Last year in my review of the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival, I commented on the trend of booking younger artists, as the Festival Artistic Director Tim Jackson astutely judged that the future of the Festival’s continued success lies in appealing to the demographic changes of Festival attendees. As both our jazz masters of the 40s, 50s and early 60s pass on, so do those who have attended the Festival throughout its 50+ years of existence. Fewer folks are buying the entire weekend Arena passes, and it is time to foster and mentor new fans of the Festival. This year for the 53rd Festival, Jackson, in addition booked more international artists than likely ever before for a single Festival.
Opening night on the Main Stage featured two international groups, Les Nubians from France via Chad, and the noted Septeto Nacional De Cuba, who pioneered Son, a rhythmic blend of African and Cuban music that evolved into salsa. Les Nubians are two sisters from France, whose music combines jazz, R & B, hip-hop and African pop. Much of the sisters Faussart’s lyrics are in French. Their bubbling mix of rhythms was matched by their striking beauty.
Friday night’s opening arena artist, Roy Hargrove and his Big Band, almost tore the roof off of both the Main Stage, and later that evening at Dizzy’s Den. I found the Hargrove band to be blistering hot, and a match for any touring big band today. Its trumpet section led by Greg Gisbert, has the power and brashness to knock you off your seat, and Roy is a relaxed band leader content to let his mates stretch out and show their talents. On “September in the Rain”, Roy even took on vocals and led the band in a call and response scat sequence. Guest vocalist, Roberta Gambarini, sang several songs in both sets and her version of “Everytime We Say Goodbye” backed by Hargrove’s gorgeous flugelhorn solo was memorable.
Other Friday night highlights on the Grounds stages were a joyous set by Nellie McKay honoring Monterey County senior resident Doris Day. Nellie’s voice brings to mind Blossom Dearie, with its little girl sweetness. In stark contrast to McKay was the mind-blowing set by the Jazz Mafia’s Brass, Bows, and Beats. This 45+ member San Francisco based mega-band pulled out all the stops combining rap, strings, horns, and singers. Led by Adam Theis. they played for well over 90 minutes, including an hour-long suite. They have a “making it happen” energy that appeals to a wide spectrum of musical tastes. I’ve been promised their CD to review and I’m excited about tasting their musical “stew.”
I caught a bit of sets by the Marcus Roberts Trio, and The House Jacks, an a cappella beat box quintet. Marcus had the services of Jason Marsalis on drums. Roberts gave New Orleans’ treatment to Monk, Ahmad Jamal’s classic “Poinciana”, and Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” Marcus plays with grace, and he is noted as a traditionalist who honors the style and period of the piano artists he admires.
The House Jacks, singing at the Garden Stage, just yards from the Coffee House Gallery where Roberts trio was featured, were another young group that pleasantly stretched the boundaries of jazz. Their doo-wop meets rap/ beat box style was a winning combination and they can follow “What a Wonderful World” with “Pretty Little Things” and appeal to all tastes. They were interesting enough to detour my rush between Roberts, Nellie McKay, and back to the Hargrove Big Band’s 2nd evening set at Dizzy’s Den.
My only regret of the evening was not being able to catch the set of saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo Pak Coalition. This young musician is definitely on the rise, as evidenced by his inclusion in the band of Danilo Perez in this years Detroit Jazz Festival. I heard reports that the Indo Pak Coalition was hot with an intriguing mix of guitar, saxophone and tabla serving up a spicy curry of rhythms.
Saturday at the Festival was further evidence of the oncoming surge of youth’s energy at this years MJF. Trombone Shorty ruled the day. The nickname of New Orleans’ whirlwind, Troy Andrews, Shorty was the man of the day. He played in both the blues portion of the Festival and then later at the Garden Stage. To say he “tore it up” would be an understatement. The long line later that night at the Best Buy autograph booth was by far the longest for any act at this years Festival. Everybody wanted to be near this superstar-to-be. Andrews can blow a mean trombone, trumpet, and is a winning vocalist. He can combine New Orleans jazz, blues, and amplified beat and funk. Playing professionally since age five, Andrews, a resident and star of HBO’s Treme, is a hot property. His “supafunkrock” had the audience on their feet screaming for more. Shorty can mix “Let’s Get It Started”, with a James Brown tribute (“Are You Feelin’ the Funk”), followed by Otis Redding’s “Shout”, and of course the Treme theme segueing into “The Saints Go Marching In.” His band, Orleans Avenue, is tight, and the buzz they created will long be remembered as a major highlight of MJF ‘53.
Between musical sets on Saturday, I was able to catch a Jazz Conversation with George Wein. The founder of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, (which is the only jazz festival in the US to predate Monterey), Wein is a true impresario, as he has done most everything ranging from the famed Newport Folk Festival (where Dylan first went “electric” – changing the face of American folk music), to running both the Storyville jazz club in Boston, as well as the jazz label of the same name. Wein also helped put together the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City. Not only that, George can hold his own – even as he approaches age 85 – on the jazz piano, as he led a Newport All-Stars band that featured Ken Peplowski, and Howard Alden. Wein is a Renaissance man, who is hip to the present scene, as he raved about Trombone Shorty and Rudresh Mahanthappa to moderator, Andrew Gilbert.
Saturday night’s highlights included Billy Child’s commissioned piece with the Kronos Quartet – Music for Two Quartets. Not being a qualified classical music reviewer, I found this piece a challenging listening experience. Many times playing at tempo that would be described as presto agitato, there were also moments of great tranquility. These moments were often provided by the soprano saxophone of Steve Wilson. Tension and release was a constant theme with these transitions often provided by the brilliant drummer, Brian Blade. Before the commissioned piece, Child’s quartet played a haunting “Hope in the Face of Despair”, inspired by Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, written to document his parents’ imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. This composition had a Klezmer feel with a melancholy edge.
On the way to Dianne Reeve’s set, I caught just a smidgen of Jake Shimakuro’s amazing solo jazz ukulele, which made me wish I could have heard more. Once you enter Dianne Reeve’s spell you find a feeling of peaceful contentment balanced with joie de vivre. Dianne makes you feel you are a family member sharing time with her as she weaves her web of expressive vocal excursions. She takes her time telling vocal “stories.” Reeves makes jazz standards come alive again. Accompanied by her long time pianist, Peter Martin, and a crack rhythm section of bassist, Reginald Veal, and drummer, Terreon Gully, Reeves also had the benefit of Brazilian acoustic guitarist, Romero Lubambo, whose sensitive, reflective playing added to the intimate feeling that only Reeves could bring to the large Jimmy Lyons Stage. I will always remember Dianne singing the story of her drive earlier in the day to an idyllic setting in Big Sur, where she went horseback riding. What would have been a fairly pedestrian conversation was turned in vocals into a rapturous song.
Saturday evening was ended with a set by Chick Corea’s Freedom Band with a super star line-up of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, and the legendary drummer Roy Haynes. This was the last stop on their summer tour and as evidenced by the smiles on their faces, you could see how much they loved playing together. Chick’s playing was sensitive and creative, while McBride was the consummate pro. As the sole horn, Garrett seemed to dominate the set too much for me, as he was always on a tear. I would have liked to have heard a few more ballads where the interplay between Corea and the rhythm section would have been more prevalent. During Garrett’s furious playing only Roy Haynes’ drumming could be appreciated.
As Saturday belonged to Trombone Shorty, Sunday afternoon was the domain of the inimitable Angelique Kidjo. A native of Benin, Kidjo’s energy was infectious. She told stories of her upbringing and the circuitous route she had made to master her craft. This woman can handle any musical genre with ease as shown by her blending of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up’ done with an Afro beat, and a love song from Tanzania. The love fest between Angelique and an adoring arena audience was heightened when she entered the audience with a wireless mike and led a sing-a-long on the chant, “Say Mama Africa.” It continued when she invited audience members to come onto the stage, past a bewildered backstage crew, to dance with her. It was a magical moment….
Sunday night I closed my visit with MJF ‘53 by extended stops for sets by the incomparable Lonnie Smith, and the Festival closer, Ahmad Jamal. To see Jamal, I had to cut real short a stopover with Javon Jackson and Les McCann.
Ahmad Jamal ended the festival on a high note. In front of a packed arena, Ahmad, 80 years young, showed why he was Miles Davis’ favorite pianist. Regal looking and resplendent in a white suit, Ahmad was in full control. It was his first visit to the Festival, quite surprising for an artist of his stature. His piano playing is highly percussive and his interaction with drummer Herlin Riley was telepathic. Riley put on a drumming clinic, and Jamal would make piano statements off of the drummer’s lines. Occasionally, he would jump from the piano bench when inspired, continuing his playing. “Poinciana”, of course was expected and well-received, as was “Wild is the Wind” from one of his latest albums, It’s Magic.
That album title pretty well summed up the feel that the Monterey Jazz Festival gives out in hearty doses. Though the venu -, a dated fairground with uncomfortable folding metal chairs and poor ventilation in some of the exhibition halls – is lacking in comfort, the music and ambience more than make up for the lack of creature comforts. After all, this is THE Monterey Jazz Festival, and still, 53 years later, it is the only place to be on the third weekend in September. There are still plenty of magical moments left at the old fairground. May it continue into perpetuity….
– Review and photos by Jeff Krow