51st Monterey Jazz Festival Features Newcomers and Jazz Greats

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51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey, California
September 19-21, 2008

Youth had its day, but seniority made its mark at the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held Sept. 19-21 at the Monterey California Fairgrounds.

Young tenor-sax star Joshua Redman opened the festival Friday night outside on the large Jimmy Lyons Stage arena with a rousing trio set, hearkening back to the Sonny Rollins' trio recordings from the late fifties. With great help from Matt Penman on bass and Brian Blade on drums, Redman took the standards "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "East of the Sun," got under the melodies and on to improvisational heights to reveal hidden nuances in the old standards. The group was equally impressive with Redman originals.

With blues and funk the order of the afternoon on Saturday, Maceo Parker, playing his funk-edged alto sax, took the Jimmy Lyons Stage and led the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. This group of very talented young musicians swung through some solid, soulful numbers. Played with fervor, the innovative arrangements were not from the book usually played by high schoolers.

Jamie Cullum, another astonishing young star, burst onto the scene Sunday afternoon. This crossover vocalist/pianist from England is not commonly considered a jazz performer. Here on the Lyons Stage, however, he showed his jazz creds immediately with a bombastic version of "I Get a Kick Out of You," making sure we got the kick by fist-cuffing the piano keys. He was exuberant and often over-the-top.

He calmed down later with a beautiful version of "Blame It on My Youth" and then sang selections from his mainstream hit album Twentysomething (Verve, 2004). As he leaped and bounded on stage, the cheering audience couldn't get enough of him.

Clarinetist Anat Cohen, another young musician (sister of trumpeter Avishai Cohen), made a big impression. From Israel, she and her quartet appeared at the intimate Nightclub stage Friday night. In the Cuban standard, "Siboney," weaving sinuously while playing, she wrought a sensuous spell. She went on to bring down the house with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." She's one to watch.

A little older, but still a comer at 41, Kurt Elling just keeps getting better. Kicking off Sunday night on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, he proved this in his flawless, heartfelt set, "Dedicated to You." This program honored the famous John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse, 1963) ballad album. With Ernie Watts superbly channeling Trane on tenor sax, Elling brought back the historic session, his voice capturing, if not the timbre, the passion of the wonderful Hartman.

Jazz veterans Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock had their say, giving stellar performances Sunday night on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. Switching from soprano to tenor sax, Shorter, with his regular group—Danilo Perez, piano, John Patitucci, bass, Blade, again, drums—played continuously for an hour with one original blending into another. This set left no doubt that, at 75, Shorter is at his peak in improvisation and that his seasoned group is one of the finest in jazz.

For Hancock it was mostly an electrified set with the leader going back and forth between the keyboards and the piano. He enthusiastically traded licks with guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist Nathan East. The crowd loved a new take on the Hancock classic "Watermelon Man," but appreciated the mood change when he brought out vocalist Amy Keys to sing the hauntingly beautiful "River" from Hancock's recent recording of Joni Mitchell songs, River: The Joni Letters (Universal, 2007).

Some personal highlights from the festival:

Maria Schneider Orchestra—The leader proved again that she is surely one of the most talented composer-arrangers around. Her textured, layered tone poems showed the influence of her mentor Gil Evans but also portrayed her own unique talent. Her creativity was perfectly displayed in the MJF-commissioned piece, "Willow Lake," a paean to her Minnesota hometown.

Bill Frisell-Matt Wilson Duo—Saturday in the Night Club guitarist Frisell displayed his unique perspective, combining jazz with folk and country to come up with a Coplandesque landscape. With kindred soul Wilson on drums, as well, the duo unearthed gems, such as their tantalizing take on "When You Wish Upon a Star." After their ingenious canoodling back and forth, the audience roared in joyful surprise when the familiar melody was finally revealed.

Terence Blanchard Quintet—While trumpeter Blanchard's quintet was heating up the Night Club, Herbie Hancock slyly slipped in to play piano with the group. This kind of happening is what is great about festivals.

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