three of those attributes were manifest in his work with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko.  And the lengthy history of the group – Juris and Marino have been with Liebman for twenty years, Marcinko for ten – was also a factor in a performance enlivened by the near-symbiotic interaction among the players.

Liebman limited himself to soprano saxophone and, on one piece, a small wooden flute.  The music, mostly originals, tended to position Liebman’s soprano amid a simmering cauldron of rhythm, sometimes driven by hypnotic vamps, sometimes arcing into off-center meters.

Dave Liebman Quartet

Each of the players balanced their rhythmic togetherness with passionate soloing – Juris blending sound and phrase in long, soaring lines, Marino surging across low register landscapes with ease, and Marcinko using his jazz drum kit as a virtual treasure chest of percussion sounds and timbres.

Dave Liebman

In the highlight of the set, Liebman played his tiny flute in an intimate, vocalized rendering of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” – a selection from his soon to be released album, Turnaround: the Music of Ornette Coleman, which has already received Germany’s Preis Der Deutschen Schallplatten Kritik (German Record Critics Prize) award.  The performance was stunning, its atmospheric dynamics perfectly capturing the dark intentions of Coleman’s memorable line.

What was most remarkable about the Liebman set, in its entirety, was the fact that it was utterly contemporary, cutting edge, envelope-stretching jazz in which the music nonetheless reached out to engage the listeners. At a time when ego-focused technique and virtuosity make too many jazz sets into fast-fingered personal showcases, Liebman and his players reminded us that the best jazz – classic or contemporary – always has the power to touch the emotions.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.


September 24, 2010

By Michael Katz

Sunday promised to be a scintillating day of music, with several can’t miss attractions at the Garden Stage sandwiched between the afternoon and evening programs at the other venues. The early afternoon shows are annually dedicated to student bands, from the high school vocal ensembles to the Cal State Northridge band. The spotlight is on the MJF Next Generation Band, chosen from top high school students across the country. Dianne Reeves, this year’s artist-in-residence, joined them for two songs midway through their set at the arena. I had missed her performance Saturday night, having reviewed her just last month at the Hollywood Bowl. She sang “Skylark” with the Next Gen band, and though that song has been recorded hundreds of times, her rendition is one of the most lovely and moving I’ve heard. It set the stage for one of the more enjoyable Sundays I can remember at Monterey.


From the first staccato rhythms of Lionel Loueke’s guitar, you could tell this was going to be a special performance. Angelique Kidjo is from the tiny African nation of Benin and her joyous blendings of African rhythms have been heard all over the world. In Loueke she not only has a sympatico bandmate, but a fellow countryman – his father was her principal in school – and he was the backbone of a superb rhythm section that included Christian McBride on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums and Mino Cinelu on percussion. Unlike several other of the major acts that preceded her, Kidjo was not shy about addressing the audience. She talked about her upbringing, her determination, her musical ambitions. Filling the stage with a supple voice and pulsating rhythms, she described how she “put the African rhythms in a shaker and it comes out a smoothie.”

Angelique Kidjo

Kidjo took it as a personal mission to get the sun-glazed crowd on their feet and dancing. She brought Dianne Reeves onstage for a soulful “Baby, Baby, I Love You,” invoking the spirit of James Brown, but with a more benign energy. Kidjo tempered her pace with a Tanzanian love song, then brought the crowd to their feet with a tribute to Miriam Mkeba. She disappeared behind stage for a moment, then reemerged in the aisles,  getting the audience to a fever pitch. Finally she opened the stage up to the first 25 people who could scurry up and join her, a rich tapestry of kids, grown-ups and a few MJF volunteers, in a rousing “Go Mamma Africa.” The festival bills Sunday as Family Day, but Angelique Kidjo made a dancing, clapping audience into one giant family, proving again that music is a universal language.


George Wein

If you were wondering where the straight ahead jazz could be found amid Monterey’s potpourri of world, roots and “new groove” music, George Wein was waiting for you at the Garden Stage. His Newport All-Star band would have been good enough with Steve Huffsteter on trumpet, Gary Foster on alto sax, John Wiitala on bass, Vince Lateano on drums and Wein on piano, but the addition of Ken Peplowski on clarinet and tenor and Howard Alden on guitar made it a powerhouse. Peplowski is one of  a handful of great clarinetists in the world, and his improvised duet with Alden, the two of them weaving melodies and rhythm, was one of the highlights of the festival. “What’s New” featured the sweet tones of Foster, who plays in the Desmond-Getz tradition and Wein on piano. Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” brought out the rich, full tones of Huffstetter, augmented by Wein’s piano and Peplowski’s clarinet, and Peplowski was out front again for beautiful solo work in “If I Had You.”

Sprinkled amidst the joyful playing was the witty bantering and gentle camaraderie of this group of veterans. Wein, the 85 year old impresario and backbone of the Newport Jazz Festival,  set the pace; Alden kept the rhythms going, stepping up for swinging solos. The band played one of Ellington’s less performed standards, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” followed by a rousing “Take The A-Train,” with Peplowski contributing a rousing tenor solo and Lateano agile as always on the drums.  Earlier in the set, Wein had demurred from a request to sing, wryly commenting that he would save that for last, when the crowd would be dispersing anyway. But when he soulfully waded into “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” the opening stanza promise that “If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hold onto it ‘til that eagle grins” resonated deeply through the crowd.  By the time he finished, it was clear Wein’s Newport group had found safe harbor in Monterey.


Sachel Vasandani

Sachal Vasandani was another MJF debut unveiled before an appreciative Garden Stage crowd. Though I missed the first few numbers, once there it was impossible to leave. Born in Chicago of Indian ancestry and now living in New York, Vasandani sings in  the upper registers of the tenor; when he croons standards, his style is somewhat reminiscent of Mel Torme. His more pop-leaning compositions bring to mind Michael Franks. When I walked in he was in the midst of a swinging version of “September In The Rain.” Jeb Patton contributed excellent work on piano, as did David Wong on bass. Sitting in on drums was Kendrick Scott, who pretty clearly had become a vocalist’s best friend at this festival. Vasandani swung hard in a blues number, and had the audience standing at the end. He’s definitely a vocalist who will be heard from.


The Arena had earned the distinction of Party Central by Sunday night, and a  capacity crowd gathered in anticipation of Harry Connick, Jr. adding to the fun. Connick brought a ten piece band plus a mini-string section and utilized them from the start as he launched into “The Way You Look Tonight.” The first part of the show was all standards, including “Smile” with a nice trumpet solo by Kevin Bryan, Lennon/McCartney’s “And I Love Her” and the obligatory “It Had To Be You,” with Jerry Weldon on tenor.

Harry Connick Jr.

I don’t want to minimize his artfulness as a classy crooner – many of his fans in the arena, shouting “We Love You Harry,” ate all this up – but here at Monterey the crowd was looking for something more in the lines of gumbo and Mardi Gras beads, and Connick gave it to them.  It started at the piano, with a rollicking accompaniment to his singing on “Come By Me” and he revved up the emotion with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” From there on in it was straight to the French Quarter, aided and abetted by New Orleans trombonist Lucien Barbarin who became the de facto co-star, strutting and sliding through “Didn’t He Ramble” and adding a sultry, muted solo to “St. James Infirmary.”

Connick was out in front now, dancing and shaking his booty to “Take It To The Mardi Gras.” He took a whirl at tap dancing with Barbarin, and brought in drummer Herlin Riley from the wings (where he was preparing to play with Ahmad Jamal) for a guest drum solo. The crowd ate it all up. There was ample help from Jerry Weldon and Bryan as well, and the celebration continued with “Down On Bourbon Street.” Connick somehow found a trumpet in the middle of this,  and delighted the crowd with “How Come You Do Me Like You Do Do Do”. It was loose and slightly unhinged, but the playing was all first rate. Connick’s singing and New Orleans cathouse piano kept the crowd dancing and on its feet until the end.


At 79, Ahmad Jamal has lost none of his zest for live performance. Surrounded by Herlin Riley on drums, James Cammack on bass and Manolo Bandrena, Jamal took the Monterey crowd on a journey through time and space in this final Arena set of the festival. Jamal’s recent style has had a percussive element, and with both Riley and Bandrena on board, that tone dominated the performance. It was not exactly the free jazz that Chick Corea’s quartet presented, as Jamal identified compositions as the basis for each piece, but still emphasized long flights of fancy by all the performers, augmented     by snippets of melody. Perhaps the size of the arena encourages a piano quartet to move in this direction.

Ahmad Jamal

It seemed instructive that there was nothing from Jamal’s latest album,  Quiet Time in the program. That album is, as the title suggests, quiet. By contrast a good portion of the music was from the previous CD, It’s Magic. This included “Swahililand,” which opened the set. Like many of the numbers, it began with Jamal establishing a theme like a painter, with quick brush strokes, then standing back and letting Riley enter with his crisp precision, Cammack providing counterpoint on bass. About midway through the set, slightly camouflaged by the percussion of Bandrena, came the familiar chords of “Poinciana.” One can only imagine the thousands of times Jamal has played this song over the years. What’s remarkable is how he keeps it fresh, compartmentalizing the familiar signposts of the piece and parachuting them in amidst the quick flights of hand, running off mini-glissandos and then finding the theme again.

On the medley “Wild Is The Wind/Sing” you had to search pretty hard to find the familiar melodies; the overall percussiveness was a bit overwhelming. The emphasis was on the rhythms; Cammack, Riley and Bandrena had plenty of room to stretch out. Jamal was more accessible with “Like Someone In Love,” dropping bright counter melodies against the main theme.  It seemed like a fitting end to a vastly entertaining festival. But not so fast…


Roy Haynes

Not quite ready to call it a night, I wandered down to the far end of the fairgrounds and saw a few people still trickling into Dizzy’s Den. Poking my head inside, I saw a lone piano player hunched over, playing an extended solo. His name was Martin Bejerano, and he was taking brilliant advantage of the space given to him by cohorts Roy Haynes, Christian McBride and young sax player Jaleel Shaw. When they rejoined him, McBride let loose with a brilliant fusillade, and Haynes added what most thought would be a concluding solo.

It was late, the room a little more than half full, the sand running out of MJF 53. Haynes took the mic to credit the band, but he was energized, not ready to leave and the audience stopped in their tracks. Haynes got back behind the drums, McBride tapped out an opening line, and Jaleel Shaw picked up his soprano sax and began playing the Dubin/Warren standard “Summer Night.” Haynes and McBride have both recorded it with Chick Corea trios, but there was something special about the young Shaw picking up the torch with Bejerano right behind him. It seemed to me the essence of jazz: a classic tune, the ageless wonder Haynes, McBride the star in his prime, Shaw and Bejerano finding their way, grabbing onto a familiar theme and running off with it into the future.  At Monterey, you don’t always know where you are going, but you always seem to end up in the right place.

To read Michael Katz’s Day 1 review of the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival click HERE.

To read Michael Katz’s Day 2 review of the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival click HERE.

To see more of Michael Katz’s iRoM reviews click HERE.

Ahmad Jamal photo by Tony Gieske.  Other photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.


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