By Michael Katz
For the multitudes of jazz fans on the West Coast and beyond, the third weekend of September is the highlight of the year. The 59th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was a perfect antidote to the ever-acrimonious political miasma we find ourselves in. An oasis of joy and spirituality, MJF 59 was three lovely end-of-summer days filled with sensational music from the wide spectrum of America’s original art form, celebrated by folks of all backgrounds, renewing friendships, starting new ones, and enjoying one of the best lineups in recent memory.
Friday night at the arena’s Jimmy Lyons Stage, highlighted by a tribute to Quincy Jones, rates on the short list of best nights in the 20 years I’ve attended the festival. Cecile McLorin Salvant opened it up, with the stellar Aaron Diehl on piano (and contributing to the arrangements). Salvant has a vocal range that centers on the soprano, but has a playful dexterity that turns every song into a self-contained performance. She brought a spritely joy to standards like Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” then just as quickly turned the old folk song “John Henry” into a stirring gospel narrative.
We know we’re not getting a sultry come-on from Salvant. She wins us over with wit and charm, as on her version of “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” from Funny Girl, and a few minutes later stirs our hearts with “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
Aaron Diehl is one of the outstanding young pianists, a leader in his own right. He’s a sensitive accompanist, with a great ear for the intricacies of Salvant’s interpretations. The quartet was ably filled out by Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums.
Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona is always a delight. He’s got a lilting vocal style that’s always captivating, and is able to morph into multi-ethnic settings, from his own roots to American jazz and funk, to Central and South American rhythms. Friday night he led the Mandekan Cubano band through a spirited session. The group featured Osmandy Paredes on piano and Dennis Hernandez on trumpet and a multi-percussion section. Most of the lyrics were en espanol, but you could get carried away by Bona’s delivery even if you didn’t understand a word of it. For longtime Bona fans, he concluded with an extended version of his standard “Sen Sen Sen,” which had the Arena crowd up and dancing.
The highlight of the night, and arguably the entire festival, was the tribute to Quincy Jones and his classic A & M albums of the early ‘70s, Walking In Space, Gula Matari and Smackwater Jack. From the opening notes by Hubert Laws on “Walkin’,” you could sense the celebratory vibes with this All-Star band, conducted by John Clayton and assembled by Musical Director Christian McBride, who played the bass lines originated by the late Ray Brown.
Laws was clearly the first among equals here, re-creating and expanding on his signature solos from “Walking In Space” (from the musical Hair), Killer Joe, Gula Matari and more. Laws is still the peerless flutist, his solos cascading, soaring, swirling through these pieces, whether on piccolo, alto or soprano flute. And he had plenty of help. James Carter played tenor, baritone and soprano sax, stirring it up on all of them, conjuring up the spirit of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Bob Sheppard contributed some great soprano and tenor work as well. Pail Jackson, Jr. recalled the guitar licks of Eric Gale and Lewis Nash set the pace on the drums.
Gregoire Maret had the task of replacing the irreplaceable Toots Thielemans; he delivered a gorgeous rendition of Ray Brown’s “Brown Ballad.” Sean Jones also took a legend’s chair, that being the late Freddie Hubbard. Whether it was on the muted lead to “Walking In Space” or the fiery soloes on “Gula Matari,” Jones excelled throughout.
The two longest pieces were “Walking in Space” and Q’s composition “Gula Matari,” with lead vocals by Valerie Simpson. She eased back into these pieces with her trademark soulful intensity. The band, as Quincy later remarked, showed no signs of the lack of rehearsal time – probably they had grown up listening to the original arrangements. “Gula Matari” was a triumph, with Alfredo Rodriguez and Richard Bona guesting. Andy Martin excelled on the trombone. Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Goin’ On?,” featuring Valerie Simpson and more Laws solos, seemed as relevant today as ever.
Finally, Quincy Jones came on to conduct his timeless arrangement of “Killer Joe.” Those of us who wore this LP out have memorized Hubert Laws’ solos, but he still had original things to say, and Sean Jones killed it, too. So did James Carter and Dave Grusin. For all of us who came of age as jazz fans listening to those great records, I doubt we ever thought we’d see them performed live again on any stage, let alone Monterey. It was truly a memorable evening.
Friday night may have set the bar impossibly high, but there were many more exciting moments over the weekend. It was just impossible to see everyone, and I bypassed some performers that I’ve seen before. Here’s a collage of highlights from Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday afternoon is party time, and I was drawn to the Garden Stage for The Guitarsonists, a group led by guitarists Chris Cain, Daniel Castro and Mighty Mike Schermer. Whether covering Albert Collins, growling like Albert King, or splashing out the fat guitar chords of the Grateful Dead, they kept the packed Garden cheering for a ninety-minute set. Cory Henry, late of Snark Puppy, led the Funk Apostles from behind a soulful B3 organ through appealing sets at the Arena and later at the Garden. For those needing a pure jazz fix during the afternoon, Larry Vuckovich led a Vince Guaraldi tribute at Dizzy’s Den. Vuckovich rotated between piano and a keyboard that duplicated the sound of Cal Tjader’s vibes. His band featured Josh Workman on guitar and the great John Santos on percussion. Highlights included a funky take on “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” “Christmastime Is Here” from the Peanuts songbook and “Tjader’s Viva Cepeda.”
The weather, which had been chilly Friday night, turned cooler on Saturday, though anyone who remembered last year’s heat wave found this year much preferable. The fairgrounds were crowded throughout, with venues filled to capacity at all the events I attended.
I always take in at least one set at the intimate Coffee House, and this year I saw pianist Stanley Cowell in a trio with bassist Jay Anderson and Billy Drummond on drums. Cowell, 75, doesn’t play much on the West Coast, so it was fun to see his extensions into classical music, with a Brahms Intermezzo, as well as his best known composition, “Equipoise.” But my favorite was a duet with bassist Anderson on “Alone Together,” which brought back memories of the late Jim Hall’s collaboration with Ron Carter.
Next I headed to the Nightclub, where the line reached back to the picnic tables for Lew Tabackin’s quartet featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker. Tabackin played mostly tenor sax but doubled on flute on Victor Young’s “Delilah.” The two of them spent most of the set probing the musical boundaries of familiar tunes. Brecker has such a crisp, clear tone, it’s as if he’d never missed a note in his life. The two did an extended Monk collage, alternating between “Monk’s Dream” and “Ask Me Now.”
Then it was back to the Arena to catch Teri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, featuring a stellar collection of mostly women that included Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tia Fuller on alto and one of my favorites, Helen Sung on keyboards. Lizz Wright and Valerie Simpson contributed vocals, Simpson most memorably on a soul-laced “God Bless The Child.” Another highlight was Sung’s H-Town, which was introduced with an Ellington poem by Elena Pinderhughes, just a year removed from the MJF Next Generation band. Pinderhughes is a wonderful flutist, in the Laws tradition, and she contributed a beautiful solo to Sung’s tune.
By the time Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling came onstage at the arena, the temperature had dropped into the high 40’s and the crowd was beginning to thin. Elling’s sometimes esoteric vocal styles can be a challenge, but for the fans that clustered in the front rows, the rewards were great. First there was some great playing by Marsalis, especially on soprano sax, and pianist Joey Calderazzo sparkled throughout. The longest set piece was “Practical Arrangement,” which Sting composed for the theater but never made it into production. It seemed like a mini-opera with Elling at the center, in a long ode to unrequited love. As the evening wound down, Branford called Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jensen back onto the stage for a bravura rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” with Elling providing percussive support via paper cups against his cheeks.
Yes, it was getting late. And it was cold. But the group’s St. James swung mightily and rewarded the crowd, which had persevered through the chilly evening.
Sunday afternoon features the student bands, and the ensuing afternoon program tends to favor groups that will appeal to the younger crowd. The kids knocked everybody out, no surprise to MJF regulars. I always try and catch a set of the winning vocal groups. You can see the high school kids finding their poise on stage, with some surprising arrangements, like the MJF Vocal Ensemble’s version of Mose Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation.” Back at the arena, the Next Generation Band was a triumph as well, highlighted by vocalist Abigail Berry’s Skylark. Teri Lyne Carrington, the Artist-in–Residence, joined in with alumna Elena Pinderhughes for one final nod to Quincy Jones’ A & M LPs, Q’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.”
Kamasi Washington was up next, with his band from The Epic, his triple CD that had risen to the top of the jazz charts. Washington, who cut his teeth in Gerald Wilson’s big band, is highly skilled on the tenor sax – in his flowing robe, releasing bursts of sound, he was reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders. He had some dynamic players behind him, particularly Ryan Porter on trombone and Miles Mosely on bass. The group’s energy is no doubt pulling young people into the jazz tent, though I don’t think the compositions have quite caught up with the instrumental brilliance.
Gregory Porter had no such problems. In a few short years he has become an MJF fixture. His style is a mix of gospel, soul and contemporary jazz. He turns the crowd into his own congregation, his songs sometimes sounding like mini-sermons. The actual lyrics can sometimes sound a little murky, but the intent is clear on songs like “Take Me To The Alley,” extolling listeners to find hope in the poorest parts of the city, and “No Love Dying Here.” Porter has always had an alto sax wailing behind him, and Lakecia Benjamin filled that role admirably. By the end of the set, on a clear, warm afternoon, Porter had the audience on its feet.
When the festival heads into its last evening, I let my jazz roots take over. I want some swinging, pulsating jazz and blues, and I don’t feel bound by the biggest names. Artistic Director Tim Jackson loaded Sunday night with gems, and the two sets I saw in their (almost) entirety were among my favorites of the weekend. First, I caught guitarist Dave Stryker’s quartet featuring Eric Alexander on tenor, Jared Gold on the B3 and McClenty Hunter on drums. Most of their tunes were based on Stryker’s work with Stanley Turrentine, many of them from his CD, Messin’ With Mr. T. This group was burning it up from start to finish. Stryker was laying it out on riff after riff, Alexander was flashing his robust style without mimicking Turrentine. And Gold kept everything simmering from behind. Don’t Mess With Mr. T was such a hit for Turrentine that you forget it was a Marvin Gaye original. Alexander performed it with a sense of danger and Gold kept the tension up. Later, on Coltrane’s “Impressions,” Stryker totally ripped it up before yielding the floor to his bandmates. Stanley’s Shuffle, was a driving, blistering finale that had the audience roaring.
I managed to get back to the Arena in time to see the last half of Pat Metheny’s set. I arrived just as he was beginning James, one of his personal standards, and continued to a lovely, Spanish-tinged piece that was unnamed, played on one of his acoustic guitars. Metheny still knows how to captivate an audience, bringing them in with melodies and then blasting them towards the exits at the end.
Joshua Redman was the Featured Artist at MJF 59, appearing in three different settings. I had decided that his quartet was the most appealing of his groups, at least for me. It featured Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Reuben Rodgers on bass and Aaron Goldberg on piano. It figured to be a can’t miss, and it didn’t. I’ve never heard Redman sound better, each note gorgeous, and perfectly balanced with his bandmates. The quartet has worked together often, and the intricacies between them are reminiscent of the best piano trios. They constantly felt each other out, the solos ebbing and flowing. Because they played mostly Redman’s original compositions, the listener didn’t have a familiar line to anchor each number – but even as the clock wound down on the last few minutes of the weekend, the audience was typical of the festival: attentive, involved, respectful of the musicians. And they were rewarded with one of the high points of the festival, a breathtaking rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Redman dipped and soared, building up tension and then releasing it in perfect articulation.
By the time Redman finished, the room was ready to breathe out. There was a closing romp, and then the lights went out on MJF 59.
It was a final, lasting memory of a wonderful festival.