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Live Reviews

Monterey Notebook 2006, Part 3: Sunday

By Published: October 2, 2006
"You know," says the maestro in a lighthearted introduction to "Tantum Ergo," "people say to me, why don't you play some of the old tunes? Well, this one is two thousand years old." The piece (from Brubeck's "Pange Lingua Variations") is a sort of desert groove that reflects the entire history of this well-known melody: a Jewish dance, reputedly co-opted by the Roman army and eventually transformed to a Gregorian chant.

Cannery Row Suite

8:00pm - The Arena

The Arena stage grows crowded for "Cannery Row Suite," as Dave Brubeck's quartet is joined by singers Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini, his son Chris Brubeck's Triple Play band and a male chorus from the University of the Pacific. Many of the newcomers are in early 20th-century period dress, and a few large barrels have been placed at the edge of the stage for atmosphere.

In his introduction, Brubeck wryly tells the story of how Festival producer Tim Jackson initially asked for a full-blown opera based on John Steinbeck's novel. Brubeck managed to haggle him down to a 30-minute oratorio, something "more appropriate for a jazz festival." He then tries to lower expectations, pointing out that the finished piece had not been rehearsed before Saturday. "But I trust this audience," he says, recalling how a previous success—"The Real Ambassadors" with Louis Armstrong — managed to come together with equally little preparation. "In New York they would have made us wait three more days." Brubeck warns the audience that some sections of the suite are "practically impossible to sing," and apologizes in advance to the onstage cast.

The suite opens with the voice of Thomas Steinbeck, who reads the first paragraph of his father's novel over a series of projected photographs. A lone harmonica provides what Brubeck calls "the feel of the [ranch] bunkhouse." This leads to the jaunty "Overture," a catchy theme that recurs throughout the suite. The chorus celebrates Steinbeck's legacy and sets the scene of the book: "Monterey, Monterey, a hell of a place to work and to play..."

Gambarini takes center stage for "Dora's Song," playing the role of a local madam/ mother figure. Her pure-toned, drawn-out and soulful delivery is sharply reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald at several points. Brubeck provides a soft, enveloping piano interlude, but the song belongs entirely to Gambarini, whose performance is supple, immediate, and visceral. Brubeck looks delighted.

Elling is superb in his first feature, the ballad "Doc's Song," but here it is Dave Brubeck's gorgeous song structure and Iola Brubeck's sensitive, philosophical lyric that demand attention. As Doc muses on the biological specimens in his laboratory and the human specimens on Cannery Row, he brings the Festival full circle: as Babatunde Lea's band chanted on Friday, "we are all connected." Saxophonist Bobby Militello then offers a spirited aria that ripples through the crowd and up into the night sky.

There turns out to be some truth behind Brubeck's introductory warnings: a Broadway-eque section of the suite devoted to the freewheeling character Mack and his "boys" is a bit wobbly, the melody slipping beyond Chris Brubeck's grasp. Gambarini also seems to be reaching at one point, so perhaps this section is just a casualty of the abbreviated rehearsal time. But the Triple Play band soon puts things back on track: quick-stepping trombone, roadhouse guitar and good-time harmonica clear the way for a rip-roaring scat duet between Gambarini and Elling.

In an abrupt change of pace, the voice of Thomas Steinbeck returns to explain plot developments from the book. Elling gets the last word with "Doc's Soliloquy," a poignant twelve-tone composition. The audience to its feet en masse, and they remain standing for some minutes as the ensemble replays the overture as a recap. Dave and Iola Brubeck are ecstatic. Once again, they have triumphed at Monterey.

And Into the Night...

9:40pm - The Arena

"This piano is colder than I am," jokes Oscar Peterson, as he battles the chilly night and his own advancing age, striving to give the Festival a fitting conclusion. The crowd is supportive, but the results are decidedly mixed. Peterson plays almost entirely with his right hand, his left hovering above the keyboard but rarely striking. Unlike the Oscar Peterson of old, the master tonight sticks to medium-tempo swingers and slow ballads.

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