|THE 2016 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL
The annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which was held at the Monterey Fairgrounds for the 59th year in a row, was consistently remarkable. On
five main venues (a large amphitheater, a smaller stage and three indoor nightclubs), many of the finest jazz musicians in the world
performed. Most were inspired by the attentive, enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, by the beautiful surroundings and simply by being
at one of the world’s most prestigious festivals. Tim Jackson, who has been the festival’s artistic director for the past 25 years, deserves many
thanks for helping this festival to flourish.
This festival had a very strong opening and closing. The very first set was an international quartet of students from Berklee performing as
MIXCLA + 1. It was apparent from the opening number that the star was Cuban-born pianist-singer Zahili Gonzalez Zamora. A brilliant
classically-trained improviser who is a master of polyrhythms, she is also a very appealing and versatile singer. Several times, she sang
unisons with her own rapid ideas on the piano. Most impressive was when she effortlessly switched to singing perfect harmonies at the
uptempo pace with her piano; it was as if she was three-handed. Zahili, who looked so happy to be performing at Monterey, displayed
confidence and joy while talking to the audience. The set (with trumpet, bass and the colorful percussionist Takafumi Nikaido) made me think
of the phrase “a star is born.” There is no doubt that Zahili is on her way to the top.
Speaking of the top, tenor-saxophonist Joshua Redman performed exhilarating music each night with a different group. His quartet Still
Dreaming with cornetist Ron Miles, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade are quite special. While mostly playing original music, they
are a tribute band to Old and New Dreams, the Ornette Coleman alumni group of the 1970s. The original quartet consisted of Joshua’s father
Dewey Redman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell. Quite often Still Dreaming sounded very close to
the earlier group’s members. They all excelled at performing the interactive brand of melodic free jazz.
I saw many other artists in briefer segments on Friday night. Drummer Jamison Ross contributed some powerful r&b-inspired vocals to his
own set which featured excellent solos from pianist Chris Pattishall and guitarist Rick Lollar. The great singer Cecile McLorin Salvant lived up
to one’s expectations on her inventive versions of “The Trolley Song” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Young Cuban pianist Alfredo
Rodriguez played his energetic brand of modern Afro-Cuban Jazz including “Invasion Parade.” Veteran pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi (who
remembered being at Monterey back in 1972) was in impressive form with her trio on “Long Yellow Road” and a three-song medley from
Porgy and Bess. Trumpeter-singer Bria Skonberg brought swing and New Orleans jazz to the festival with her quintet which featured Evan
Arntzen on tenor and clarinet. Ms. Skonberg’s sound, with its vibrato and shakes, made her sound like a trumpeter from the 1930s. Highlights
included “Swing That Music,” “Egyptian Fantasy,” her Peggy Lee-inspired vocal on “Don’t Be That Way,” “Malaguena” and her own “Wear
And Tear.” As Bria Skonberg accurately stated, she makes old songs sound new and writes new songs that sound old!
Friday night climaxed with a very successful tribute to what could be considered Quincy Jones’ last jazz albums, his A&M recordings of 1969-
71: Walking In Space, Gula Matari and Smackwater Jack. With Jones watching the show from the right side of the stage, a 21-piece all-star
group conducted by John Clayton featured such highly individual players as flutist Hubert Laws (who soloed on nearly every song),
trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr, Bob Sheppard on soprano, Dave Grusin on electric piano, James Carter (who was
underutilized but had one rip-roaring solo apiece on baritone and soprano), vocalist Valerie Simpson and three background singers. Bassist
Christian McBride was the musical director and there were guest appearances by Richard Bona and Alfredo Rodriguez. Among the Quincy
Jones arrangements were “Walking In Space” which was given an extended treatment that topped the original, “Walkin,’” “Gula Matari,”
“What’s Going On” and “Killer Joe.” However, it was harmonica great Gregoire Maret on “Brown Ballad” who stole the show with his beautiful
and haunting playing.
Saturday afternoon included two appearances by Davina & The Vagabonds, a band featuring singer-pianist Davina Sowers in a quintet that
included trumpeter Zack Lozier and trombonist Stephen David Rogness. Their bluesy music ranged from New Orleans jazz (with Rogness
recalling Kid Ory at times) to jump music of the 1940s, from the lowdown r&b ballad “I’d Rather Be A Blind Girl” to Fats Waller’s “Louisiana
Fairy Tale.” The Guitarsonists matched together guitarists Chris Cain, Daniel Castro and “Mighty” Mike Schermer in a blues shootout.
Veteran pianist Larry Vuckovich paid tribute to Vince Guaraldi in the music and the leader’s storytelling. The sextet “Bop Of The Bay”
featured excellent playing from trumpeter Brian Stock on “Ceora” and a slower than usual version of “Byrdlike.”
Saturday night once again offered an overflow of major talents. Bassist John Patitucci’s Electric Guitar Quartet had expressive and inventive
playing from Adam Rogers and Steve Cardenas, with Brian Blade (who appeared with many groups that weekend) on drums. They performed
post bop jazz, the soulful groove of “Band Of Brothers” and a Thelonious Monk medley that included “Trinkle Tinkle.” Pianist Joey Alexander,
who is 13, sounded like he was a superb 30-year old with his trio. The masterful 75-year old pianist Stanley Cowell, who played three sets with
his trio, is clearly still in his creative prime, performing originals plus Richie Powell’s “Time” and a fascinating version of “’Round Midnight”
in which he purposely avoided directly stating the melody.
The night was highlighted by three major matchups. Joshua Redman has toured and recorded with the Bad Plus so he fit right into the group
during their set of adventurous originals. Tenor-saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin matched power and ideas with trumpeter Randy
Brecker in a quartet with bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Mark Taylor. The spontaneous interplay between the two horns was always a
highpoint. Finally, Branford Marsalis (on tenor and soprano) and his trio with pianist Joey Calderazzo welcomed Kurt Elling. Their live
performance was a stark contrast to their recent ballad-oriented CD. They performed such numbers as an enthusiastic “There’s A Boat That’s
Leaving Soon For New York,” “Blue Gardenia,” and a celebratory “With Every Breath You Take” with intensity and plenty of interaction. For
the final number, “St. James Infirmary,” they were joined by the altoist Tia Fuller and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, masterful musicians who
had played earlier with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project.
Sunday afternoon, which included a Downbeat Blindfold Test with Christian McBride (who guessed 7 of the 8 diverse selections correctly), had
three major performances. Kamasi Washington, who has a commanding physical presence and is a strong tenor player inspired by Pharoah
Sanders, led a quintet with two drummers and singer Patrice Quinn. While he has been gaining a lot of attention lately, his set sounded like a
collage that changed styles, moods and grooves almost randomly. While spirited, there was little played that could not have been performed in
1970 and perhaps the hype is a little premature although Washington has great potential.
Gregory Porter, who ranks with Elling as jazz’s top male vocalist, charmed the crowd with his voice, friendly personality and high-quality
originals including “Take Me To The Alley,” “On My Way To Harlem” and “There Will Be No Love Dying Here.” Like Nat King Cole, Porter
sounds good singing anything but he should include a few more cookers in his repertoire.
Drummer Tommy Igoe’s Groove Conspiracy is a big band that is driven by its enthusiastic leader. They played a memorable set of the music of
Steely Dan, turning the vocal music into instrumental jazz. Altoist Marc Russo (who played years ago with the Yellowjackets), tenor-
saxophonist Tom Politzer and guest guitarist Drew Zingg were all outstanding. There were also some stirring solos from Randy Brecker who sat
in on the last few numbers as did the fine singer Tony Lindsey.
Things did not slow down much on Sunday night. Organist Ronnie Foster, who recorded for Blue Note in the 1970s but has had a low profile
ever since, showed in his soul jazz set (which included a classic version of “Isn’t She Lovely”) that he deserves much more recognition. The little
bit that I saw of tenor-saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet set was so unremittingly intense that it seemed a little humorous; I wish I could
have seen more of that intriguing performance. Less interesting were the two improvisations by the Wayne Shorter Quartet and his lengthy
commissioned piece for the Monterey Jazz Festival Wind Ensemble. The playing of Shorter, pianist Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian
Blade was top-notch but just not all that stimulating. Better was “Phase Dance” and “Third World” by the Pat Metheny Quartet. The guitarist’
s band with pianist Gwillym Simcock, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Antonio Sanchez, had an acoustic sound and performed fresh versions of
songs from the Pat Metheny Group days. Even better was guitarist Dave Stryker’s quartet with tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander and organist
Jared Gold. Some of the pieces were tributes to Stanley Turrentine including “Don’t Mess With Mister T.” Everyone excelled on “Impressions”
and “The Island.” Alexander in particular deserves to be considered one of the greats. Joshua Redman led his regular quartet with pianist
Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson through his third and final appearance. A giant since he first
arrived on the scene, the distinctive Redman has continued to grow as he showed on one of the finest version of “Stardust” that I have heard in
The festival ended with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. He played a typically rousing set with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer
Johnathan Blake which concluded with the simple but effective spiritual piece “Pilgrimage.” After taking bows, Smith spontaneously picked
up his electrified cane and played it like a drum set or an electric bass. When something malfunctioned and the cane’s electricity got cut off,
there was a sad moment. But Kreisberg rushed back to his guitar, played a funky riff and the trio romped through an unexpected final jam
before an audience that was inspired to dance wildly. It was the perfect ending to a special festival.
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