Monterey Notebook 2005, Part 3: Saturday Night

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As the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival presented by MCI passes its halfway mark, the traditionally blues-oriented program of Saturday afternoon gives way to an eclectic mix of modern-jazz and international sounds, along with a wave of vocalists led by first-time performer Tony Bennett. I continue my venue-hopping, trying to drink in as much music in as many styles as I can.
8:00pm - Jimmy Lyons Stage (The Arena)
Commissioned works have become a central part of the Monterey tradition. For this year's festival, the unpredictable Carla Bley has cooked up a beautifully conceived suite entitled "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid." Before premiering it, however, Bley puts her 17-piece Big Band (featuring many fine Northern California musicians) through their paces in two preliminary numbers.



"On the Stage in Cages" opens with a Monkish statement followed by percolating solos from trumpeter John Worley and George Young on alto sax. With Bley herself alternating between the piano chair and conducting the group, the piece moves through several distinct phases: it's a quirky mechanical bounce one moment, a slow gospel moan the next, and at one point each horn blows in turn for about a measure and a half.

Bley gives a deadpan introduction of "One Way," describing the piece as "really simple." And on one level it is simple, a big-band ballad built largely on variations of a two-chord vamp. But this is a Carla Bley concert, and even simplicity comes with a twist. Occasional dissonant moments of decision crop up throughout, and each time the piece threatens to spin wildly onto a new axis before settling back into the original theme.

"Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid" has its origins in a solo gig Bley played in Monterey as a teenager, fifty years ago — "my first and last gig as a cocktail pianist," she quips. To set the scene, Bley's bandmates gather round her piano like lounge patrons as Bley plays a medley of standards such as "My Foolish Heart," absolutely straight.

A perky guitar riff and vague horn rumblings get the suite rolling in earnest, gradually building to a stylized bop line which bounces amongst the horns. Fragments of standard melodies, presumably the same 17 tunes Bley says she knew in 1955, sneak in at intervals, each time subtly changing the suite's narrative flow. A percussion-led breakdown shows that Thelonious Monk influence again, before settling into a Latinized bop groove with extended solo space for trombone.

The suite moves into an after-hours mode as Bley's contemplative piano break leads into a smoky trumpet melody from Worley. The "set 'em up Joe" balladry continues for a while before the previous movement's thematic ideas reassert themselves. The massive horn section all begin trading fours as the ensemble rises to a rousing conclusion. Bley doesn't stick around long for the applause, but "Appearing Nightly" is a success that deserves to be released on CD soon.

9:15pm - Dizzy's Den

I make it across the Fairgrounds in time to catch the last few numbers from the Lounge Art Ensemble, an inviting modern-jazz trio led by drummer Peter Erskine. A steaming post-bop brew is bubbling here, and the room is about two-thirds full despite the large crowds gathered elsewhere for singers Tony Bennett, Sheila Jordan, and Ledisi.

It's a trio of listeners, three guys who have a good time playing together as they spin around the gravitational center of Erskine's busy drum kit. Taking on the standard "Sweet and Lovely," the three start with a quick, staccato rephrasing of the melody before sliding into a cool but slightly askew solo section. Bob Sheppard, playing tenor sax at the moment, renders "Sweet and Lovely" in a sweet and pulpy way, while Dave Carpenter walks all over the chords with his six-string electric bass.

"Mr. Jones to You," based loosely on "Have You Met Miss Jones," takes on a low rolling rhythm line under a popping melody. Sheppard moves from tenor to soprano sax mid- tune, and his previously bouncy play smoothes out into longer, flowing lines over rapid bass and drums. The set concludes with "Cats and Kittens," an Erskine original with a cool strutting rhythm and a bit of bluesy, second-line funk in the approach.

9:45pm - Night Club

There's barely a free seat in the house when the Andy Bey Quartet takes the stage. The master vocal stylist gently insinuates himself into his set with "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," the Depression-era lament given a modern treatment as Bey twists the phrasing, scats, and toys with the melody on piano. His extended coda fades gently as Bey repeats and varies the title line again and again.

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