By Michael Katz
Saturday at the Monterey Jazz Festival is an Olympian feast, with just about everything you can imagine, from the blasting steel pedal of Robert Randolph to the nuanced guitar of Mimi Fox, the cult-like dominance of Trombone Shorty to the indomitable Tony Bennett. Not to mention the ear-splitting Thunderbirds flyover, courtesy of the nearby Salinas Air Show.
There was a chill in the air Saturday morning – you would think after so many years at this festival I wouldn’t be fooled, though it should have served as a reminder that the evenings can get downright cold. Once into the Arena, the sun was searing as usual – and so were Robert Randolph and his Family Band. The blues, for years the staple of the Saturday afternoon shows, has taken a back seat lately to the Treme-inspired New Orleans gumbo/funk, but Randolph played with a fury, cutting through the afternoon heat on his steel pedal guitar. He occasionally eased into a soulful funk of his own, but mainly he was sending stratospheric riffs into the autumn air. This is a treat if that’s your kind of blues, but after about a half hour I sought some refuge, as well as the typical Saturday afternoon fun at the Garden Stage.
There are few things that beat the ambience of standing under the shade of California live oaks, feeling a breeze float through the air as the crowd occupies every nook and cranny of the Garden Stage’s small amphitheatre. The Blues Broads, who are everything that the name implies, were belting out Texas blues with panache. Tracy Nelson, Angela Strehli, Dorothy Morrison and Annie Sampson supplied the vocals from the Austin-based group, and the band was pushed by a two-keyboard combination of Mike Emerson and Deanna Bogart, who doubled on tenor sax. Under normal circumstances I might have been content to stretch out in the shade and take in the remainder of their ninety-minute show, but I was drawn to the Night Club venue for an event I’d been looking forward to since the schedule came out.
It may seem counter-intuitive to be seeking quietude on the one afternoon that the MJF is bursting with fervor; I suppose Tim Jackson could have scheduled the duo of flutist Ali Ryerson and guitarist Mimi Fox at some other time. Perhaps the crowd might have been a little larger – by the end it probably was around 60% of capacity at a festival where crowded venues were the norm – but those who were there couldn’t have been more appreciative. Mimi Fox is a splendid player – she has an air of confidence, like a tennis player striking one well-placed rally after another, never a false step or a wasted note. She isn’t recorded nearly enough – her Perpetually Hip double CD of 2006 is the latest. And she found a perfect duet partner in Ryerson, who has worked in many formats, alternating between the standard flute and the alto. Fox set a bluesy tone in the opening, her composition “Blues For Two,” and from there Ryerson picked up the alto for a sparkling “Summertime.” Their interweaving on “Alone Together” brought memories of the famous Jim Hall/Ron Carter duo. Fox alluded to some personal challenges in her composition “This Bird Still Flies,” and you could only hope they had waned – certainly her playing still shines. Ryerson took the lead on a stunning “My One And Only Love,” punctuated by the Thunderbirds F-16 flyover. Most of the crowd knew this was coming, but by the sixth one, it took the consummate grace of Ryerson and Fox to rescue the intimacy of the moment. They closed with Jobim’s “Triste,” with Fox artfully tapping chordal backdrops to Ryerson’s melodic riffs.
So I missed the first half of Trombone Shorty’s triumphant return to the Arena, where he had laid waste to the entire festival two years ago, starting a campaign that ended at the Garden Stage far into the afternoon. He was feted with Caesarian affection by the packed arena. When I walked in he was in the midst of an extended visit to “St. James Infirmary,” leading his band, featuring guitarist Pete Murano and bassist Mike Ballard. Combined with the horns of Mike McFatter and Dan Ostreicher, it is an awe-inspiring combination of funk and showmanship. Shorty, aka Troy Andrews, played a piercing trumpet solo as he segued into Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” which had some great tenor work by McFatter. But mostly it was supreme showmanship, with Shorty out front and drummer Joey Peebles maintaining the groove. If the Monterey Jazz Festival was a small country, Trombone Shorty could be Emperor without much trouble. (We should keep him away from Kurt Vonnegut novels).
A short interlude before the evening performances brought me to the tiny Courtyard Stage, where pianist/vocalist Judy Roberts and tenor/flutist Greg Fishman held forth for a series of half-hour performances. If you are a Chicagoan wondering where your fellow country-people have been, stop by because they all show up for Judy. I am admittedly biased here, but listening to her and Greg’s spirited version of “Centerpiece,” or her wonderful interpretation of “Night Moves,” brings back memories of the Backroom, and the non-Chicagoans shared in the delight.
The evening brought three much anticipated performances, and apologies to Bill Frisell, whose commissioned piece I missed. But I have been a huge Cal Tjader fan from the first time I heard his rich vibes tone incorporating the Afro-Cuban and Latin rhythms of Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria. When Tjader died suddenly in 1982, the music seemed to go with him, despite a nice legacy album from conguero Poncho Sanchez. So when superb pianist Michael Wolff, who played with Tjader at the age of 19 in the early 70’s, got the go ahead to put together a Cal Tjader Tribute Band, I knew it would be something special. The band was superb, with a rhythm section of John Santos and Pete Escovedo on congas and timbales, Vince Lateano on percussion and Robb Fisher on bass. Warren Wolf took the Tjader chair on vibes and did a terrific job. No one can really imitate Cal Tjader – if it was that easy, someone would have done it by now. Wolf’s style is slightly more percussive, but he has the zest and passion for the music that comes out with every stroke of the mallets. The group began with Ray Bryant’s “Cuban Fantasy,” with Wolff and Escovedo trading solos in back of Warren Wolf’s bright melodic line. So much of this material is treasured by Tjader fans that you simply sit back and listen to this group take off and fly with it. Warren Wolf shone on Mongo’s “Afro-Blue,” and Michael Wolff took the lead on his own combination “Sad Eyes,” from the Tambu album with Charlie Byrd. Wolf’s vibes are clearly the dominant force in a Tjaderized setting, but Michael Wolff’s piano was bubbling throughout. Everything shone in this set – the classic “A Night In Tunisia” featured a blazing crescendo by Warren Wolf. At about this time I realized time was fleeting, and the group wouldn’t get through the entire agenda. They closed with Tjader’s classic “Soul Sauce,” Michael Wolff slipping over to the Fender Rhodes for a Joe Zawinul-inspired solo before handing the baton back to Warren Wolff for the familiar vibes roll that became Cal’s signature. It was clearly an unforgettable set.
I moved back to the Arena for the last two sets of the evening, which were both triumphant in their own way. Jack DeJohnette led (if that’s the word) a trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. The three of them explored rhythms and melodies – no titles were announced — and by this time my mind overloaded as I tried to sort out familiar lines. It was improvisational jazz at its best, kind of an acoustic avant-garde, wandering off here and there but never inaccessible. DeJohnette has a crisp style that keeps your attention, and Metheny has a unique presentation. Even when he is not playing any of his well-known pieces, his presence is clearly felt. McBride, of course, is the perfect foil, pulsating from behind, and then moving in front when the mood strikes. The one tune I could put a label on was Miles Davis’ “Solar,” which they wove into an expressive piece that Miles would surely have appreciated (though that is always assuming a lot).
Tony Bennett closed the show and all I can say is, Google “sublime” and you ought to get his name for the first ten pages. At 86 he makes few concessions to age – he speaks a few lyrics that he used to croon, that’s about it – but his interpretive powers and rich tone haven’t diminished. The standards seem fresh as the Monterey breeze (albeit there was a distinct chill in the air). You can reel them off as he did: “They All Laughed,” “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “The Shadow Of Your Smile,” just to name a few. Lee Musiker is a terrific pianist and Musical Director, the great Harold Jones was on drums, Marshall Wood on bass and Gary Sargent on guitar was wonderful as the featured soloist. Bennett kept the songs mostly short with the occasional bow to his sidemen. The audience was adoring, and when he closed the set with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” and “Fly Me To The Moon,” he had accomplished much the same as Trombone Shorty, and if it wasn’t the exact same crowd, there was plenty in common.
Photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
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