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The 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival
     The 58th annual Monterey Jazz Festival lived up to its high expectations. No other jazz festival in the world has been held at the
same venue (the Monterey Fairgrounds) for so many years, its entire existence, Monterey is only four years younger than Newport. It
ranks as the most significant modern jazz festival held on the West Coast of the U.S. and every jazz fan living within 1,000 miles owes it
to them self to experience Monterey at least once. This was my 29th straight year attending the festival.
     The night before it began, I attended a Jazz Legends Gala. Chick Corea was honored, Terence Blanchard (who presented the award)
gave a touching speech about Corea, and the attendees included Clint Eastwood. The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Monterey’s
annual all-star high school band, sounded impressive. Cyrille Aimee previewed some of the music that she would be singing at
Monterey. Her vocals, in English and French, were appealing and atmospheric while her quartet with the Finnish acoustic guitarist Olli
Soikkeli (a fine soloist who hinted at Django Reinhardt) and electric guitarist Michael Valeanu was swinging and supportive.
     The weather was much warmer than usual at Monterey this year but fortunately much of the music was hot in its own way. Here are
my snapshots from the weekend. It began for many at its front gate where James Francies played solo piano, a great way to be greeted.
Influenced a bit by McCoy Tyner, he mixed together originals such as “Open Water” with standards including “My One And Only
Love.”
     In addition to Monterey featuring music pretty continuously on five other stages, this year they unveiled a sixth venue, the Jazz
Education Pavilion. During much of Saturday and Sunday, excellent student groups performed continuously for diners and those who
were hurrying from one stage to another. A set by the Dave Brubeck Institute Quintet, an Afro-Latin percussion workshop given by
John Santos, altoist Ted Nash being featured with a high school group, and a guest appearance by bassist-singer Katie Thiroux were
noteworthy and fun.
     One can see all of the performances from the main stage live in a large Jazz Theater and, during off periods, the Jaco Pastorius
documentary Jaco and Keep On Keepin’ On (co-starring Clark Terry and pianist Justin Kauflin) were shown. The Coffee House Gallery
featured the jazz drawings of Leo Meiersdorff along with A Love Supreme exhibit that not only had photos from the classic session but
hand-written notes by John Coltrane.
     While the Coffee House Gallery (one of three indoor venues) hosted a “Percussion Discussion” with Peter Erskine and Jeff Hamilton
and a panel discussion about Clark Terry, it was most significant for featuring six sets throughout the weekend by the Monty
Alexander Trio. A reunion of his group from 40 years ago, the great pianist was clearly delighted to be working again with bassist John
Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Together they were consistently superb, utilizing tight arranged sections (in a similar vein as the
trios of Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown) to launch passionately swinging ensembles. Alexander performed “It Happened In Monterey”
(which was actually written about Monterrey, Mexico), a tour-de-force version of “Work Song,” “John Brown’s Body” and Blue
Mitchell’s bop calypso “Fungii Mama.” These performances were classic, causing everyone to smile.
     The other venues, the large outdoors Jimmy Lyons Stage, the smaller Garden Stage, Dizzy’s Den and the Night Club (the latter two
being indoors) hosted a wide variety of major artists throughout the weekend. Friday night the main stage opened with the unusual
Erroll Garner Project. Performing exactly 60 years to the day after Garner made his celebrated Concert By The Sea album in Carmel,
the group featured Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Christian Sands all playing piano together and separately. They were joined by
guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Victor Lewis. None of the pianists (except Moran in spots) tried to sound
like Garner, instead focusing on playing modern renditions of his repertoire. Their three-piano version of “April In Paris” featured
some heavenly sounds, almost sounding like a harp. Of the individual pianists, Sands fared the best, tearing into “It’s All Right With
Me” a la Oscar Peterson. But the honors were taken by guitarist Malone on a beautifully restrained and melodic version of “They Can’t
Take That Away From Me.”
     The Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors featured top young musicians from around the world with the Israeli harmonica player Roni
Eytan making a particularly strong impression. Bassist Dennis Murphy’s versatile quintet with guitarist Barry Finnerty jammed on
Chick Corea’s “Spain” and was rousing on Tower Of Power’s “What Is Hip.” Especially enjoyable was Musette Explosion, a unique trio
consisting of accordionist Will Holshouser, guitarist-banjoist Matt Munisteri and Marcus Rojas on tuba. They performed their own
fresh version of gypsy swing including “Swing 39” and “Deux Trois.”
     Chick Corea led a trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade that emphasized fairly free improvising, close
interplay and near-telepathic musical communication between the players. Jaco’s World, a heartwarming tribute to the innovative
electric bassist Jaco Pastorius that was conducted by Vince Mendoza, successfully utilized a big band full of L.A. greats, three bassists
(including Jaco’s son Felix Pastorius) and singers Tierney Sutton and Sonny Knight (who at times recalled Jimmy Rushing) along with
some touching film footage. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard played heated fusion with his E-Collective, a young quintet that was often
thunderous but always colorful even if its drummer lacked much subtlety. The Brothers Comatose, a bluegrass quintet, had plenty of
spirit but they were out of place.
     Most memorable from Friday was trumpeter Theo Croker’s Dvrkfunk, a young quintet also featuring saxophonist Anthony Ware,
keyboardist Michael King, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Kassa Overall. The music ranged from hard bop and modern soul jazz to
post bop and electronics reminiscent of early 1970s Miles Davis. Every piece had inventive arrangements, creative patterns and strong
solos with Croker and Ware making passionate statements. This is a group with great potential.
     Saturday afternoon at Monterey is a grab bag of music. Lucky Peterson was the main blues star, singing powerfully on a blues
ballad, stretching out on an exciting medium-tempo blues, taking spirited guitar and organ solos, and joking around a bit. Nicki Hill
offered 1960’s-type pop, rock & roll and r&b. Sonny Knight led the Lakers through a set that looked towards Stax soul music for
inspiration. Trombone Shorty did what he does best, playing crowd pleasing funk and doing anything for applause whether it is playing
a note on trumpet for five minutes (via circular breathing), switching to timbales for a wild percussion battle or showing off dance steps
reminiscent of James Brown.
     A Downbeat blindfold test hosted by Dan Ouellette had good-humored discussions about music from Pete Escovedo and Sheila E.
There was also a panel discussion about Erroll Garner’s Concert By The Sea. Crossing Borders, a quintet that featured pianist-vocalist
Jennifer Scott, guitarist Scott Sorkin, and tenor-saxophonist Kristen Strom (who sang “Smile”), performed high-quality modern jazz.
Saxophonist Dann Zinn’s Shangri-La Trio with guitarist Chris Robinson and drummer Peter Erskine (no keyboards or bass) displayed
plenty of energy during their explorative set. But the best jazz of the afternoon was provided by the mighty United States Marine Corps
All-Star Jazz Band, a hard-swinging 17-piece orchestra that played a modernized “April In Paris,” “Just Friends” and “Hop On Board”
(based on “Take The ‘A’ Train) with plenty of spirit, drive and power.
     During Saturday night, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire debuted his commissioned piece The Forgotten Places, performed by a
nonet that included singer Theo Bleckman, harp and cello. The long section that I heard of his suite seemed like rather dry Third
Stream music. More stimulating were the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, an all-star septet that sounded a lot different than the
Monterey All-Stars of previous years. While trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane interacted with each other and
pianist Gerald Clayton led the rhythm section, singer-guitarist Raul Midon was the main star. He added a strong touch of World Music
to the group, his wordless singing was distinctive, and he scatted like a trumpet on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Singer Allan Harris swung his
way through a variety of standards including “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Trumpeter Etienne Charles’ Creole Soul combined
folkish melodies with post bop jazz. Percussionist John Santos led an excellent Afro-Cuban jazz/salsa band (with flutist John Calloway
and singer Ernesto Oviedo) that was at its best when it played traditional Cuban music. The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra with
Wynton Marsalis topped off the evening, mostly performing the songs of Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie. A long
colorful arrangement of “Windows” was excellent but it was impossible to top a rapid and explosive rendition of Gillespie’s “Things To
Come” during which Marsalis and altoist Sherman Irby tore the place apart.
     Sunday afternoon featured a lot of high school and college bands along with other activities. A  conversation about A Love Supreme
included Ravi Coltrane and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Snarky Puppy, a nine-piece group with as many as four horns, performed modern
groove music that was catchy, occasionally stirring and always a little unpredictable. Pete Escovedo had a great time celebrating his
80th birthday, leading his Latin Jazz Orchestra which featured a percussion section with his three children (Juan, Peter and Sheila E.).
Kenny Washington (no relation to the drummer) proved to be a superior singer as part of a sextet featuring tenor-saxophonist Michael
O’Neill. A long serious piano introduction by John R. Burr surprisingly led to a witty “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.”
     On Sunday night there were two musical mishaps. Duchess, co-led by three excellent jazz singers (Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and
Melissa Stylianou), for unknown reasons stuck to mostly cornball material including “Blah Blah Blah” and “Que Sara Sara,” none of it
sung with imagination. Chris Botti’s set was simply unlistenable. His brand of background music was extremely loud, his violinist
Caroline Campbell played every cliché in the book in what looked like an attempt to kill classical music and Botti failed to play
anything that could not have been topped by a good college trumpeter. Whose idea was it to book him at Monterey?
     Dizzy’s Den was taken over by Jazz At Lincoln Center for sets by a sextet led by tenor-saxophonist Walter Blanding, the same group
with two percussionists headed  by bassist Carlos Henriquez and a so-so jam session mostly dominated by college players. Pianist
Justin Kauflin played standards and originals including a beautiful version of “Stardust” featuring trumpeter Mike Cottone. Altoist
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls Quintet with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill played intense music, free jazz that was closer to Ornette
Coleman than to Charlie Parker but successful on its own terms.
Pianist Chick Corea and banjoist Bela Fleck may come from different musical worlds but they share an eagerness to stretch
themselves. Their delightful duets ranged from classical-type pieces to a one-chord bluegrass piece that recalled Dave Brubeck and
Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba.” Dianne Reeves was heard at the peak of her powers during her outstanding set. Leading a quartet with
pianist Peter Martin and Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo (who surprised everyone by taking a very credible Chicago blues solo on
“One For My Baby”), Reeves sang a slow dirge version of “Stormy Weather,” a wordless bolero on which she spontaneously sang about
her life, and a sing-along on which she inspired the audience to wave their lit cell phones.
     Even with all of that, I did not get to see much of the sets of guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and David Gilmore, Wasabi, Kneebody,
singer Lizz Wright or Kyle Eastwood. But as always, it was quite a weekend in Monterey.