|THE 2012 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL
Now in its 55th year, the Monterey Jazz Festival is the finest modern jazz festival held annually on the West Coast, and arguably the
premiere jazz festival in the United States. The massive three-day festival, which this year drew over 36,000 fans, has music occurring
much of the time in at least five venues at the Monterey Fairgrounds. The biggest problem can be choosing who to see at a particular
moment because Monterey is always overflowing with musical talent.
Monterey itself is an idyllic setting. The festival grounds are isolated from the rest of the world, and the festival during its most exciting
moments gives one the impression of being in jazz heaven. There are dozens of colorful vendors, and it is easy to strike up a conversation
with other fans and discover that they have been going to the festival for 20, 30 or even 40 years.
Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell and Ambrose Akinmusire each appeared in multiple settings over the weekend. Guitarist
Metheny and drummer DeJohnette joined together with bassist Christian McBride to perform modern straight ahead jazz, there was a duo
set that matched guitarist Frisell with DeJohnette, and trumpeter Akinmusire was featured on several numbers with the Next Generation
Jazz Orchestra (directed by Paul Contos). But in each case, the musicians sounded at their most creative when heading their own groups.
Metheny led the Unity Band, a quartet with saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Whether
playing his 42-string Pikasso guitar in an unaccompanied opener, jamming such numbers as “Come And See,” ”Moondust” and “This
Belongs To You” with the quartet (it was great to hear Metheny interacting with a major saxophonist), coming up with furious patterns on
his guitar synthesizer, or utilizing his Orchestrion, this lengthy set never lost one’s interest. Seeing Metheny use the Orchestrion, which
allows the guitarist to trigger rhythmic patterns on a variety of instruments (building up to very dense ensembles) was particularly
intriguing to watch live.
Jack DeJohnette really came alive during a powerful set with his quintet. The drummer was pushed and inspired by altoist Rudresh
Mahanthappa, guitarist David Fiuczynski, keyboardist George Colligan and bassist Jerome Harris, straddling the boundaries between post
bop, fusion and free jazz. Guitarist Bill Frisell performed an intriguing commissioned piece “The Music Of Glen Deven Ranch” in a very
open quintet that also included violinist Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang on viola, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. The
impossible-to-categorize music ranged from mournful to jubilant while often utilizing dark dissonances. Later on with the Beautiful
Dreamers trio, Frisell, Kang and Royston performed atmospheric music that fit the name of the group.
Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the most promising of the younger trumpeters. With a quintet that included Walter Smith III. on tenor and
pianist Sam Harris, he performed moody and adventurous music that stretched the modern mainstream and was full of large interval
jumps, hints of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and a wide range of emotions.
While one can certainly argue that Tony Bennett was never a jazz singer despite his love for the music, it was impossible to deny the pure
joy of the 86-year old’s Monterey’s performance. His high notes were still very strong and, while his lower notes early on were occasionally
cloudy, he grew in power as the night progressed. Bennett sang a couple of dozen of his favorite songs, usually in two-chorus renditions. He
had such fun and his outstretched arms were so inviting, that he delighted everyone who saw him perform.
Esperanza Spalding, a hugely talented singer and bassist, primarily sang songs from her recent Radio Music Society CD. While Spalding,
who has the best hair in jazz, mostly performed left-of-center r&b, the earlier numbers in her set were more jazz-oriented. She looked quite
natural leading a 12-piece band that included saxophonist Tia Fuller and the excellent singer Chris Turner.
Catherine Russell, the daughter of early jazz pianist-arranger Luis Russell, performed swing era songs with a quartet also including pianist
Mark Shane and guitarist Chris Flory. Highlights included such obscurities as “The Spell Of The Blues,” ”He’s Got A Coffin That’s Your Size”
and “We The People.” Ms. Russell was very musical and entertaining but she should utilize a couple of horns to give her relaxed performance
Trumpeter Christian Scott’s mixture of the acoustic and the electric in his quintet set with guitarist Matthews Stevens and keyboardist
Lawrence Fields was consistently stimulating. A tribute to Cal Tjader headed by keyboardist Michael Wolff and featuring vibraphonist
Warren Wolf and both Pete Escovedo and John Santos on percussion, was predictably fun. Tierney Sutton and her regular band with pianist
Christian Jacob performed a scat-filled set along with a serious and thoughtful version of “Make Someone Happy.” Drummer Antonio
Sanchez’s Migration, which included altoist David Binney and tenor-saxophonist Donny McCaslin, created dynamic forward-looking
Flutist Ali Ryerson and guitarist Mimi Fox formed a unique duo, bringing out the best in each other on adventurous versions of “My One
And Only Love,” Älone Together” and Fox’s “This Bird Still Flies.” Altoist Aram Shelton led a pianoless quartet with tenor-saxophonist Keefe
Jackson that featured stirring post bop The Japanese quartet Encounter performed hard bop originals that found tenor-saxophonist Wataru
Hamasaki hinting at Dexter Gordon. The Berkeley-Monterey Septet were a young Art Blakey-style band with altoist Erena Terakubo
displaying her own fresh sheets of sound style. Mo-Fone, an unusual but effective baritone-alto-drums trio, improvised rhythmic music that
was funky and fun. Violinist Mads Tolling and his quartet contributed some inventive fusion to the festival that hinted at Jean-Luc Ponty
but was original in its own way. Bassist Kyle Eastwood with his quartet (featuring Jason Rigby on soprano and tenor) ranged from an easy-
listening “The Song Is You” to their modernized “Big Noise From Winnetka.”
The Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band excited a large crowd during their rousing set, ending with an uptempo romp. Gregoire Maret showed
that there is life on the jazz harmonica beyond Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder. Jose James, a singer with a tone that sometimes
recalled Lou Rawls, was impressive on soulful numbers such as Äin’t No Sunshine” and “Save Your Love For Me.” On one number, he
effectively imitated a tape loop with eccentric repetitions yet a coherent message. Despite sound problems, Eddie Palmeri’s Salsa Orchestra
with trumpeter Brian Lynch gave the audience some high-quality percussion-oriented music. Bassist Ben Williams led the quartet Sound
Effect through modern originals. The USAF Commandeers, an outstanding 18-piece big band with the feel of Count Basie’s orchestra,
featured guest trumpeter Jeff Jarvis who displayed a beautiful tone and a style that hinted strongly of Harry James. And during one night,
fans of hard-swinging soul jazz were put in nirvana. Guitarist John Abercrombie was teamed with organist Gary Versace and drummer
Adam Nussbaum, Larry Goldings exclusively played organ in a rousing performance with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Greg
Hutchinson, and organist Chester Thompson led a quartet that included tenor-saxophonist Howard Wiley.
Several groups at Monterey fell outside of jazz. The festival actually opened with a bit of a misstep, not because Tammi Brown is an inferior
singer, but her set (which included three background singers) was purely r&b and very much out of place. Percussionist Pedrito Martinez’s
quartet played pleasing and rhythmic salsa while guitarist-singer Meklit Haderon, even with the inclusion of some jazz artists, mostly
performed high-quality World Music. Melody Gardot sang a sweet ballad, a primal blues piece and unclassifiable folk music. She also wore a
hat that would not make her popular in a movie theater!
Saturday afternoon used to feature a blues-oriented program but has recently expanded to essentially become a forum for “other music.”
There was some blues provided by a group calling themselves The Blues Broads and featuring vocalists Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson,
Dorothy Morrison and Annie Sampson although they also performed soul, gospel, and folk music. Steel guitarist Robert Randolph’s Family
Band was loud and rockish but grooving. Mingo Fishtrap, a group from Austin, Texas, played r&b in the tradition of Tower Of Power and
James Brown. Trombone Shorty drove the main arena’s audience wild with an uninhibited and very danceable set that ranged from “St.
James Infirmary” and an inventive version of “I’ve Got A Woman” to “She’s Alright,” But to hear the best blues of the afternoon, one had to
search out the duo Bleu (singer-guitarist Gil Cadill and Virgin Thrasher on harmonica) on the West Lawn.
Monterey also featured several different types of public discussions. Pianist Gerald Clayton took a Downbeat Blindfold test administered by
Dan Oullette, faring quite well; his father John Clayton was spotted beaming in the audience. Dave Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors, a civil
rights jazz show featuring Louis Armstrong that had its only performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival 50 years ago was discussed by a
panel hosted by Bill Minor and including veteran singer Yolande Bavan. There was also a lengthy talk of the heritage of John Coltrane by A.
B. Spellman, Chris Potter and Ashley Kahn, and a conversation that had Jack DeJohnette reminiscing about his career.
At the Coffee House Gallery, a few pianists had opportunities to stretch out for two or three sets apiece. Mulgrew Miller was in top form with
his trio, consistently inventive on such numbers as “Monk’s Dream,” “Once I Loved,” “Relaxin’ At Camarillo,” and a touching rendition of
“Old Folks.” Gerald Clayton during his three sets with his trio had a chance to show how he has continued to evolve as a pianist and Tigran
Hamasyan impressed many listeners with his originality for two hours.
Two all-star groups helped bring Monterey to a close. The Monterey Festival On Tour featured Christian McBride (who served as musical
director), singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Potter, pianist Benny Green and drummer Lewis Nash. While it was
very good to hear the two horn players in a hard bop setting, Green and Bridgewater consistently stole the show on such numbers as the
rhythm section’s feature “Tanga,” a high-powered “Filthy McNasty,” and Dee Dee’s emotional rendition of “Don’t Explain.” An augmented
version of 90 Miles teamed together tenor-saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Nicholas Payton for a powerful set of picturesque
postbop Latin-flavored music.
Throughout the weekend, the duo of pianist-singer Judy Roberts and tenor-saxophonist Greg Fishman welcomed audience members near
the front gate with a steady stream of spirited bop standards. Very much a complete band, they jammed such tunes as “Donna Lee” and ”Do
Nothing Till You Hear From Me” with wit and creativity.
But the highpoint of the entire weekend was singer Gregory Porter. During a very high-powered set that also featured the passionate altoist
Yosuke Sato and pianist Chip Crawford, Porter put plenty of intensity into such numbers as “Let Your Spirit Run Free,” “Work Song,” and
the anti-racism “1960 What.” “Skylark,” one of the set’s only ballads, had very fresh and attractive phrasing. Porter not only swung hard
during this memorable hour and displayed a powerful voice but had the audience reacting as if they were hearing a very meaningful
sermon. Kurt Elling finally has some competition!
Hopefully in the future, the lineup at Monterey can be expanded a bit more to include all eras of jazz including New Orleans jazz, swing and
a jam session or two. The Monterey Jazz Festival is not to be missed by any serious jazz fan!