Live Jazz: The 54th Monterey Jazz Festival — Friday Night

By Michael Katz

Monterey, California.  The weather was chilly and overcast for the opening of the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival Friday night, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of jazz fans who were treated to a superb series of performances. There was anticipation in the air from the opening chords, as Featured Performer Robert Glasper, because of a scheduling quirk, took over the 6:30 slot at the outdoor Garden Stage. Usually this set has in informal feel, as old friends gather and schmooze, while a young local talent performs. But Glasper and his trio of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave had the crowd at rapt attention.

Robert Glasper

Glasper is an engaging talent. When he plays on the acoustic piano, his style is impressionistic, with a sometimes dense chordal structure, building themes dramatically, filling them in with scintillating runs. Playing his own compositions, “No Worries” and “North Portland,” he had the crowd on the edge of their seats. He was ably assisted by bassist Hodge, but especially by drummer Dave, who was something of a revelation. Dave has a crisp, emphatic, rapid fire delivery. His physique and intensity reminded me a little of former NBA star Alan Iverson.

When Glasper switches to the Fender Rhodes, his style turns funky.  He did another extended original, with a nod to Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” and later ended up with a Monkish tune that again highlighted Chris Dave’s stickwork.  Glasper has two more performances scheduled with his Experiment version of the band, which will feature Lionel Loueke and vocalist Bilal.  In addition to his playing, he has a sense of humor and a stage presence – you could see him hosting Saturday Night Live.

As usual MJF has so much happening at once that you are forced to make choices.  Hiromi was opening the Arena stage at 8:30, but I didn’t want to miss young pianist Helen Sung, so I ducked into the Coffee House Gallery for her 8 o’clock set. When you haven’t seen a performer before and note that her trio consists of Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, it’s a good bet you’re in for a treat.

Helen Sung

Sung more than lived up to my hopes, performing the type of trio music that invites comparisons to Bill Evans, Chick Corea and George Shearing. She has a deft touch on the keyboard and a soft, bright style. She opened with a reimagining of Shearing’s “Conception,” which she called “Reconception.” She moved on to an original composition, “Touch,” which was more dense and mysterious, then segued into Monk’s “Bye Ya.” Sung studied at the Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and the next few numbers were a nod to that experience, most notably “In Walked Bud.” The interplay between these three suberb players was exquisite, but I’d draw special attention to the duet work between Sung and bassist Rogers. Rogers is lithe and melodic, and the two of them interlocked themes magically during the last two numbers. You could see many in the intimate Coffee House Gallery had dropped in for a peek prior to the Arena’s opening – a few were drifting off, but I wasn’t going anywhere until “In Walked Bud” reached its rousing conclusion.

Hiromi

When I walked into Hiromi’s performance about midway through her set, the stylistic differences couldn’t have been more apparent. She was standing in front of the piano, which had an electric keyboard on top of it, alternating between the two, trading licks with electric bassist Anthony Jackson. The drummer, Simon Phillips, was barely visible behind a massive drum set that featured six cymbals. But it was clear the audience was fully behind her.  If Sung was perfect for the Coffee House, Hiromi’s trio was equally so for an opening set at the Arena.  She has complete command of the piano – even her more reflective pieces are projected with an emphatic tone, and her arpeggios, visually dramatic, all seem to make perfect sense musically. She moves seamlessly from the funky, bluesy tunes to the more personally intense, even incorporating a Latin feel to her closing number.

I’ve seen the criticism of Hiromi’s playing, that she seems to have absorbed every aspect of jazz and fires it back out in a sort of random way, but I don’t buy it. I’ve seen her twice in live performance, once as a solo act and this time with her trio, and each time she has utterly captivated the audience. Yes, she has the pyrotechnics, but practically everything she does is original, there are no standards for the audience to hang their hats on, yet they are with her for every note. She didn’t speak much to the audience, but her virtuosity and flair didn’t require much in the way of interpretation.

Jessica Molasky and John Pizzarelli

John Pizzerelli’s First Family of Cool followed, and it spoke to the diversity in styles that can be absorbed by the Monterey audience.  If you were lamenting the absence of wit and sophistication on the American scene in general and music in particular, you couldn’t have had a more delightful respite.  The opening numbers featured John and his wife, Jessica Molaskey,  weaving together pairs of songs, the lyrics intersecting wonderfully.  First there was Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen While You Dance,” paired with Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” then George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly.”  Then Molaskey singing “I Want To Be Happy” with Pizzerelli dropping in the lines from “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Larry Fuller did terrific work on the piano, particularly when they moved into Ellingtonia later on in the show with a brooding version of “Don’t Get Around Much Any More”/”East Saint Louis Toodle-oo.”  Martin Pizzerelli on bass and Anthony Tedesco rounded out the tight rhythm section and they all shined on a rollicking “C Jam Blues.”

The emotional and artistic highlight of the night came when Bucky Pizzerelli, John and Martin’s dad, came onstage for a series of guitar duets with John. From Bucky’s first few notes, he had the crowd captivated. Playing mostly lead to John’s rhythm,  he introduced “Body and Soul,” demonstrating the emotive qualities that can still be wrung out of that standard. They romped through “Tangerine” and then returned to the Ellington songbook in closing for “In a Mellow Tone.” If there was a common theme for the evening, it was how a great performer, no matter the age or the style, can take command of an audience.  There is certainly a sentimental quality to father and son up there on stage, but what raises it to a memorable performance is when you’ve got the chops,  and Bucky still has them.

Poncho Sanchez

Pancho Sanchez’s Latin Band closed the show with a tribute to the Cubano oeuvre of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.  Sanchez is a terrific conguero and his eight piece band is filled with talent, particularly Francisco Torres on trombone and the whole rhythm section, but it was the addition of trumpeter Terence Blanchard that really lit the place up.  Blanchard had been honored the night before in the MJF Gala event, and he was in splendid form, beginning with a medley of Gillespiana, highlighting “Tin Tin Deo,” “Manteca,” and  “Wachiwado,” which Pancho performed countless times with Cal Tjader as “Soul Sauce.”  Sanchez,  who had earlier left the conga chair for vocals and cowbell,  was back on the drums for the remainder of the set. They moved on to “Con Alma,” with Blanchard augmenting the sweet familiar melody with a nice uptempo interlude before returning to the theme. The highlights of the set were the next two numbers, Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High” and the Pancho standard, “Besame Mama.” Blanchard’s fiery playing raised the level of everyone around him, especially the band’s front line. Robert Hardt contributed a spirited tenor sax solo, but it was the trumpet duels between Blanchard and Ron Blake that really stole the show.  Blanchard set the tone,  sending out spiraling cadenzas and Blake reached deep inside of himself to answer, bringing the crowd to its feet.

All in all it was a spectacular night, and of course there were was much else going on – it was overall the most loaded Friday night I can remember in my 12 festivals.  MJF 54 is certainly off to an auspicious start.

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday click HERE

To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Sunday click HERE.

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