By Michael Katz
Most of us long-time jazz fans remember the first jazz album we ever bought – not a gift or a hand-me-down, but the first time we actually pulled soiled, hard-earned bills from our pocket at a neighborhood record store and greedily pawed the cellophane off an LP. For me, it wasn’t Coltrane or Brubeck or Getz or Miles, but an album from a man who didn’t exactly play anything (to my suburban 17 year-old’s knowledge, anyway), a man whom I’d never heard of until the DJs at WSDM in Chicago started playing Quincy Jones’ Walking In Space.
Mr. Jones, of course, had developed his chops with Ray Charles, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton and had by then embarked on a producing career that would reach from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson. But his A & M LPs introduced him to jazz listeners coming of age in the late sixties and seventies. Walking In Space was a perfect in-the-moment jazz concoction for 1969. The first side featured music from the pop-rock musical Hair. The second side featured Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe” and a gospel hit, Edwin Hawkins “O Happy Day.” The large ensemble was a collection of players, not all of them familiar to me at the time, but who would provide the backbone of my jazz collection over the next thirty years: Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Ray Brown, Jerome Richardson, Toots Thielemans, Bob James, Eric Gale, and singer Valerie Simpson. The three subsequent LPs, Gula Matari, Smackwater Jack, and You’ve Got It Bad Girl used a similar formula, mixing 60’s/70s pop and soul with jazz standards, adding Milt Jackson and Dave Grusin, among others, to the large ensemble.
If there was a musical star on those CDs, it had to be Hubert Laws; his solos on Walking in Space and Killer Joe, as well as on Q’s Gula Matari, remain among the most soaring in his career. Toots Thielemans’ harmonica licks weren’t far behind. Behind it all were the swinging, soulful arrangements of Quincy Jones. The versatility that would become his trademark as a producer was in full evidence on those albums, from a gospel-like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to a funk-driven version of Nat Adderly’s “Hummin’.” His arrangement of “Killer Joe”, with Valerie Simpson echoing the theme behind Laws’ lilting flute and Hubbard’s trumpet, is the standard interpretation to this day.
I bring this up because the Monterey Jazz Festival will be honoring Quincy Jones, reconstructing those arrangements under the supervision of Christian McBride and John Clayton, to cap off MJF 59’s Friday night program. Included will be Laws, Simpson, and Dave Grusin from the original LPs, and an all-star cast including James Carter, Sean Jones, Lewis Nash, Paul Jackson, Jr. as well as bassist Richard Bona and pianist Alfredo Rodriquez, who will be fronting their own bands at the festival. It figures to be a can’t miss program, featuring an opening set by superb vocalist Cecile Mclorin Salvant and a middle set headlined by the irrepressible Bona.
MJF, as usual, is loaded with more talent than anyone can reasonably absorb in three days, including Artist-In-Residence Terri Lyne Carrington with her Mosaic Project, and Featured Artist Joshua Redman. But for an old tenor player, MJF 59 is Sax Nirvana. Dig this list of World Class horns: James Carter, Maceo Parker, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Kamasi Washington, Wayne Shorter, Lew Tabackin, Mark Turner, Eric Alexander and Donnie McCaslin. Bop to Blues. In-the-groove to avant-garde. Tenor, alto, soprano. Saxes in every imaginable permutation. Branford Marsalis with vocalist Kurt Elling. Maceo Parker channeling Ray Charles. Joshua Redman as featured artist with the Bad Plus and his own quartet. Eric Alexander with guitarist Dave Stryker and organist Jared Gold. Wayne Shorter performing this year’s commissioned work, “The Unfolding.” Kamasi Washington with his Epic band. Lew Tabackin with trumpeter Randy Brecker. James Carter with the Quincy Jones ensemble. And, if we can stay in the wind section, two superb flutists: the aforementioned Hubert Laws and rising star Elena Pinderhughes, who has moved on from the MJF Next Generation Band and will have her own Sunday set at the Garden Stage.
In an era of steadily increasing prices, MJF is still the best bargain around. The grounds passes, individually or at the three day price of $137 provide hours of the best jazz for what would normally be the price of a couple of sets of music in a club or concert hall. And you can still pick up some less-expensive arena tickets, where the sound system and video is excellent, or catch the performances on video at the Jazz Theater on the grounds.