Live Jazz: The 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (Day 1)

By Michael Katz

So here we are again, nestled under the oaks at the Garden Stage at the Monterey Fairgrounds, listening to a young saxophone player named Ben Flocks send sweet solos into the misty evening. It’s barely 6:30 on Friday night, friends old and new are gathering around the metal benches whose backs, like ours, haven’t gotten any straighter over the years, or lounging around the bleachers. The crowd seems especially riveted to the opening act. Flocks, a native of Santa Cruz and an alumnus of the MJF Next Generation band,  has a soft, textured sound. He has just played Charles Lloyd’s “Forest Flower.” The material is a tad challenging for the festival’s opening salvo, but the young man shows nascent virtuosity and the crowd rewards him with generous applause.

With over five hundred musicians spread over six stages,  jazz fans peruse the program and start to plot out their weekend peregrinations.  Being from LA, I’ve had a chance to see some of the touring headline acts earlier in the summer, and I am resolved to catch some of the up and comers, as well as a few performers who don’t get out West often. I check out the staggered starting times at the various venues and figure how I can   spend thirty minutes here and twenty-five minutes there, if only I can get an aisle seat and the shows start on time. This never works. Like a few stocks I have owned, getting in is easy, getting out is the problem. I decide to stick to the grounds venues tonight. First stop, the Night Club, one of two large halls opposite each other on the North end of the Fairgrounds.

NELLIE McKAY

If the only thing you knew about Nellie McKay (pronounced Mc-Eye) was that she had recorded an album of  songs associated with Doris Day, you might think you were in for an evening of staid 50’s retro. When she skips on stage, an electric ukulele in one hand, sits behind the piano and says, “Hi! My name’s Nellie, what’s yours?” you think, maybe Doris Day channeled through Pee Wee Herman. But with McKay it is best to forget all preconceptions. With a sultry hint of southern drawl, accompanied by the glockenspiel of percussionist  Ben Bynum, she sings “The Very Thought of You,” establishing her vocal bona fides right from the start. From there this seemingly innocent blond prods and delights the audience with a playfully droll sense of humor, at one point introducing the reggae-like “Caribbean Time” from her forthcoming CD as something “Miss Day learned when she was working for the CIA in El Salvador.”

She hits  several other of “Miss Day’s” tunes, including “Do Do Do” and “Wonderful Guy” with a style that suggests Day’s sunny optimism without being imitative or condescending to the era. McKay can be spellbinding, as with her beautiful rendition of Jobim’s “Meditation.”  Yet no sooner does she settle on the final notes than she is out front with her ukulele, performing her mini-rap “Feminists Don’t Have A Sense of Humor,”  (now with the added coda “This message approved by Sarah Palin.”).

McKay seems implicitly steeped in this  style of caberet performance,  from Tiny Tim (“Let’s face it, there’s just something funny about a ukelele) to Bette Midler. Her “Bodega” from the new cd, Home Sweet Mobile Home has the makings of a big production number, her rendition of “Crazy Rhythm” personifies the eccentricities of every rhythmic nuance in the song. And yet, with the simple introduction “This is a beautiful song about a beautiful city,” McKay delivers a heartbreaking “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.”  She finishes with a raucous tribute to Ella, the audience responding to ‘A Tisket A Tasket” with a standing ovation.

MARK LEVINE and THE LATIN TINGE with CLAUDIA VILLELA

Seeing as it is Yom Kippur and I have started the evening by falling for a young Scottish blond, it seems like a good idea to spend the next hour with a Jewish piano player performing Afro-Cuban rhythms by a Brazilian composer. Mark Levine and his Latin Tinge have been a Bay Area staple for several decades, and his current ensemble features dynamic percussion by Michael Spiro augmented by solid rhythm backings from longtime bassist John Wiitala and jazz drummer Paul Van Wageningen. But the star, instrumentally, is flutist Mary Fettig, who dazzles throughout a tribute to Brazilian composer Maocir Santos. Santo’s career preceded and ran parallel to the bossa nova period. His music, though popular in Brazil, was not as well known to the American public. Levine and Spiro provide a solid backing for Santos’ percussive sound, while Fettig establishes lilting melodies and pulsating arpegios

Claudia Villela joins the group after two numbers, starting with “Tomorrow Is Mine.” Villela has a robust voice that can leap octaves effortlessly. She alternately steps out front and carries the rhythms with Brazilian-styled scat singing on “Off and On,” and shares the lead with Mary Fettig on the softer “Nana.” Levine intersperses the proceedings throughout with bright solos and polyrhythmic keyboard support. These tunes don’t have the instant melodic recognition of  Jobim or Nascimento, but you can hear the foundation for other Afro-Cuban artists such as Mongo Santamaria. Villela and Fettig, with their insistent voices, keeping the pot simmering for the entire set,  while Spiro has things burning in the back. It’s a good bet that most of the audience hadn’t heard of Moacir Santos when the set started, but they are clearly in the spirit at the end.

THE ROY HARGROVE BIG BAND WITH ROBERTA GAMBARINI

It seems every year I hear a terrific performance by a large ensemble in the arena, only to learn at breakfast that I really should have been in Dizzy’s Den for the late set. This year, having missed the Arena entirely the first night, I went to Dizzy’s for the late set of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band.  As the opening act at the Arena, Hargrove’s band was allotted about fifty minutes, but in the Den there was no semblance of a time limit. By the time he started, a half hour late, the place was packed, a line snaking out the door. There was a palpable sense of anticipation that you get when one of the bright lights of the festival plays on the grounds. You had the feeling that the band was making up for lost time from the start with two extended, unnamed numbers.  Hargrove barely spoke to the audience and didn’t introduce the soloists, but he said plenty with his horn, and there was terrific trumpet and sax work from the band, supported by crisp section playing.

Roy Hargrove

The band then moved to a long blues number, with growling solos from the trombone group, a brassy exercise in  funk. After that, Hargrove reverted to some of his tighter arrangements with a terrific version of “September In The Rain,” playing a sparkling, muted trumpet and adding a vocal chorus in his own rich tenor. By that time the audience was wondering whether Roberta Gambarini was in the house, as it was approaching midnight, but Hargrove, like a World Cup soccer ref, was sailing into Extra Time and anyway, who wanted to leave? He led the band through another unnamed rouser with some sterling guitar work by Sol Rubin (whom I can safely identify, as he was the only guitarist) and more burning solos from the trumpet section.

Roberta Gambarini

Now Roberta Gambarini emerged, with a spirited “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” accompanied by Roy on flugelhorn. Gambarini, a striking brunette, has a lovely voice and a confident delivery that can stand up to a nineteen piece band. Born in Italy, she has acquired a sensitive phrasing for lyrics. You can sense it even in another language, as when she slipped into Spanish  for “La Puerta” from the Hargrove Big Band album Emergence.  Next up was a high-flying scatting duet, Hargrove again exercising his vocal cords. By the time Gambarini wrapped things up with a swinging “Something Happens To Me,” the crowd was on its feet. It was an exciting finish to a great night on the fairgrounds, with two days still in front of us.

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

To read Day 3 of Michael Katz’s review of the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival click HERE.

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

Photos of Roy Hargrove and Roberta Gambarini by Tony Gieske.  Other photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

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