|During a September weekend every year since 1958, Monterey is host to one of the world’s greatest jazz festivals. This year 38,000
fans saw music by up to 50 major artists at six venues and, as usual, one left the Monterey Fairgrounds with the happy feeling that jazz’
s present and future are bright.
I managed to see at least a little bit of each of the groups. Pianist Robert Glasper, this year’s showcase artist, was featured in three
different sets along the way. He opened the festival on Friday night with his trio (bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave),
displaying his own personal modern chord voicings, some striking originals, and a strong wit. He humorously paused whenever a plane
passed overhead, only to resume a few seconds later wherever he had left off. Other stimulating performances teamed him with
guitarist Lionel Loueke and singer Bilal.
On the main stage, Hiromi played wondrous piano in a trio with electric bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. While
some of the more fusion-oriented numbers were a bit bombastic, whenever Hiromi took the spotlight away from her sidemen, she
performed with both virtuosity and great restraint. Hiromi’s ability to effortlessly play the impossible, along with her constant smile,
resulted in her gaining big applause from the amazed audience. She was a tough act to follow, but guitarist-singer John Pizzarelli put on
an entertaining and well-rounded show featuring many Duke Ellington songs (including an inspired mixture of “Don’t Get Around
Much Anymore” with the chord changes of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”), a vocalese version of Gerald Wilson’s arrangement of
“Perdido” with his wife Jessica Molaskey, an explosive “C Jam Blues” with pianist Larry Fuller, and several exquisite guitar duets with
his ageless father Bucky Pizzarelli. The latter’s miniset included “Body And Soul,” (with the arena crowd being almost completely
silent), “Tangerine” and “In A Mellotone.” Following the Pizzarellis was an exciting tribute to Chano Pozo & Dizzy Gillespie by Poncho
Sanchez’s band and guest trumpeter Terence Blanchard. “Con Alma,” “Groovin’ High” and other selections found Blanchard fitting
right in with the Sanchez band.
One could have spent the night entirely at the main stage, but there was a lot more taking place elsewhere, much of it influenced by
World Music. Carmen Souza’s folkish singing was both energetic and eerie. The team of bassist Richard Bona and acoustic guitarist
Raul Midon, both of whom sang, worked together well as an easy-listening duo. Percussionist John Santo’s sextet with flutist John
Calloway and Melecio Magdaluyo performed top-notch Afro Cuban jazz. Berklee Flemenco from the Berklee School of Music featured
a quintet of flute, piano, bass, hand percussion and a ganun (a type of harp) in an unusual but successful fusion of flamenco rhythms
with jazz. Acoustic guitarist and singer Juan-Carlos Formeli performed mostly gentle music with his sextet. Trumpeter Erik Telford’s
Collective, a young post bop septet, performed the atmospheric ballad “Big Sur” and the title cut from his recent CD “Kinetic.” Pianist
Helen Sung with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith engaged in close interplay on a variety of standards and
originals although her treatment of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” with shifting tempos was quite eccentric. Add in Uno Mas, a
superb film on the late bassist Cachao (founder of the mambo), and the night was overflowing with highpoints.
In the past, Saturday afternoons have been dominated at Monterey by the blues, but in recent years it has really been more of a
nonjazz interlude, with a few departures. The only blues of the afternoon was provided by pianist-singer Mitch Woods & His Rocket 88’
s, a romping jump sextet that brought back the spirit of past Saturdays at Monterey.
Two groups featured on the HBO series Treme (the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk) were on the main stage
and also had separate sets elsewhere. Unfortunately they played little jazz, sticking to a very repetitious and “in your face” brand of
funk that, although danceable, became tiring pretty quickly. The Soul Rebels Brass Band were so out-of-tune in spots that they often
sounded like a high school marching band. Even a guest spot by Kermit Ruffins was unable to help much. Following Treme, Huey Lewis
& The News also performed a very unlikely set at Monterey filled with pop and r&b. However Lewis talked movingly about how his late
father attended Monterey every year.
Donny McCaslin was articulate and thoughtful during his Downbeat blindfold test, hosted by Dan Oulette. Much less interesting was
hearing Clint Eastwood and Wendell Pierce (from Treme) talking about their own films. A Japanese vocalist with the odd name of
Chika Singer held long notes well during a quartet set that included “Poor Butterfly” and “Caravan.” Trumpeter Sarah Wilson
performed a folkish brand of avant-garde jazz with a quintet that included violinist Charlie Burnham and drummer Matt Wilson. A
strange comedy duo (the John Brothers Piano Company) were dressed like the 1920s but played rather silly free improvisations on
clarinet and piano.
The best music of Saturday afternoon was performed by the USAF Band of the Golden West – Commanders Jazz Ensemble. The Air
Force big band swung hard, featured high musicianship, and paid tribute to Glenn Miller with “Song Of The Volga Boatmen” and the
“Theme from the Glenn Miller Story,” The brilliant trumpeter Carl Saunders (one of L.A.’s best) starred on half of the numbers, hitting
stratospheric notes with ease, taking rapid double-time lines, and creating consistently exciting solos.
Featured throughout the weekend at an outside stage, pianist-singer Judy Roberts and tenor-saxophonist Greg Fishman played spirited
versions of standards. With Ms. Roberts’ singing and powerful bass lines, and Fishman’s big tone, they sounded very much like a
complete group, and they were always entertaining. This is their third straight year at Monterey and hopefully there will be many more
for bebop should always be part of the festival.
Saturday night mostly promised more than it delivered. Pianist Geri Allen’s Timeline is a quartet that includes the tap dancer Maurice
Chestnut. Allen debuted a commissioned piece, “The Dazzler,” which was billed as a jazz tap tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. But despite the
superb tapping of Chestnut and fine playing by the trio, the connection between the dancing, the music and Davis was very difficult to
find. Quite often Chestnut began dancing in the middle of someone’s else’s solos, and the drumming came close to drowning out the
tapping. Joshua Redman was the obvious star of the co-op James Farm despite the strong playing of pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt
Penman and drummer Eric Harland. Their music was excellent.
On a much lower level was Herbie Hancock’s show. While he is one of the all-time greats, Hancock has often coasted in recent years.
Put in a prime spot on the main stage on Saturday night, Hancock did little but parade around the stage with his portable keyboard,
essentially fooling around with electronic sounds on his warhorses (such as “Watermelon Man” and “Canteloupe Island”), playing
down to the audience and wasting 50 minutes. Didn’t he know or care that he was at Monterey?
Pianist Bill Carrothers, on a much smaller stage, played more music in five minutes than Hancock did during his entire set, performing
advanced originals with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Bill Stewart. Singer Pamela Rose, in her Wild Women Of Song set, did a fine
job with her quintet paying tribute to a variety of female composers including Peggy Lee (“I Don’t Know Enough About You”), Mary
Lou Williams (“What’s Your Story, Morning Glory”) and Bernice Petkere (“Close Your Eyes”). One would think with the name of “Elio
Villafranca’s Jass Syncopators,” the music would be 1920s jazz, but actually the name was inaccurate. An advanced hard bop quartet
with tenor-saxophonist Greg Tardy and Villafranca on piano, the group was fine. Tenor-saxophonist Donny McCaslin displayed an
original sound and brilliant technique both during his set and in his sound check, while bassist Scott Colley’s trio with drummer
Antonio Sanchez was most notable for the superlative solos of tenor-saxophonist Chris Potter.
Sunday afternoon puts the spotlight on college and high school bands. The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra debuted young pianist
Chris Morrin’s award winning composition “Monkphis.” A nice touch was when 92 year old Gerald Wilson presented the award to
Morrin, who also had his own set later in the afternoon. The Next Generation Orchestra accompanied the talented young singer Hope
Flores on “Cheek To Cheek” and a sensuous “Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good To You,” featured exciting ensembles and some good solos
(trombonist Kyle Molitor was excellent). On “C Jam Blues” the orchestra was joined by Joshua Redman, Donny McCaslin and Benny
Green. The pop singer India.Aire followed the band. Her voice was nice but she should have been scheduled during the Saturday
afternoon non-jazz show.
The pickings were otherwise slim on Sunday afternoon. A panel on the Impulse label hosted by Ashley Kahn was dull and never
seemed to get past 1962. Producer Orrin Keepnews’ conversation with Yvonne Ervin was rambling and tiresome. On the West Lawn,
exotic African string instruments were played by a trio called Mamadou & Vanessa. Guitarist Bruce Forman’s Cow Bop (which is based
in Southern California) featured country vocals by Pamela Forman, boppish guitar by Forman and some swing from violinist Phil
Salazar, all of it pleasing.
In contrast, Sunday night had too many good choices. On the main stage, an orchestra conducted and directed by Vince Mendoza paid
tribute to the trio of Miles Davis/Gil Evans recordings (Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain). Terence Blanchard, who is
currently at the peak of his powers, played dramatically in Miles’ spot, often crying through his horn on the more emotional pieces
from Porgy & Bess. Sonny Rollins, who one would love to hear in that type of orchestra, romped throughout his usual program,
interacting with guitarist Peter Bernstein and really tearing into a calypso.
Tia Fuller, an altoist who tours with Beyonce, showed during her outstanding set that she has loads of potential. Her tone at times
recalled Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and, although bluesy, her originals were much more modern. Another altoist, Steve Coleman, is
best known for his free funk explorations but, during the brief time when I saw him play, he sounded boppish with a tone that recalled
Charlie Parker. Organist Wil Blades grooved during a spirited soul jazz outing with his trio. He was followed by today’s premiere
organist, Joey DeFrancesco, who along with guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, welcomed vibraphonist Bobby
Hutcherson. The vibes-organ combination worked quite well, with the two giants really getting heated on an uptempo “Take The
Coltrane.” The superb pianist Eldar Djangirov played two solo sets filled with surprises. I caught his classical piece “Hope,” a version of
“Walkin’” that recalled Oscar Peterson, a tender “Embraceable You” that Eldar played with just his left hand much of the time, and a
dazzling “Donna Lee.”
But the highpoint of Sunday night was a tribute to Thelonious Monk by pianist Benny Green’s quartet with altoist Donald Harrison
(heard in top form), bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Kenny Washington. Green hinted at Monk without merely copying him, playing
such songs as “Nutty,” “Light Blue,” “52nd Street Theme,” and “’Round Midnight” with complete understanding, capturing Monk’s
spirit while sounding very much like himself. It was a classic set and a perfect ending for Monterey.
Here are some suggestions for next year’s festival for Tim Jackson, the artistic director of Monterey. How about some early jazz (such
as Paris Washboard), small group swing (Rebecca Kilgore’s quartet), gypsy swing (Gonzalo Bergara) and a late night jam session on