Monterey Jazz Festival – 52nd Edition –
Sept. 18-20, 2009 – Monterey, CA
I have attended the Monterey Jazz Festival several times over the last five years and have previously reviewed the festival for Audiophile Audition. The Monterey Jazz Festival has always had a built-in guaranteed audience base – attendees have to renew their long held seats every year or they will lose their precious seats close to the stage. For years, if not decades, that has happened and MJF devotees have been rewarded with top tier talent year after year, with the more conservative established artists playing in the Arena setting and the lesser known and more avant musicians (read younger) playing in the scattered venues referred to as the Grounds stages – Bill Berry Nightclub stage, Dizzy’s Den, Garden Stage, and Coffee House Gallery.
Upon arriving in Monterey this year, there seemed to be change in the air for the world’s longest-running jazz festival. For the first time in recent memory, individual day arena seats were available, without having to buy a three day package. It was likely a combination of our current economic recession backed up by the fact that many long time arena ticket holders had held on through the 50th Anniversary year, knowing that reaching that milestone was a major accomplishment.
As each year passes, we also lose more of our jazz legends, or the remaining ones take ill or cut way back on their traveling. This year in short order we lost Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman within two weeks of each other. Just recently Chris Conner, Bud Shank and Eddie Higgins have passed on as well. At this years Monterey Festival, 91 year old piano genius, Hank Jones, was a no-show due to health issues (he had a heart attack within the last year), so booking an artist who was active in the 40s or 50s is a chancy proposition.
As a positive development, this year I noticed more attendees in the under 30 year old range, than ever before. Though some were high school and college musicians playing during afternoon shows, there were also many children attending with their parents as the Festival is smartly trying to attract families, and had child-friendly activities set up at the fairgrounds. This is a smart move by MJF Artistic Director, Tim Jackson, due to the fact that just as the amount of jazz fans who have attended the Festival since the 50s and 60s have dwindled, it is a necessity to build up a new demographic for the next decade of the Festival.
Looking towards the future, Jackson booked the young bass sensation Esperanza Spaulding for an Arena presentation, and also commissioned Jason Moran to write a new piece for Sunday night’s Arena premiere. Moran’s composition, “Feedback,” was met with lukewarm response, as its inspiration was Jimi Hendrix’s use of electric feedback in his playing. Its translation to a piano jazz trio lost something in a jazz setting. However, it was an audacious undertaking, though may have been more effective in a more intimate concert venue.
Highlights from this years Festival were numerous and I will touch on those that especially moved me:
Jonathan Batiste’s set at the Coffee House Gallery on Friday night was inspiring. This young pianist has chops in reserve. His New Orleans-based piano style is funky, yet based on solid skills. He brought out a melodica and showed it could sample the blues effectively. He did ragtime piano fans proud with some Scott Joplin, backed by saxophones and trombone. The intimate feel of the Gallery gave artists all weekend a close connection with their audiences.
The meteoric rise of Portland native Esperanza Spaulding has been phenomenal. Since moving back East to attend the Berklee School of Music, Ms. Spaulding has rapidly made a name for herself with stage presence, excellence on both acoustic and electric bass, and an emotive multi-octave voice that makes her headliner quality. Tall and willowy, with a Billie Holiday hair-do, Esperanza lit up the Arena stage with a range of material impressive for a 24 year old. She both satisfied the older crowd much like Diana Krall does, and brought in the younger folks with her more funky material when playing electric bass. Her future looks more than promising and she has been recognized by veteran jazz musicians for her skills as evidenced by her inclusion in Joe Lovano’s new hot group, Us Five, who played in Dizzy’s Den at the Festival.
Conrad Herwig’s Friday night Arena tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and Coltrane’s Giant Steps, was in fine form. His East coast based Latin All-Stars were augmented by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxist Joe Lovano. Herwig is a top-level trombonist and his tight band gave moving versions of Flamenco Sketches, a Latin infused So What, and the ever popular All Blues. Lovano was instrumental in bringing out Coltrane’s Giant Steps.
Lovano was soon back Friday night on the Bill Berry stage with an amazing trio of John Patitucci and Brian Blade. It was my first time seeing Blade, and he showed his talent as a master of swing, power, and amazing stick work on the drums. As a trio, these three gentlemen showed intense communication skills, and a consistent show of “one up-manship” with smiles of encouragement from each other. Patitucci was celebrating his new release, “Remembrance.” With dedicated songs to Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and others, this trio cooked, and Patitucci showed his prowess with a clear tone, lightning fast runs, and a sure sense of swing.
Saturdays fare was varied to say the least. Bringing Pete Seeger to the traditional blues afternoon Arena show was a deft move as Pete is celebrating his 90th birthday across the country with tributes, and the Monterey audience was thrilled to sing along with Pete on Midnight Special, Irving Berlin’s 1926-penned Blue Skies, Guantanamera, and Sailin’ Up the River. Pete explained how he used biblical verses to come up with Turn, Turn, Turn – a song that The Byrds made famous. Seeger’s singing voice was a bit weak, but his storytelling skills and song leading prowess were as strong as ever. His grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger handled aptly the lead vocals as well as playing guitar and harmonica. Mike Merenda played banjo and assisted on vocals, and Mike’s wife Ruth had a gorgeous vocal on Golden Thread. Seeger’s set ended with the obligatory This Land is Your Land, which had the majority of the crowd up on their feet singing aloud, many with tears flowing down their cheeks knowing that this would be the last time that they would hear Pete live, and remembering past sing-a-longs with this American institution, who has stood up, fighting for civil rights and the environmental movement for decades.
I next caught Ruthie Foster at the Garden Stage and her appearance had the small semi-circular patch of grass, grandstand seating, and stage area packed as tight as sardines. Her mix of acoustic and electric blues, blended with go-to-church gospel had her audience enthralled. Walkin’ and Talkin’ on Freedom, and I’m a Woman showed both a spiritual and sensual side to Foster that is a winning combination. She is a headlining act at blues festivals and deserved a larger venue.
Next, I viewed a preview of an upcoming documentary on San Francisco based pianist, Vince Guaraldi, which was fascinating and whets the appetite for the final polished version. After dinner it was an evening at the Bill Berry Stage, as well as a quick visit back to the Garden Stage for the inimitable Wayne Wallace and his Rhythm and Rhyme all-star Bay Area based super band.
Opening on the Berry stage were the Rodriquez Brothers Quartet. Brother Robert is on piano and sibling Michael plays a warm trumpet. Playing from their new Savant CD, Conversations, this band blended seamless Latin groves with post bop. Winning numbers were Rowdy Rod, Spin, Gitmo’s Groove, and Epiphany.
Next on the stage were the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, with special guest, Gerald Clayton on piano. Ambrose showed a few early jitters on trumpet, but soon settled in to play selections from his new Fresh Sounds CD, Prelude to Cora. His blend of brashness and power brought to mind a young Freddie Hubbard.
Racing over to the Garden Stage, I was able to catch a large chunk of Wayne Wallace’s near twenty member Rhythm and Rhyme band. Wallace is a monster on trombone, and roamed the stage directing and imploring his band. They played a varied mix of Latin, soul, and straight ahead jazz. Ellington’s A Train, and A Chromatic Romance, as well as Mulligan’s Jeru, got the Wallace Band treatment. A special treat was hearing altoist, Mary Fettig, on the front line. I’m looking forward to reviewing Wallace’s Latin Jazz Quintet CD, Bien, Bien!, recently released on Patois Records. It features special guests, Julian Priester, and vocalist Kenny Washington.
Sunday at MJF was devoted to catching sets from Scotty Barnhart, Dominick Farinacci, Toshiko Akiyoshi with Lew Tabackin, and the Dizzy’s Den performance of Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Each act was well worth running all over the Festival grounds.
Scotty Barnhart is one of the leaders of the Count Basie ghost band. His trumpet playing and stage presence are pure class. Decked out in an impeccable brown suit, Scotty is a true pro, with a gorgeous old school tone on trumpet. The rest of his band consisted of Bill Kennedy on soprano and tenor, Bill Peterson on piano, Rick Lollar on guitar, Rodney Jordan on bass, and Leon Anderson, Jr. on drums. They played a moving tribute to Martin Luther King, Sr and Jr. Haley’s Passage followed, written for the novelist Alex Haley. Towards the end of Barnhart’s set, guest vocalist Jamie Davis, with a baritone bringing to mind Johnny Hartman, brought down the house with Night and Day. Barnhart deserved an indoor venue without the distractions of the Fairgrounds midway.
Dominick Farinacci is a name to remember and will have a long career. Described as having an old soul, young Dominick has the mid-register trumpet tone of a young Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell, or Charlie Shavers, mixed with the smoothness of a Bobby Hackett. Dominick can play a Puccini aria, an Astor Piazzolla tango, a Jacques Brel showstopper, or a Nina Simone gut-wrenching ballad – all with aplomb. He has matinee idol looks, a Juilliard education, and stage presence galore. He is definitely a main stage performer who just needs some recognition. The Coffee House gallery was blown away and its standing ovation was well deserved!
Of all the performers at this years MJF, I was most anticipating the Toshiko Akiyoshi Quartet, and I’d have to say that their performance was the highlight of the weekend for me! Toshiko came to the US from Japan in the mid 50s. She made several CDs with Charlie Mariano, then later married Lew Tabackin, the superb tenor sax and flute player. Her composition skills are legendary, bringing Oriental themes into her jazz charts. She has written for both solo, small ensemble and big band. Tabackin has been a great musical partner for her as his tenor playing in my opinion can approach Sonny Rollins in intensity and there are few jazz artists who can match his flute mastery. Joining Toshiko and Lew at the MJF were the magnificent Peter Washington on bass, and Mark Taylor on drums. The quartet played The Long Yellow Road, which dates back to the Mariano Akiyoshi Quartet in 1961, Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit, and Autumn Sea, on which Lew played the most memorable solo of the set. Lucky Thompson’s Tricotism was done as a trio sans Toshiko. Toshiko then honored Duke Ellington on the occasion of his 110th birthday anniversary with a swinging Take the A Train. As always Toshiko closed her set with a brief, elegant tribute to Hiroshima and 9/11. As NEA Jazz Masters, Toshiko and Lew provide such sublime jazz performances, that it was surprising that they did not get an Arena slot.
My MJF weekend was closed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the more cozy confines of Dizzy’s Den, and their set was brilliant. The first half was Monk compositions, and much of the second half was devoted to Ellington. Virtually each member of the LCJO had solo time and I’d have to list the entire band roster to sing their praises, though Ted Nash, Sherman Irby, Vincent Gardner, and Walter Blanding deserve special mention. One should never pass up the opportunity to hear this orchestra in a small setting where their power and sophistication can be most appreciated.
MJF 52 will have a special place in my Festival jazz memory due to the fact that Tim Jackson, as the Artistic Director of the longest running continuous Jazz Festival in America, has recognized that jazz is turning a corner from where our lifetime idols have moved on and the new generation of jazz artists are beginning to take center stage. We are now entering the next stage in the history of the great American contribution to the world of music, that of jazz. It’s exciting to anticipate where the Monterey Jazz Festival may be heading in the next ten years. It is likely that some of the relatively unknown artists that were presented in this years Festival will be Arena headliners in the upcoming decade. Jazz lives….and Monterey is one of its destinations.
— Jeff Krow
[Special thanks to Jim Sintetos of KRML for background information on this yea’s Grounds artists.]