By Michael Katz
At about a quarter to eight last night, a line snaked down the midway at the Monterey Fairgrounds leading to the Coffee House, the smallest of the grounds venues at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I have been attending this festival since the mid-nineties, and as much as I love the sound and feel of the small combos that are staged there, I can’t remember such a line for the Coffee House opener. Then again, Mulgrew Miller had never fronted a trio there before.
Miller commanded the stage from the opening notes. There was an undercurrent of blues in his crisp, clear tones, as he launched into a standard, “If I Should Lose You.” It was more evident in the next number, one of his own compositions, “When I Got There.” Not recognizing the tune, I could sense a Monkish spirit, with a little bit of Fats Waller oozing out. The trio, with Ivan Taylor on bass and Rodney Green on drums, was tight throughout, bouncing between Jobim’s “O Grande Amor” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream.” It was just classic piano trio music, a perfect way to kick off the festival. An homage to Charlie Parker, “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” finished off the set, and then it was back off into the evening.
And it was a chilly evening. Layers came on as early as the opening set at the Garden Stage, where Santa Cruz singer Tammi Brown kicked off MJF 55 with a soulful set, fronting a group full of Bay Area musicians, leading off with her version of a couple of Hal David/Burt Bacharach tunes, “What The World Needs Now” and “Look of Love,” before wowing the early arrivals with an extended jam session. In the backdrop was a gorgeous Monterey sunset, the clouds turning a deep pink behind Brown and her group.
Every MJF presents strategic options, given the four basic grounds venues and the main Arena show. Last night I spent little time with the headliners, which is not to slight the Arena line-up. I heard the Big Phat Band was great, but I’ve seen them plenty in LA. After the Mulgrew Miller set, I dropped in for about twenty minutes of Jack DeJohnette’s eclectic group featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto and David Fiuczinski on guitar. I caught most of an extended flight into Shorter-like territory, noteworthy for DeJohnette’s spatial patter on the drum set. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but I’ll catch the drummer at least once more over the weekend; I was eager to hear Gregoire Maret’s set across the way at the Night Club, so off I went.
To say that harmonica player Maret’s sound bears a resemblance to Toot’s Thielemans makes it distinctly different than anyone else. It’s a haunting sound, full within the limited confines of the instrument. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself in a small club in Paris, the sound wafting into a summer’s night. At first I thought Maret had trouble making the sound heard above his quartet, with Matt Brewer starting on electric bass and Clarence Penn on drums. I sensed a little uncertainty from the audience as well. Maret was the least-known performer of anyone I heard Friday, and the venue was only about half full to start. But as the set progressed, the sound balance was solved, and Maret seemed to find his audience – more people were sifting in, and more people were staying than leaving.
I thought the quartet worked best when pianist Shedrick Mitchell was given some room to stretch out. The harmonica is a small instrument; even Toots doubles on guitar (and he whistles, too). Stevie Wonder, whose “Secret Life of Plants” was the second number, sings and plays keyboards, among other things. So the more Mitchell expounded, the more Maret had to riff against. You could see the quartet working better on “The Man I Love,” and things really started cooking on the last two numbers. Brewer had switched to acoustic bass, and Penn had an effective drum solo on the penultimate number, with Maret soaring now, splashing riff after riff towards the growing audience. I don’t know what it would have been like to see Toots when he was in his twenties, but I surely got a sense that Maret was someone who will be a dominating voice on jazz harmonica for years to come.
I thought I would settle nicely into Eddie Palmieri’s closing set at the Arena, given the reports I’d heard from his concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He had a terrific band that included trumpeter Brian Lynch and trombonist Conrad Herwig. But somehow I just felt restless, or maybe I just needed to hear something new and different. A little voice inside was saying, “You really ought to hear Gregory Porter.” Now I am of an age where hearing little voices is not necessarily a good thing. But I wanted to find out what the fuss about Porter was all about – I’d heard him a little on the radio, mostly ballads that had a Johnny Hartman feel to them. But I was in for a revelation, if only for the last third of a set. I walked into a packed Night Club to hear him finish a rousing version of “Skylark.” Wearing what is apparently a trademark cap with earflaps, Porter has a vocal timbre that is somewhere between Hartman and Joe Williams. He had complete command of the audience, and he performed with a soulful funkiness that brought to mind Les McCann. His closing number was a recall of the Detroit riots, “1960 What” – yes, definitely a McCann influence here – which had the audience on its feet. There was no way they were going to let him leave, so back he came with a soulful “Water,” from his most recent CD.
That concluded a wonderful first night. More tomorrow with Trombone Shorty, Michael Wolff’s Cal Tjader band, Pat Metheny, Tony Bennett and more.
Photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.
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