By Michael Katz
Monterey, California. Saturday at the Monterey Jazz Festival was a journey through eras, river basins, continents, climate zones, you name it. Mostly the volume was turned up, but if you navigated carefully, you could find some quiet pools for reflection amidst the soul, funk and a respectable helping of jazz, too.
For the second straight year, the gang from Treme took over the Arena for the afternoon show. This time there was no Trombone Shorty to tear the place up, but two groups, the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, combined under the stage direction of actor Wendell Pierce serving as MC. The Soul Rebels marched through the front of the Arena and then onto the stage, bringing bright sunshine with them, blasting through Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For the City” and a stew of contemporary NOLA favorites.
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who acts in HBO’s Treme, was a featured soloist with both the Soul Rebels and Dumpstaphunk. Trombonist Glen David Andrews had to bow out because of illness and was replaced by Terence Blanchard, so for the second day in a row, the Arena audiences was treated to some sizzling horn battles. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia,” the one Diz standard that was left out of Poncho Sanchez’s set Friday night, got the sizzling treatment from Blanchard and Ruffins. They provided a number of other highlights, including “Shake it Off” and “Turn It Up,” which could have been the theme song for the afternoon.
Huey Lewis and the News was the headliner for the afternoon, and they brought a large and devoted following to the Arena. His latest CD, Soulsville, featured the Memphis sound of Stax records and included hits such as the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” the title tune, and some lesser known songs such as “Um, Um, Um” recorded by Major Lance. There’s a lot of talent in the News, starting with Lewis’s still robust voice and harmonica playing. He talked about both his and drummer Bill Gibson’s late fathers being longtime MJF attendees, and the Soulsville selections blended in perfectly with the Saturday afternoon atmosphere. Of course Huey and the News are a rock and roll band, and with 90 minutes to perform they rewarded their loyal following with their own hits, including “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “I Want A New Drug,” as well as a blues vamp at the end of the set.
By late afternoon the Treme gang had commandeered the Garden Stage, for a repeat of last year’s Trombone Shorty spectacular, but I was in the mood for something a little quieter so I went to the Coffee House Gallery to see this year’s version of the Berkeley School of Music Ensemble, which was a Flamenco quintet that enthralled the capacity crowd. Led by Ariadne Castellanos of Madrid, this international group took the Spanish flamenco folk rhythms and wove them into a spellbinding performance. Ali Amr, from Ramallah on the West Bank, played the Qunan, an Egyptian string instrument that is something of a cross between a zither and a small harp. Enrique Kalani, listed from Trinidad but announced from Puerto Rico, played a sparkling flute, offering up superb glissandos and more serene moments as well. Spaniard Sergio Martinez on percussion and Israeli bassist Noam Wiesenberg were a sterling rhythm section. Castellanos had a beautiful interpretation of a Paco de Lucia song, and Amr had several lovely solos on the Qunan. The only drawback to the show was the sweltering condition of the room, due to NPR’s streaming of the event. They dictated the suspension of fans and air conditioning, causing many folks to leave. It’s a tribute to the performers that so many stayed until the end. It’s nice that NPR is involved in the festival, but inconsiderate to the paying customers.
The evening performances presented the toughest choice I had to make, as Geri Allen was performing the commissioned piece in the Arena and one of my favorites, Richard Bona, was performing in duet with Columbian singer/guitarist Raul Midon at the Garden Stage. I’d hope to catch a little of each, but sound problems delayed the start of the Bona/Midon set, so I waited it out and never left. I’d previously seen Bona, a singer/bassist from Cameroon, in settings with a larger, more percussive group, so it was a different experience seeing him with Midon, performing tunes from their Dulawa Malambo Project. Certainly the sound crew did their jobs; both voices were clear, both with engaging qualities, Midon singing in English, Bona mostly in a lilting Douala. It’s a lovely sounding language – much like Portuguese, it is pleasant to listen to even if you don’t understand any of the words. Playing in this duet setting, Bona has a gentle touch on the electric bass, sometimes playing along with the lyrical beat, other times countering it. Midon, meanwhile, played several acoustic guitars. His lyrics tend to be slyly simple. “Don’t Be A Silly Man” was a response from a fawned-upon musician, with a touch of Paul Simon playfulness. He sometimes employs a tap style to his guitar, other times picking out melodies between the rhythms. At one point, performing solo, Midon, who is blind, had a surprise drop-in from singer India.Arie, who performs on the main stage this afternoon. Midon also employs a muted trumpet effect, which adds another instrument to the mix. On top of everything else, both Midon and Bona have infectious personalities that, combined with their delightful playing and singing, showed there was plenty of room on Saturday for a more subtle musical tone.
It was back to the Arena for Artist-In-Residence Joshua Redman’s set, with his band James Farm that featured Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The first thing you notice these days about Redman is his robust tone. He gets such a full, rich, sound out of the tenor, particularly in the mid to lower registers of the horn. It’s a pleasure to hear him stretch out, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. The set featured original compositions by all four members of the group, starting out with bassist Penman’s “1981” which began with Redman in a reflective mood, offering an expansive solo followed by Parks taking the baton on piano. “If By Air,” the next song, was Redman’s, followed by Parks’ elegant theme “Bijou.” As the set went on, it seemed the compositions were less individual expressions than movements in a suite. It speaks to the overall cohesion of the group. The interweavings of Parks and Redman, backed by the rhythms of Penman and Harland make for a tantalizing hour. It’s a distinct, harmonic sound, though lacking a little in the lyrical sense. You don’t walk away humming any of the tunes.
Herbie Hancock was closing out the night at the Arena, but I opted for a quieter end to the evening. I returned to the Coffee House to see Bill Carrothers’ piano trio with Drew Gress on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. The crowd was rather sparse to start, but Carrothers adapted easily, speaking to the gathering without a microphone, playing a mix of originals and standards, slightly altered in his own off center way. “Peg,” named for his wife, was an introspective piece, given to long harmonic interplays with bassist Gress. He followed with a playfully dark version of “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” again with nice bass work from Gress. There was an unnamed up tempo piece, which gave Stewart a chance to work out on the drums, and an engaging version of Clifford Brown’s “Gerkin for Perkin.” A few more folks had straggled in by that point, looking for a last dollop of music to finish off a long, often loud, adventurous day. There was something poignant when Carrothers gently touched the keys with the opening to “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” You felt for a moment like you were alone in a bar somewhere. You didn’t really want the set to end, but it was the perfect ending. It was a lovely version, a soft goodbye, then back out into the chill night Monterey air.
To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Friday click HERE.
To read Michael Katz’s review of Monterey Jazz Festival Sunday click HERE.