by Michael Katz
Sunday at the Monterey Jazz Festival is always a mixed bag of styles, from the high school big bands to the closing headliners, with jazz variations on everything from salsa and bluegrass to the traditional Hammond B3 blowouts. Given that the mission of MJF is jazz education, I always like to check out the kids’ performances. The MJF Honor Vocal Jazz Ensemble opened the Nightclub program at the crack of noon (for the bleary-eyed among us). Directed by Dr. Rob Klevan, it featured thirteen high schoolers, backed by a rhythm section, offering tight arrangements and allowing the kids to have their moments, individually and in small groups. The audience may be mostly families of the participants, but as early festival goers filled in the seats, they were treated to a performance in the spirit of the great vocal acts like Manhattan Transfer. I especially liked the bright version of “Willow Weep For Me,” and the brisk closing rendition of Monk’s “Rhythm-N-Ning.”
Next it was over to the Jimmy Lyons Stage at the main arena, where the Next Generation Band opened the afternoon show. It was a warm, breezy afternoon, absent the scorching sun that sometimes sends patrons to the shaded fringes of the arena – the only thing hot was the band. For those of us who played in high school stage bands, the talent here is prodigious. It’s nearly impossible to pick out the best of this group, directed by Paul Contos, but keep an eye on trumpeter Geoffrey Gallante and tenor sax man Abdias Armenteros. For the second year in a row, pianist Luca Mendoza won the composition award for a rousing “Chicken Bones.” Vocalist Joshua Tazman contributed a smooth, Connick-like “More than You Know.” Finally, Artists-In-Residence John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Gerald Clayton joined the group. John directed his composition “Reverence,” with son Gerald tearing it up on piano. Jeff Hamilton started off Johnny Hodges’ Squatty Roo with a rumbling beat on drums, and the whole band took off and ran with the Ellington tune.
The pros took over next, with John Beasley’s Monk’Estra. Beasley’s group is a mostly-LA large ensemble, and like Regina Carter’s Ella tribute, Beasley shied away from Monk’s most famous tunes (though he has recorded “Round Midnight” and “Epistrophy” on his Volume 1 CD.) Monk’s work lends itself to all sorts of interpretations, but most of his own performances were in small ensembles, usually featuring one horn player – not that it’s ever stopped large groups, from Woody Herman to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Trying to get the whole band involved can sometimes get a little dense; but this performance, featuring tunes from the just-released Volume 2 CD, was tight throughout, while still managing to explore Monk’s often labyrinthine themes. “I Mean You” was an effective opener, a crisp arrangement of the familiar Monk theme. An “Ugly Betty/Pannonica” medley featured a weaving solo articulated by Francisco Torres on trombone.
The indomitable Bob Sheppard, who was featured on both alto and soprano, took the lead on “Gallop’s Gallop.” The band featured stellar solo work throughout — Brian Schwarz and Bijon Watson on trumpet, along with Tom Luer on tenor sax for “Criss Cross.” A highlight of the afternoon was Featured Artist Regina Carter making a surprise guest appearance on “Ask Me Now,” displaying more of her incredible range.
At several points during full days like this, you just have to come up for air. I wandered around the picnic area, taking in the sounds from the Education Stage and the Garden Stage, a joyful cacophony competing with the aromas from outdoor grills and barbecues. Over at Dizzy’s Den, a Spanish trio, O.F.N.I., was finishing their set. Pianist Pablo Caminero seemed to be the lead voice in the trio, which included pianist Moises Sanchez and drummer Borja Barrueta. They swung sweetly through their final number, “Bye-Bye” and I wished I had come in earlier, but such is life at MJF.
I had come into Dizzy’s early to get a good seat for Joe Lovano and his Classic Quartet. I’ve been a Lovano fan since his days soloing in the Woody Herman Band. He’s gone off in a hundred directions since then, sometimes in avant-garde style with his Us Five bands, other times with an edgy teaming with John Scofield. The Classic Quartet is in the Coltrane tradition, backed by a superb rhythm section of Lawrence Fields on piano, Peter Slavov on bass and Lamy Istrefi on drums. The set began with “Bird’s Eye View” from the Live at Newport CD. Like most of the first half of this 90-minute set, it featured Lovano’s explorations, running his horn through long and various riffs over a bare theme, interspersed with Field’s dynamic playing. It seemed as if the rhythm section was buoying Lovano, pushing him through the first half of the set. The concluding forty-five minutes was one of the highlights of the festival. A few notes from bassist Slavov seemed to promise “A Love Supreme,” but instead led into a soul-wrenching dive into Coltrane’s “Spiritual.” When Lovano surfaced from that, he closed with an extended version of “It’s Easy to Remember,” from Coltrane’s “Ballads.” The quartet finished the nearly forty-minute exploration of Coltrane almost exhausted, to another MJF standing ovation.
In years past, the several hours between the afternoon and evening Jimmy Lyons Stage programs were an invitation to relax, grab some food and hang out at the Garden Stage, chat up old friends or switch to fleece layers for the later shows. But the last few years Artistic Director Tim Jackson has filled this “shoulder” period with some great, straight-ahead programs, some of the best in the festival. By 6 PM the Hammond B3 Blowout was going on in the Night Club, and in Dizzy’s Den I stayed to see saxophonist Tia Fuller. Fuller has bridged the divide between so-called smooth jazz and straight ahead. This was a superb group, with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and Fuller’s sister Shamie Royston on piano. They were playing Fuller’s compositions from her Angelic Warrior CD, with Fuller doubling on soprano and tenor. She has a driving, soulful sound – if newcomers had any doubts about her chops, they were dispelled quickly. She obviously enjoys playing with Jensen, whose crisp, swinging trumpet proved she belonged with any of the guys heard in this Dizzy-themed festival.
As the festival reached its final hours, it appeared to be back-loaded – the desire to see and hear everything weighs against exhaustion. Over at the Jimmy Lyons stage, the duo of pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolinist Chris Thile, the new host of Prairie Home Companion, was in progress. Mehldau, a formidable player in any setting, seemed content to give Thile most of the leeway here. I caught them in “Scarlet Town,” a haunting melody, with Thile on vocal. His voice is naturally more suited to his folk-bluegrass roots. On “Scarlet Town” he slid into a bluesy chorus, with Mehldau contributing some serious licks behind him. “Tallahassee Junction” was a considerably more free-ranging instrumental, with both players burning it up. I still had a sense of “jazziness,” as Stephen Colbert might put it; and yet, their final number struck a generational nerve to us Boomers in the crowd. It was a lovely rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Thile’s voice had just enough of an edge to be reminiscent of Dylan, but not too reverent. It was offset by the tenderness of his mandolin and Mehldau’s sympathetic accompaniment.
Angelique Kidjo had the penultimate show of the night, a salsa tribute with Pedrito Martinez back in the spotlight on percussion and congas. The West African singer has a pulsating, joyful show. The crowd was lined up on both sides of the arena and in the center aisles, anticipating a dance party, and that is what they got. There were a few tender moments, most notably a duet with guitarist Dominic James, but mostly it was a high octane set, with Martinez keeping the energy up and the crowd soaking it all in.
And finally, there was Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. It’s a pretty safe bet to call these two men the most influential musicians of the last fifty years. Their compositions and explorations of music, from solo to big band, acoustic to electric and everything in between, have defined jazz and bent it into untold dimensions. So here they were, behind opposite pianos, nudging each other with notes and riffs, teasing and tugging, inching together and drifting apart.
There was a sense of anticipation in the audience, the crowd waiting for something familiar, a chord or a note. You’d hear a murmur when something near-recognizable popped up, then dissolved into the night and the two of them drifted back into their game of touch and go.
You had the sense that this was akin to a science fiction movie, where the aliens are so intellectually superior they don’t need to speak, they just mind-meld. And perhaps that was the best way to appreciate this, to close your eyes and lie back and meld into what Herbie and Chick were doing. Though if you were, say, someone who had woken at 4 AM to get back to Monterey from a wedding the night before, your focus might be teetering just a wee bit.
Finally, Herbie hit the opening chords to “Cantaloupe Island”, bringing the audience out of their trance. They played with the theme for a bit, then Chick came back with the familiar bridge to “Spain.” The two of them joined in a coda, a musical dove darting in and out of the Monterey night, showing the way back to solid ground.
And that was it for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival.
See you next year
Photos by Diana Gunderson