|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
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.