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.”
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 AND THE NEWPORT ALL-STARS
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.
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.
HARRY CONNICK, JR.
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.
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.
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…
CODA: THE ROY HAYNES FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH BAND
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.