Monterey Notebook 2007, Part 1: Friday
“ McLaughlin's set is an exercise in fusion wizardry, as each player tosses off dazzling Technicolor solos in turn. ”
The 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held September 21-24, had the deck stacked in its favor from the get-go. Already possessed of the ineffable mystique that comes with being one of the most storied venues in jazz, a famously convivial scene in a legendary setting, this year's edition had the added allure of a golden anniversaryand a heavyweight artist lineup to match. The festival shattered attendance records and, despite a rare bout of wet weather, proved that Monterey still has it after all these years.
What follows is a blow-by-blow account of MJF/50 (as the avalanche of official merchandise dubbed it), written as it happened and presented largely as jotted down at the scene. For those who have never been to the festival, a bit of orientation may be in order: the Monterey County Fairgrounds sit about a mile from Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, on a lovely stretch of the California coast. The fairgrounds themselves house two outdoor venues (the large, gated Arena and smaller Garden Stage) along with several indoor stages scattered across 22 acres. As a rule of thumb, the biggest acts appear in the Arena, while the best action is to be found on the grounds. But no matter where you go, you're sure to find something delightful.
Friday, 5:40 p.m.The Fairgrounds
If you haven't been lucky enough to score a hotel room within walking distance of the Monterey County Fairgroundsthat is, if you didn't book a year in advancethen the experience of attending Monterey begins with a cloud of dust.
See, the Festival's official parking is a golf course out behind the fairgrounds, a short walk that seems like miles away. And before you reach the neat green lawn, there's that field of dusty earth, kicked up by a thousand cars, that gives you the unofficial welcome.
Parking completed, the long march begins clear around the fenced-off grounds, past the smell of a dozen charcoal fires starting up in the food court. A legion of volunteers stands ready, some fresh- faced and eager to help, others wary veterans alert for scam artists. Finally, you reach the line of early arrivals stretching along Fairground Road, a jolly band of comrades that goes through the same ritual year after year.
Inside the gates, things are buzzing. Golf carts whiz to and fro as VIPs and messengers conduct their final tasks before opening. Vendors put the finishing touches on carefully arranged displays of wares. Members of the press meet, greet and drink at an official pre-party. And then, suddenly, it's show time.
A Change in the Weather
6:40 p.m. The Garden Stage
The 50th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival slides into life on a cool, swinging groove.
Along Came Betty, a streamlined quintet with classic West Cast style, is making pianist Biff Smith's quirkily titled pieces ("Brad Mehldau's Monogrammed Guest Towels") sound like old favorites. Smith lays on a touch of the blues as Pete Stock's personable trumpet and flugelhorn weave gently through the gathering outdoor crowd.
It's a breezy evening under an unsettled skyforecasts predict rain before the weekend is out, a rarity for the festival. But spirits are warm at the Garden Stage. Riding the band's steady bounce, guest guitarist Storm Nilson spins clean, riffing lines that defy the gray clouds.
Elsewhere, people are already queuing up for the evening's other sets. By 7:15, more than 40 people are already in line for guitarist Anthony Wilson's set in the Night Club venue, nearly an hour away. That number will double within a few minutes.
And when the first raindrops fall at 7:45, the Night Club is instantly full.
Anthony Wilson: All Together Now
8:15 p.m.The Night Club / Bill Berry Stage
The Anthony Wilson Nonet eases in slowly, allowing themselves a few minutes to drift from their leader's atmospheric solo guitar meditation up to a casually loping fantasia. Standing hunched over his guitar, Wilson carries the daydream forward into a funky strut, giving his five-horn front line a chance to show off its tight ensemble coordination and simpatico improvisational chops. Donald Vega's stabbing piano break pushes the band into higher gear as the atmosphere of the packed room grows thick and humid.
Stringing tunes together into lengthy hybrids, Wilson's ensemble breathessuspending time, revealing wide vistas or working grooves as a single organism. Wilson guides it with an open, almost vocal tone that is picked up in a sprightly dialogue with the band.
With the room jammed, only two or three people are admitted at a time, as others depart. Midway through the set, Wilson's father, the great bandleader Gerald Wilson, manages to get in and is guided to a seat near the rear of the room. The elder Wilson nods appreciatively at Alan Ferber's rhythmic trombone work, which slips into a rumbling drum break by Alan's twin brother, Mark Ferber.
Outside, the drizzle grows heavier.
Bonerama: Slammin' at Dizzy's
8:45 p.m.Dizzy's Den