For one weekend every September, the Monterey Fairgrounds become a jazz utopia. On five stages for approximately 30 hours, jazz
is everywhere. Arguably the top American jazz festival, Monterey features dozens of major names from the modern jazz world with
one highlight taking place after another. Because so much takes place at the same time, along with the constant allure of colorful
vendors and interesting people to chat with, one has to be well organized in order to at least have the illusion that they have seen
everything. I get my exercise each year, running from stage to stage, seeing at least a little bit of every single group.
It all started at a high level with tbe Ben Flocks Quartet. The young tenor-saxophonist was thrilled to be playing at Monterey, having
attended it many times in the past. Since he had grown up listening to Charles Lloyd's “Forest Flower” (recorded at the 1966
Monterey festival), he began his quartet set with that piece., also playing originals and Joshua Redman's “Balance.” Flocks, who has a
mellow tone and an adventurous style, showed great potential.
Nellie McKay, a particularly quirky pop singer, pianist and ukulele player, has a Doris Day tribute CD out. Her wicked and often
political sense of humor was very much in evidence during a set that included “The Very Thought Of You” (which had her singing
over a quiet trumpet and glockenspiel), a 1920s sounding “Do-Do-Doo,” a reggae piece, “I've Got To Exorcise Your Spirit From My
Soul” (which became a pseudo spiritual stomp), and a satirical song about how feminists are perceived by the right wing.
Jazz Mafia's Brass, Bows and Beats performed a similar show to their set at this year's Playboy Jazz Festival, featuring some excellent
musicians, so-so singers, and hard-to-sit-through rappers, unintentionally showing that all music is not created equal. The Berklee
Global Jazz Institute Septet with altoist Hailey Niswanger and tenor-saxophonist Matthew Halpin made a particularly strong
impression, playing passionate post bop music.
Roy Hargrove's big band showed plenty of spirit during their two mostly high-powered sets, featuring a powerful trumpet section,
very soulful and intense playing by altoist Justin Robinson, and Hargrove excelling as both a trumpet soloist and a cheerleader for
the band. Roberta Gambarini made cameo appearances during both sets but, with her talents, isn't it about time that she become a
headliner and have her own band?
The Marcus Roberts Trio (with bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis) was outstanding, particularly on “Afro Blue,”
“Naima” and “Dark Eyes.” The House Jacks, a fine a capella quintet from San Francisco, had a singer who at one point sounded
exactly like a harmonica. Pianist Mark Levine's Latin Tinge featured singer Claudia Villela and Mary Fettig on flute and soprano.
They performed the songs of Moacir Santos, alternating between hard bop and Brazilian jazz, excelling in both idioms. Rudresh
Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition proved to be an intriguing group consisting of the leader's alto, guitarist Rez Abbasi and Dan
Weiss on tabla and drums. They blended together post bop jazz with world music Completely out of place on the main stage following
Roy Hargrove was Les Nubians, a group that performed French and African pop music that left one scratching their heads,
wondering how they got booked at Monterey. Closing off Friday night was Septet Nacional De Cuba, an infectious salsa band that had
an excellent trumpet soloist in Agustin Garcia..
Saturday afternoon, traditionally a blues-oriented show, has become increasingly eclectic. It began with Naomi Shelton's Gospel
Queens which was definitely full of the holy spirit. John Firmin's Nocturne Band played a tribute to Ray Charles' saxophone section
of the 1950s (Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Leroy “Hog” Cooper), featuring plenty of wailing bluesy jazz and fun
basic music with vocals by Mz. Dee. Out on the West Lawn, Mo'Fone featured surprisingly melodic and rhythmic playing from a trio
consisting of altoist Larry De La Cruz, baritonist Jim Peterson and drummer Jeremy Steinkoler. Fred Hersch was very articulate in
his criticisms of various records during a Downbeat Blindfold Test conducted by Dan Ouellette. After giving thumbs down to a CD by
Jason Moran, when he was informed who the musician was, he referred to Moran as “a close personal friend.” Someone in the
audience chimed in “was.”
Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa's “Bait & Switch,” a quartet with tenor-saxophonist Aaron Bennett, guitarist John Finkbeiner and drummer
Vijay Anderson, performed witty and friendly avant-garde explorations, inspired by Ornette Coleman but with its own approach.
Dilbert McClinton, a veteran country singer who also likes blues and jazz, had the difficult task of following Trombone Shorty at two
different venues and was apparently not feeling all that well either, but he did a credible job on “I've Got A Right To Be Wrong” and
other blues-based tunes. George Wein, one of the true heroes of jazz, was asked questions about his rich life from Andy Gilbert. He
talked about the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, Charles Mingus and
Louis Armstrong during an utterly fascinating discussion. A Japanese quintet led by pianist Ritsuco Endo played high quality “lite
jazz” with Masahiro Fujioka sounding like David Sanborn with hints of Phil Woods.
However all of the events on Saturday afternoon were overshadowed by the successes of Trombone Shorty. Shorty, who plays
trombone and trumpet in addition to singing, did well when he performed at Playboy earlier this year despite being booked too early
in the show. At Monterey he was heard during prime time at the main stage and the garden stage, and in both cases his riotous blend
of New Orleans r&b and trad jazz caused a sensation. The rambunctious and extroverted party music was the talk of the day
Pianist-singer Judy Roberts and tenor-saxophonist Greg Fishman performed duet sets throughout the weekend filled with swinging
and boppish renditions of jazz standards. Ms. Roberts has the rare ability of being able to play a powerhouse piano solo while talking
to Fishman about another song! Gretchen Parlato who has a floating and seductive voice, makes the most complex lines sound easy
and accessible. She was in top form during a set with the Taylor Eigsti trio including on a rare vocal version of Herbie Hancock's
“Butterfly.” The virtuoso ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro clearly impressed a large and attentive audience with the sounds and
power that he can get from his tiny instrument. Hopefully in the future, his poppish repertoire will include some jazz tunes.
Billy Childs, as brilliant an arranger-composer as he is a pianist, wrote the commissioned piece for Monterey this year, Music For
Two Quartets. His band with Steve Wilson on alto, soprano and flute, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, was matched
with the Kronos String Quartet. The lengthy work, which was as close to modern classical music as to jazz, was at its best when Wilson
interacted with the strings and in its exciting climax. It deserves to be recorded. Both the Childs group and the Kronos Quartet also
had their own individual sets.
Somi, a major new singer, displayed a great voice, a very wide range, and the ability to use her breathing sounds percussively. Her
fresh material, superior scat singing and beautiful tones (along with the ability to really belt out notes) makes her an important new
Dianne Reeves made her first of four appearances that weekend with a typically eclectic program. Accompanied by her quartet with
pianist Peter Martin and guitarist Romero Lubambo, she displayed her wide range very well on an opening ballad but then became
bogged down on inferior material that generally was not worthy of her. Bassist Kyle Eastwood led a very good quintet that included
trumpeter Jim Rotundi and saxophonist Jason Rigby. Their modernized uptempo version of “Big Noise From Winnetka” was a near-
classic. Chris Potter's Underground was in a bad time slot but the tenor-saxophonist played at his best, particularly over a one-chord
vamp a la Sonny Rollins. The Gerald Clayton Trio (with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown) played swinging and
grooving music, showing that they were tight whether on a medium-tempo original or a slow ballad. Saturday night ended with the
final performance by the Chick Corea Freedom Band, a quartet that also featured altoist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride
and drummer Roy Haynes. Not too surprisingly, the playing was consistently brilliant, passionate and joyful.
Sunday afternoon has two venues dominated by college and high school bands (which I generally skip) so the events take place at a
more relaxed pace, at least at first. A panel discussion about “Are Jazz Musicians Trading Touring For Tenure” had its interesting
moments, particularly the comments of Fred Hersch and Taylor Eigsti. Dianne Reeves sang two songs with the Next Generation Jazz
Orchestra including a classic rendition of “Skylark.” Roy Haynes gave host Yoshi Kato a challenging time during a conversation, with
Haynes coming across as cocky and combative, which is unnecessary considering his great accomplishments. The Nice Guy Trio
(trumpeter Darren Johnston, Rob Reich on accordion an bassist Daniel Fabricant) performed excellent swing and trad jazz for diners
on the West Lawn. The Le Boeuf Brothers (with altoist Remy Le Boeuf, pianist Pascal Le Boeuf and Mike Ruby on tenor), performed
dynamic music that hinted at both Albert Ayler and Charles Mingus. Angelique Kidjo, who is as much an African folk singer as a jazz
vocalist, did well on the main stage. She welcomed Dianne Reeves for some heated interplay on “Baby, Baby, I Love You.”
But the highpoint of Sunday afternoon, and in some ways the festival, was George Wein's Newport All Stars. Guitarist Howard Alden
(the only musician to appear this year at both the Monterey and the Sweet & Hot festivals), Ken Peplowski on clarinet and tenor,
bassist John Wiitala and drummer Vince Laetano, were joined by trumpeter Steve Huffsteter and altoist Gary Foster. Wein, Alden
and Peplowski were the main stars, with the latter two performing a miraculous up-tempo duet on “You.” Wein, who made one funny
comment after another to the audience, is playing piano at the peak of his powers at age 84 and concluded the set with a touching
vocal on “Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out.”
Sunday night began with Sachal Vasandani, who showed that he is one of the top up-and-coming swinging singers during a set with a
trio that included pianist Jeb Patton. Dr. Lonnie Smith, in his trio with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jammire Williams,
displayed a great deal of soulfulness and power, resulting in a spectacular climax to his set that was joyfully bombastic. Houston
Person and singer Kim Nalley played bluish soul jazz during a late night performance. Tenor-saxophonist Javon Jackson and pianist
Les McCann paid tribute to McCann's famous 1968 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Jackson was blazing on “My Shining
Harry Connick Jr. and his big band put on a wide-ranging show that delighted a big audience. The music ranged from Sinatra-style
ballad versions of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Smile,” to “It Had To Be You,” a lengthy “Besame Mucho,” “You Don't Know
Me,” and some New Orleans tunes including “Oh, Didn't He Ramble.” Connick told of having met Ahmad Jamal for the first time
earlier that day and he graciously said, “If you paid good money to see me, think of me as the opening act tonight for Ahmad Jamal, a
real piano player.” Jamal's quartet (which included outstanding playing from drummer Herlin Riley) performed his long-time hit
“Poinciana, ” “Wild Is The Wind,” “The Gypsy,” “Like Someone In Love” and other pieces that emphasized the close interplay of the
rhythm section and dynamics, with Jamal occasionally shattering quiet moments with sudden explosive runs. Dianne Reeves was
heard in the perfect format for her, accompanied by the two guitars of Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo. In that freewheeling
setting, she was at her bluesiest and most soulful, really stretching herself and showing how masterful a scat singer she can be. The
Fred Hersch trio (with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson) was explorative and brilliant during their exploration of
standards including “Mood Indigo” and “Change Partners.” And finally, the oldest performer at the festival, 85-year old Roy Haynes,
closed down the weekend with his Fountain Of Youth Band.
Roy Haynes looked happy, and so did virtually all of the fans who attended one of the best Monterey Jazz Festivals in years.
Suggestions for general manager Tim Jackson for next year: How about adding some dixieland, a hot danceable swing group, and a
solo performance on the main stage by Hiromi?