| The 56th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held during a September weekend at the Monterey Fairgrounds, consolidated its position
as one of the world’s great jazz festivals and the premiere annual event on the West Coast. The setting is picturesque, the performances
heard on five main stages are filled with major creative artists and most of the music heard this year was quite rewarding.
The main arena opened with Gregory Porter, whose set at Dizzy’s Den last year has already become legendary. His strong voice,
powerful spirit and memorable original material once again made a strong impression. Unlike his recent Blue Note debut, Porter’s live
show gave plenty of solo space to the intense and explorative alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato and pianist Chip Crawford, with the
highlights including “No Love Dying” and “On My Way To Harlem” Gregory Porter can now be rated #2 behind Kurt Elling among
today’s male jazz singers; Elling must be looking over his shoulder.
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra did Los Angeles proud during a lengthy tribute to Dave Brubeck. They also played the
medium-tempo blues “Max” which had Rickey Woodard wailing and some fine Brian Swartz trumpet. Omara Portuondo, looking like a
conventional grandmother, proved to have plenty of spirit with the Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club, whether singing wordlessly or
performing “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” in Spanish. The ensembles of the unique group sounded very much like a 1950’s Cuban band
and was more jazz-oriented than expected.
Saturday afternoon used to be dedicated to the blues but now at Monterey it is a real grab-bag that includes some jazz along with
other types of music. At the main stage, The Relatives performed gospel and soul. George Benson, who recently recorded an album of
songs associated with Nat King Cole, did a little bit of that along with his hits including “This Masquerade” (which he still sings with
enthusiasm) and some disco numbers. Best were his jazz-oriented rendition of “Mambo Inn” and his quip to the audience (at 3:30 p.
m.): “How do you get up this early?”
That night, tenor-saxophonist Joe Lovano (Monterey’s artist-in-residence) and trumpeter Dave Douglas debuted two works by
Wayne Shorter with a quintet that also included pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Joey Baron. Following was
Prism, a quartet consisting of bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland that was
an excellent showcase for Eubanks. Bobby McFerrin with his Spirityouall band put on a similar show of gospel-oriented jazz as he had
earlier this year at Disney Hall except that he had his daughter Madison McFerrin contributing some beautiful harmonized vocals.
McFerrin as usual took some miraculous solos and his sense of humor (which found him imitating a country music announcer and a
rock and roll singer) was often hilarious.
Sunday afternoon had the main stage hosting the Folsom High School Jazz Band and the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra (with a
guest appearance by Joe Lovano). The quartet co-led by pianist Bob James and altoist David Sanborn was acoustic and often
surprisingly straight ahead, bringing out the best in Sanborn. Sunday night began with the Wayne Shorter Quartet (pianist Danilo
Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade) mostly playing freely improvised and abstract versions of Shorter’s tunes.
Diana Krall, who closed the main stage, put on a rather bizarre show. With her new band (consisting of another keyboardist, violin,
guitar, bass and drums), her repertoire ranged from singer/songwriter material to Fats Waller. If one were to sum up her lengthy
performance, it would be “out of tune, out of time and out of place.” Her singing on the folk material sounded bored and flat and she
acted as if she did not care much about the words that she was interpreting. Krall performed a few swing numbers unaccompanied,
which would have been an excellent idea if she could play stride piano at a steady tempo without making many obvious mistakes.
Worse yet, her attitude towards the crowd was condescending and sometimes sarcastic. Perhaps it is time that someone gives Diana
Krall some good advice before she succeeds in losing her audience.
The other outside arena, the Garden Stage, featured its share of fine performances. Keyboardist-singer Roberto Fonseca used
vocoder and spoken word tapes at first before settling into a pleasing and colorful set of world music that included the kora of Yandy
Martinez and the versatile guitarist Jorge Chicoy. Joe Lovano performed music inspired by John Coltrane with the Berklee Global Jazz
Ambassadors while 7 Come 11, a quartet with organist Gianni Staiano and guitarist Renzo Staiano, played happily over-the-top bluesy
and rockish jazz.
One of the main discoveries of this year’s festival was the California Honeydrops, a 1940’s style combo featuring Lech Wierzynski
on New Orleans trumpet and blues guitar along with Johnny Bones on tenor and clarinet. They performed “Let The Good Times Roll”
and a lengthy version of “You Rascal You” that found them parading in the audience. At one point Wierzynski humorously said to the
excited audience, “There is absolutely no dancing allowed here. Please sit down!”
Big Sam’s Funky Nation was similar to Trombone Shorty in their mixture of uninhibited r&b and funk with touches of New Orleans
jazz; no subtlety was permitted. Four groups celebrated the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Motema Music label. Charnett
Moffett performed 15 minutes of typically virtuosic solo bass, sometimes using electronics in the background. He also interacted with
label founder Jana Herzen who sang well and played rhythm guitar on some folkish originals. Pianist Marc Cary in his Focus Trio
displayed several different musical personalities, changing from McCoy Tyner modal jazz to funky jazz a la early 1970s Herbie
Hancock and more adventurous playing. However a low point was reached with Brian Jackson’s New Midnight Band. Rather than
paying tribute to the late Gil Scott-Heron as expected, Jackson resorted to tapes, a drum machine (while his drummer sat motionless)
and lots of rapping which was at best very annoying.
Much better at the Garden Stage was the hard bop of Along Came Betty (a fine quintet with trumpeter Brian Stock and tenor-
saxophonist Paul Tarantino), pianist Tammy L. Hall’s Quintet which featured the Stanley Turrentine-inspired tenor of Kristen Strom
(“Soul Station” was a highpoint), the soul/r&b of Davina & The Vagabonds (singer-pianist Davina Sowers has an excellent future) and
saxophonist Paul Contos’ straight ahead quartet.
Of the three indoor venues, Dizzy’s Den is the largest. The unusual nonet Snarky Puppy created intriguing textures with two or
three horns, two guitars and two keyboards. Saturday afternoon included a panel discussion on Dave Brubeck’s Monterey appearances
by his sons Chris & Dan Brubeck, conductor Russell Gloyd and veteran bassist Eugene Wright. Joe Lovano took a Downbeat blindfold
test administered by Dan Ouellette, giving many insightful and thoughtful statements about his fellow tenor-saxophonists. At night
there were high-quality performances by Ravi Coltrane’s quartet, the duo of guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola
and the Lovano-Dave Douglas quintet. On Sunday, guitarist Anthony Wilson (with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Jim Keltner)
was in top form.
At the Night Club, the opening night’s fireworks were provided by trumpeter Dave Douglas’ quintet (with the versatile and
unpredictable tenor playing of Jon Irbagon), the warm, highly original and fearless singer Carmen Lundy (pianist Patrice Rushen was
heard at her most inventive throughout this set), and Joe Lovano’s Us Five with pianist James Weidman and guest singer Judi Silvano.
Saturday featured baritonist Claire Daly in a quartet playing Thelonious Monk songs (including the virtually unknown “Two Timer”),
the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet (trumpeter Max Boiko and guitarist Sean Britt were particularly impressive), pianist Craig Taborn’s
post bop quartet with tenor-saxophonist Chris Speed, and the easy-listening Brubeck Brothers Quartet. Sunday had vibraphonist
Bobby Hutcherson, who has been ailing in recent times, still sounding inventive during short solos with a quartet that included his son
Barry Hutcherson on drums.
At the Coffee House Gallery, several groups had the opportunity to play multiple sets. Pianist Uri Caine’s trio ranged from the
boppish “Hazy, Lazy, Crazy” into freer explorations, extending the piano trio tradition into new areas. Smith Dobson’s Prez Kids, a
highly enjoyable sextet with tenor-saxophonist Smith Dobson, trumpeter Erik Jekabsen and trombonist Danny Grewen, performed
excellent versions of cool/bop standards and Dobson originals that were in the tradition. Fantastic Planet from Northridge performed
excellent post bop jazz while the trio Phronesis (which I unfortunately missed completely) received rave notices from a few other
On the West Lawn, the North Pacific String Band (consisting of mandolin, guitar, violin, banjo and bass with three of the musicians
singing) ranged from bluegrass to swing. A big question mark was provided by the John Brothers Company Piano Quintet, a group with
trumpet and clarinet that had a vintage sound but sounded terrible. Was it purposely modern or just simply dreadful? After two songs,
the latter seemed to be the right answer.
Throughout the weekend, it was always a pleasure to hear the duo of pianist-singer Judy Roberts and tenor-saxophonist Greg
Fishman performing on the Courtyard Stage. Their renditions of bop standards were full of excitement and fire, particularly when Ms.
Roberts (one of the true greats) effortlessly scatted on uptempo tunes such as “Moose The Mooche” in unison with Fishman. They
should record a duet album as soon as possible.
Saving the best for last, 87-year old altoist Lou Donaldson was interviewed on stage by Willard Jenkins, telling one funny story
after another about his life. Originally a clarinetist, he remembered that after seeing Charlie Parker play for the first time, he threw his
clarinet into Lake Michigan. When asked what receiving the National Endowment of the Arts Award meant to him, he simply replied
“Nothing.” Asked what advice he would give to young musicians who do not have the blues in their playing, he said, “Get rid of the horn
and get a day job!” Later on Sunday, Donaldson showed that he was still very much in his prime, playing a memorable set with organist
Akiko Tsuraga, guitarist Randy Johnston and drummer Fukushi Tainaka that included “Blues Walk,” the uptempo “Wee,” “Fine And
Dandy,” “Cherokee,” “Alligator Boogaloo,” and his vocals on “Just A Dream” and his very funny “Whisky Drinking Woman.”
Donaldson was also part of the closing set at Monterey, sitting in with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s trio on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Parker’
s Mood” and another version of “Whiskey Drinking Woman,” earning several standing ovations.
Next year, Tim Jackson should consider booking a Dixieland group for Sunday afternoon, a swing band for a dance party (Lavay
Smith), singer Rebecca Kilgore, and the Bill Holman Orchestra. In the meantime, he deserves congratulations for retaining Monterey’s
place at the top of all American jazz festivals.