Impressions from MJF 56, Friday Night
By Michael Katz
If you are the type of person whose entertainment values revolve around baseball and jazz, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are Cubans everywhere. Baseball has recently given us young stars such as Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, Yoenis Cespedes of the A’s and the Reds’ fireballing reliever Aroldis Chapman. The jazz world has been lit up by generations of players who have found a musical haven from Castro’s repressive regime, including Arturo Sandoval and a legacy of pianists: the Valdes family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Alfredo Rodriguez.
MJF 56 was bookended Friday night by Cubano Jazz – the Buena Vista Social Club anchored the stage show at the Jimmy Lyons Arena, but who knew about Roberto Fonseca?
As hundreds of folks wandered into the outdoor Garden Stage, anticipating the annual ritual of reunion with old friends on a breezy fall evening, there was pianist/vocalist Fonseca, sparkling with a mix of transcendent riffs and energetic vocals. It took a few songs for both the audience and soundboard to catch up with him, but by 7 PM the little bowl had filled up and folks were standing three deep at the edges, as they do on Saturday afternoon. Fonseca had lots of help from his band, which featured Jorge Chicoy on guitar and ukelele, Joel Hierrezuelo on percussion and vocals, Ramses Rodriquez on drums and Yandy Martinez on bass. Fonseca, whose style springs from the Valdez legacy but branches out with nods to hip hop, quickly ratcheted up the thermometer. About halfway through, he brought out Sekuo Kouyate who added to the fun with the stringed kora. As the crowd swelled and the sound improved, Rodriguez changed pace, playing a lovely elegy, and concluded with a song dedicated to his mother, starting slowly and building dramatically, with Chicoy and Hierrezuelo pulsating beside him. It was one of the most riveting openings to an MJF that I’ve witnessed.
The Arena lineup opened with Gregory Porter, about whom much has been written in this space. Porter tore the place up here last year at the Night Club and has been burning up the festival circuit all summer long in places like Newport, Chicago and the Playboy Festival in LA. So the question following him around is, “Can This Guy Be Jazz’s Transcendent Performer?” (and didn’t we ask that of Esperanza Spalding last year.) He very well might be. Porter commanded the Lyon Stage Friday night, possessed of a generous spirit, an inclusive wit and a rich baritone that can expand dramatically upon occasion. He makes impressive use of his band, which is highlighted by alto sax player Yosuke Sato, whose soaring solos add texture to the show, and pianist Chip Crawford.
Much of the material was familiar to his fans – songs such as “On My Way To Harlem” both involve the crowd and establish his jazz bona fides. He had the Arena fans singing along with “No Love Dyin’ Here.” “Liquid Spirit,” the title track from his new CD is a lively mixture of gospel and funk. But I thought Porter especially connected with the Monterey crowd with soulful interpretations of a couple of standards, the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn chestnut “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” and Oscar Brown Jr’s surging adaptation of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Bassist Aaron James and percussionist Emmanuel Harrold round out a terrific working band.
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra followed, with a tribute to Dave Brubeck – but first this talent rich band worked through a number of original compositions and standards. They were handicapped somewhat by a spotty sound system. In particular, the sax section was poorly served, most notably the dynamic Ricky Woodard, who sounded as if he was barely mic’d. But there was still lots to like, with trombonist George Bohannon and trumpeter Brian Schwartz joining Woodard on drummer Hamilton’s composition “Max.” Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” featured John Clayton on arco bass. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and Woodard, along with Jeff Clayton on alto helped bring Duke Ellington’s “Squatty Roo” to life.
The Dave Brubeck tribute, “Suite Sweet Dave” was the highlight – it was designed as an elegy, featuring some of Brubeck’s lesser known melodies, many of them reflective pieces that emphasized the beauty and diversity of a man who was composing everything from trio music to symphonies, throughout his life. At the heart of the performance was pianist Tamir Hendelman, who introduced the medley with some splashes of “Blue Rondo,” delivered some lovely solo work, and anchored it all with sensitivity that managed to honor Brubeck without mimicking him. Guitarist Graham Dechter also had a lovely interlude and John Clayton had another sweeping arco solo. One of Brubeck’s signature contributions to MJF was “The Real Ambassadors,” which featured Louis Armstrong, and CHJO took the original recording of “Summer Song,” featuring Satchmo, and enhanced it with a full orchestral backing, to the delight of the crowd. Through much of the piece, I was waiting for the nod to Paul Desmond (and later, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Militello); in the penultimate selection, Jeff Clayton took over and gave a driving alto solo, again not imitative but stirring on its own. It was all in all a memorable nod to Brubeck, showing the heart and soul of his composing. And for what figures to be a memorable cadenza, his sons Chris and Daniel will be leading a group Saturday at the Night Club.
The Buena Vista Social Club is a kind Cuban Folklorico, continuing the legacy of traditional music that was brought to the American public by Ry Cooder and filmmaker Wim Wenders. The current version has filled in chairs left by the departed Ibrahim Ferrer et al with some bright young talent, especially Rolando Luna on piano, but it is still the stalwarts like Papi Oviedo and Barbarito Torres on the Cuban tres and loud stringed instruments, along with the percussionists, who breathe life into the band.
And, of course, there is Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa. Omaro, ageless (okay, 83) came sweeping onstage in a light blue dress, full of grace and energy. Like Gregory Porter, she has instant communication with the audience – her spare English was understood by all and the audience, which didn’t need much prompting, was up on its feet dancing. During the encore, Omara invited some of the dancers on stage. As midnight approached, the Arena audience, most of which had stuck around as the breezy evening turned seasonably cool, roared its approval.
As usual in this talent loaded festival, there were some instant regrets. I dropped into the Coffee House for the tail end of pianist Uri Caine’s final set. Wow! “Come on,” I thought, “give an encore for those of us latecomers.” The crowd was sparse, though I understood the earlier sets were well attended, and I vowed to head back there for Orrin Evans’ Saturday performance. Meanwhile, In the Night Club, MJF Artist-In – Residence Joe Lovano was concluding his free jazz Us Five group with special guest vocalist Judi Silvano. I caught the last fifteen minutes of a blistering performance, and will see more of Lovano Saturday with trumpeter Dave Douglas.
All in all, a memorable first night in Monterey.
Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra photo by Bonnie Perkinson.