By Michael Katz
It is Monday morning, and a layer of fog has settled over Monterey Bay. The 55th Monterey Jazz Festival is now an empty fairgrounds. Places with names like Dizzy’s Den and the Nightclub are now bland outbuildings connected by an empty midway. But if you close your eyes, you can still imagine a magical place, where a high school flutist can say she followed Ambrose Akinmusire on the stage of the Jimmy Lyons Arena, or a young singer can say she stood in front of a big band on the same stage and was the hottest thing going. And that was just a prelude to the concluding day, which brought Esperanza Spalding, Pat Metheny and an All-Star MJF combo to conclude one of MJF’s best festivals.
The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra led by Paul Contos kicked things off with some terrific arrangements, including a knockout version of “Harlem Nocturne.” A few of the highlights included the winning composition, “Something Small,” by Christopher McCarthy, and vocalist Laila Smith, who shone on “Only You” and an upbeat arrangement of “Smile.” Artist-in-Residence Ambrose Akinmusire made his first Arena appearance of the festival with a couple of numbers that featured his searing horn. You can only imagine the confidence director Contos had in Elena Pinderhughes to have her follow Akinmusire’s extended riff with a zesty flute solo of her own, and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who shared the stand with Akinmusire for his final tune.
Esperanza Spalding had to be the perfect choice to anchor the Sunday afternoon show. She has the crossover creds to draw a young audience into the Arena, yet her jazz chops endear her to the Monterey faithful. She brought a solid eleven piece ensemble to the Arena in support of her current hit CD, Radio Music, that included rising tenor star Tia Fuller and Chris Turner on supporting vocals. Emerging in a flowing white gown and trademark Afro, she led her band through a jam session that won over the audience from the start. If there was one unavoidable timing glitch, it was having a lovely ballad set in the midst of what turned out to be the flyover of Thunderbird F-16s from the nearby Salinas Air Show, but by then crowd knew what was coming and waited patiently for the jets to finish, while Spalding adapted with panache.
It’s possible that Esperanza had a little case of Trombone Shorty-itis, as she tried to get a crowd going that was still suffering a bit of an emotional hangover from the day before. Her style is gentler, her voice at its best wafts sweetly over her bass tones. Her finale, an extended rendition of the Radio Music theme, brought home her point about falling in love with music through the radio, but it seemed to leave the set a tad on the short side. One more smaller, more dramatic vocal (and let the crowd take care of itself) might have been more fulfilling.
The mid-afternoon sets at the Garden Stage are always some of my favorite moments. They are a chance to wind down from what tends to be a raucous atmosphere in the Arena and set the stage for the evening’s jazz headliners. Danish violinist Mads Tolling was a wonderful example of this Sunday. The Turtle Island veteran led a quartet that featured sterling guitar work from Michael Abraham and support from bassist George Ben-Weiss and drummer Eric Garland. Together they exploited every aspect of Tollings’ instrument, from Danish folksongs to jazz standards to extended flights in homage to Jean Luc Ponty. My favorites included the opener, “Danish Dessert,” which began with some nice counter plucking between violin and guitar, “Take Off Blues” by Danish legend Svend Asmussen and Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rumba.” Tollings had a gorgeous extended solo in “Beatrice,” then brought the group back for another Jean Luc tribute, “Pontification.”
There was plenty of activity going on throughout the festival as the curtain went down Sunday night, but by that time I was content to stay at the Arena for what turned out to be a superb evening. Pat Metheny returned to the stage with his Unity Band quartet, featuring Chris Potter on reeds, Antonio Sanchez on percussion and upcoming bass star Ben Williams. Metheny remains something of a mad scientist, with his “Orchestrion” lurking in the background like some sort of cross between a super computer and an alien spaceship. This was all linked to something resembling an apothecary shelf at the right of the stage, filled with bottles and beakers that lit up like Christmas lights throughout the show.
Metheny started with a type of combination guitar/harp known as the Pikasso. He was joined by Potter on bass clarinet in a lovely pairing that was augmented by some terrific bass lines by Williams. The band went through material from the new Unity album; like most everything Metheny does, it is hard to categorize. If you are a jazz purist you tend to love his full sound and wandering melodies. You sometimes cringe at the more rock-style riffs, but there was relatively little of that Sunday night, and it was kept earthbound by the fine work of Potter, whose soprano matched Metheny’s occasional trips into the stratosphere.
There were times when I felt a little sympathy for Antonio Sanchez, whose masterful rhythms seemed to be competing against the bells and chimes of the Orchestrion. Once or twice I thought I’d stumbled into a soundtrack for the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. But as the show went on Sanchez had plenty of room to stretch out. And the final moments of the ninety-minute set, when Potter doubled on flute and did a lovely duet with Metheny, brought the audience to its feet.
The final performance at the Arena would have highlighted any night, but it was a perfect coda to MJF 55. The MJF Jazz Festival on Tour started out with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Christian McBride sharing the stage, with an inspired version of “Do What You Want To Do.” Bridgewater teased the audience as she synched with McBride’s bass, the two of them interweaving riffs. The rest of the band followed: pianist Bennie Green; Chris Potter doing double duty, bridging the gap between avant garde and straight ahead; trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Lewis Nash. Bridgewater led a spirited version of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” and Akinmusire stretched out on McBride’s composition “Shade of The Cedar Tree.”
In recent years MJF has shifted the Sunday show to two 90 minute performances, and this works perfectly for the All-Star groups. In the past, with only an hour, it seemed like they were just warming up when the curtain fell. And the fact that the group had played Saturday night at Dizzy’s Den gave the Arena crowd the benefit of their additional time together. If there’s one player who ought to especially benefit from the extended tour, which will begin in January, it is Akinmusire, who will surely get some added recognition from his presence, as well as the opportunity to test his compositions against this stellar group.
But there were plenty of highlights from everyone, including wonderful brushwork by Lewis Nash with the group reduced to a trio for Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga.” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One,” featured Akinmusire and Potter, and Chris shone in his composition “Salome’s Dance.” Still, if there was a first among equals it had to be Dee Dee Bridgewater. She mesmerized the crowd with “Don’t Explain,” and later closed the show leading the band in “All of Me.” It is impossible to compare any singer with prior eras, where a national spotlight shone on Sarah and Ellie and Billie, but Dee Dee Bridgewater, at this stage of her career, belongs in the conversation.
As the MJF Touring all-stars finished “All of Me” to a standing ovation, from a crowd that had braved yet another chilly night, there were a few wistful remarks about the paucity of “real jazz” on the Arena schedule. While that may be a narrow definition, I can understand the sentiment. But the umbrella of jazz has spread wide, and there were nearly countless opportunities on the various stages to see jazz of every fashion. The venues played to near capacity crowds almost everywhere. It was sad to see the closing curtain fall, as it meant farewell to friends seen too seldom, and a spirit of art and friendship unmatched anywhere in the world.
See you next year, Monterey.
Photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
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