By Michael Katz
It’s 5:30 Friday night; a light breeze cools off a balmy mid-September evening at the Monterey Fairgrounds. The line of folks waiting to get in snakes all the way down the street, almost to the rear gate. Inside, a few of us scrivener types sit at picnic tables, observing the calm. In a few minutes the first notes of jazz music, our music, will break the stillness. And within an hour there will be music everywhere, bursting out of a half-dozen live venues.
This is the 60th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and the anticipation is high. There are 100th anniversary tributes to Ella, Diz and Monk, an eclectic array of musicians, an impossible web of acts to follow. It all starts slowly, like raindrops feeding the headwaters of a river. At the small Courtyard Stage, an island just off the entrance, pianist Matthew Whitaker taps out the intro to “All Blues,” and the festival begins. Whitaker will perform a series of half hour sets – two tonight, 10 overall throughout the festival. That’s five hours of solo piano, and he gets off to an engaging start, seguing to Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” a sprightly appetizer as the crowd files in.
Over at the Garden Stage, a smaller amphitheater, Bay Area guitarist Ray Obiedo fronts a pleasing Latin band. Obiedo mixes in Santana-like blues and funk on guitar, augmented by Phil Hawkins on steel pans. Melicio Magdaluyo plays saxophones and flute. An early highlight is Milton Nascimento’s “Veracruz.” Hawkins’ steel pans set up the Caribbean tempo for Obieto and his crew. Later, there is a sprightly turn on Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” with Magdaluyo soloing on tenor and flute. The crowd, meanwhile, filters among the oak trees, reestablishing friendships, sipping drinks and taking in the cool Latin beat.
At 7:30 the program begins at the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the main arena. The first two shows are tributes to Ella and Dizzy, but they take different routes. First up is violinist
and MJF’s featured artist, Regina Carter, whose latest CD is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. She has chosen to feature some of the lesser known Ella tunes, the B-sides, as she puts it. The set features some songs that are not all that recognizable, but serve as a springboard for Carter and her band to establish their own formidable talents. The first tune, “Accentuate The Positive” is the most familiar; Carter gives it a funky turn, recalling her Detroit roots. The band features Xavier Davis on keyboards and Marvin Sewell on guitar. Carter is in rousing form throughout this set. “Crying in the Chapel” is better known for Elvis Presley’s cover, but Carter creates a Motown ballad feel to it. “I’ll Never Be Free” has a soulful turn from Davis. There’s a lovely duet with Sewell on “Judy.” Throughout the set, the band, backed by Chris Lightcap on bass and Alvester Garnett on drums, maintains a solid groove. It’s a terrific performance from Regina Carter, who will appear at least twice more over the weekend.
Kenny Barron’s trio (with guests) has a more predictable set list, but it’s hard to do a Dizzy Gillespie tribute without playing “A Night In Tunisia,” “Tin Tin Deo,” “Manteca,” at al, so it’s the variations on the familiar themes that make the set work. The guest artists have one tune apiece, and each provides a different wrinkle. Barron Trio
Sean Jones has a gentle swing on “Bebop,” Roy Hargrove uses a fluegelhorn on “A Night In Tunisia,” providing a slightly muted effect. Conguero Pedrito Martinez makes the first of several festival appearances for “Tin Tin Deo.” Pedrito has an infectious style and personality which bursts through his playing. Kenny Barron, backed by Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Justin Fowler on drums, maintains the Gillespie groove throughout. Barron provides a festival highlight with his unrehearsed solo of “Con Alma.” His approach is layered, the phrases tumbling out, capturing the essence of Dizzy’s most revered ballad. When these types of all-Star bands get together, the set seems to go by too quickly. By the time each guest soloist performs his number, the hour is nearly over, and you wish you could come back for another show. Fortunately, everyone joins in on “Manteca,” Roy Hargrove bringing his trumpet this time and joining Sean Jones on a couple of blazing choruses. Pedrito burns it on the congas and the capacity crowd rises to its feet.
I decamp to the newly redesigned Pacific Jazz Café for my final set of the evening. The venue has been enlarged from the cozy Coffee House and is hosting saxophonist
Joel Frahm leading a 90th Birthday Celebration of Stan Getz and his 1972 album Captain Marvel. There’s no hiding this fact: I love Captain Marvel, I’ve almost worn the grooves off the vinyl, and was thrilled at the booking. Stan Getz always employed great pianists: Kenny Barron, Jim McNeely, Joanne Brackeen, Mose Allison, Lou Levy among others (not to mention Gary Burton on vibes for several albums). But the pairing with Chick Corea was electric (and not just literally). Released in 1972 and recorded before Return To Forever, Captain Marvel is a singular Getz performance, featuring 5 of Chick’s tunes that would become staples for RTF and covered by dozens of musicians. Backed by Chick, Stanley Clark, Tony Williams and Airto, this album might be considered jazz fusion today, but is really just Getz applying his unique tone and lyricism to Chick Corea’s compositions. There was some thought to having Chick reprise his role at MJF for this set, but the choice of Billy Childs is possibly even better. And the rhythm section of Peter Erskine on drums and Scott Colley on bass is a perfect complement.
Frahm’s quartet plays all six tunes without interruption, trying to recapture the feeling of listening to the album. From the opening notes of “La Fiesta,” the enthusiasm is evident; Erskine and Colley seem almost gleeful about re-capturing the feeling of presenting this music for the first time. Joel Frahm wisely chooses not to mimic Getz, whose sound, nurtured in the tradition of Lester Young and Zoot Sims, was unique. Nor could anyone “recreate” Getz’ soloes. But all the tunes have signposts, spots where Getz and Corea initiate their lilting, darting interplays; by recognizing them, Frahm and Childs recreate the spirit of those compositions, and show off their own improvisations.
It also becomes evident that recreating those songs without a break is a test of stamina, especially for Frahm. All five Corea compositions (“La Fiesta,” “500 Miles High”, “Captain Marvel,” “Times Lie” and “Day Waves,” feature intensive soloing by Getz. He surely didn’t record it all in an hour without a break, nor perform it in that manner. But somehow it all works and Frahm, who has a robust and clear sound, manages to be a conduit and much more for Getz’s performance. Sometimes sticking to Getz’s chromatics, other times adding his own jazz quotes, he carries the band for all six rounds. Billy Childs simply shines throughout, his fingers dancing across the electric piano, evoking Chick Corea but adding his own imprint. My favorite number, both on the LP and this performance, is “Times Lie.” It begins with a sweet, lyrical line, a perfect starting point for Getz. It takes off with wild flurries by Stan and Chick, punctuated on the LP by Stanley Clark and Tony Williams. At Monterey it is still the highlight, fueled by Colley and Erskine while Frahm and Childs bring the riffs to life.
The only non-Corea tune on the LP is Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” It’s a song Getz recorded several times; because it was a standard, it gives Frahm more leeway to take it in his own direction; with the exception of the Getz-like flourish at the end, he puts his personal stamp on it. The closer, “Day Waves,” has a valedictory tone, a kind of warming-down effect, bringing the performance to a close.
I have listened to this album untold times, never imagining I would ever get a chance to hear the material performed in this manner. It is a bravura performance, one of those magical things that the Monterey Jazz Festival does to bring me back every year. Overall, it caps a wonderful opening night to MJF 60.
Photos by Diana Gunderson