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Live Reviews

Monterey Notebook 2007, Part 2: Saturday

By Published: November 2, 2007

A tie-dyed, rainbow-hued gang of Mardi Gras hippies marches up the center aisle. And for just an instant, Monterey Jazz 2007 merges with Monterey Pop 1967.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3

James Hunter: Turning Back the Clock
Saturday, 1:00 p.m.—The Arena



Friday night's drizzle has held on tenaciously through the morning hours, turning the 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival into a soggy, mud-speckled event. The Arena is mostly empty as British soul man James Hunter begins the traditional Saturday blues program. But even if much of the sellout crowd is staying home so far, the preponderance of slickers and broad-brimmed hats on the fairgrounds show a determination to keep the party going.



On stage, Hunter turns back the clock with a bumping, screaming soul-blues revue, literally bouncing across the stage as he pays tribute to the genre's greats, backed by a gritty, mostly English quintet. Hunter's popping original tunes have the classic R&B flavor of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. But not only could these songs have been lifted from an earlier era; they might well have been top-40 hits then and beloved oldies today.



There is a rasp in Hunter's voice that interferes with some of his more extreme interjections, but he is undeterred. "No Smoke Without a Fire" channels Wilson Pickett by way of James Brown, with just a touch of Boots Randolph from tenorist Damian Hand lightening the mood. At opposite ends of the stage, Jared Samuel kicks out a churchy soul break on Hammond B-3 organ while baritone saxophonist Lee Badau groans behind Hunter's stuttering lead. Rain or no rain, the festival burns on.



Honeydripper All-Stars: The Turning Point

1:40 p.m.—Garden Stage



While James Hunter winds up his Arena gig, the Honeydripper All-Stars are romping and stomping through a powerhouse set of jook-joint blues at the nearby Garden Stage. Playing in support of the upcoming John Sayles film "Honeydripper" (for which these musicians provided the soundtrack), the band unleashes a barrage of searing vocals and show-stopping instrumental breaks. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw emcees the set with humor and verve as a mix of veteran and younger blues players digs deep and brings up gold.



Harmonica player Arthur Williams blasts away and eggs on the honking Shaw, then gives way to a smashing barrelhouse piano solo from Henderson Huggins. This is one of those bands where almost everyone sings, and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. proves a double threat with burning licks and a sledgehammer voice.



Later, as Mable John takes things down a notch with some bawdy vocal features, a minor miracle occurs. The rain stops, patches of blue appear in the sky, and just as Ms. John sings, "I don't know how she done it," a sunbeam begins to peek through the clouds, marking a turning point for this wet weekend.



Otis Taylor: Blue Trance

2:20 p.m.—The Arena



Back in the suddenly sunny (and crowded) Arena, Otis Taylor has come ready for business. His band consists entirely of guitars, including electric bass and lap steel. "You know what, y'all? We don't have no drums!" he shouts. "Clap your hands and be our drums!" But no external aid is necessary as the band stirs up a swirling blues-rock cyclone.



Taylor calls his music trance blues, and the name is apt. Standing close together in the center of the stage, Taylor and his daughter Cassie craft chugging guitar/bass lines while John Richardson and Chuck Campbell wash over them with thick, atmospheric waves. The sound surges into a psychedelic stew, cresting and falling back in tune after tune.



Taking the lead in a heartfelt tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Cassie Taylor turns in a sweet- toned, breathy vocal somewhere between a whisper and a moan. Then things turn upbeat as Otis switches to harmonica, getting the Arena audience worked up in a joyous call and response on an old "hambone" lyric. Not content with the level of participation, the elder Taylor climbs down from the stage to personally lead his chorus from the aisles.



As the band returns to trance blues, there is a surreal moment. With the music once again reaching a hallucinatory high point, a tie-dyed, rainbow-hued gang of Mardi Gras hippies marches up the center aisle. And for just an instant, Monterey Jazz 2007 merges with Monterey Pop 1967.



Mimi Fox: The Art of Conversation

3:30 p.m.— Coffee House Gallery



A healthy crowd has assembled in the Coffee House Gallery for guitarist Mimi Fox's second trio set, which opens with a streetwise take on Wes Montgomery's normally breezy "West Coast Blues." Seated and scatting quietly along with her multifaceted solo, the constantly moving Fox looks to be as much the recipient as the originator of her melodic inventions. Is she playing the guitar or is something else playing her?



"Caravan" emerges from a complex mass of parallel riffs, interspersed with brief classically-inspired musings. Drummer Akira Tana balances a floating ride with a rumbling groove for Fox's fleet, jerking solo, while bassist Harvie S speedwalks in the background. S takes surprising liberties with rhythm and tempo in his own solo, mixing speedy linearity with lopsided diversions.



As a preview to their upcoming duo recording project, Fox and S next take an untethered, dreamlike tour through an exotic, undefined space, gentle monologues fusing into sympathetic hipster dialogue. It's a sublime moment. Only later, after nearly ten rhapsodic minutes, does the tune reveal itself as the old standard "Alone Together."



Rashied Ali Quintet: Judgment Day

4:10 p.m.—The Night Club/Bill Berry Stage



Down at the teeming Night Club, the Rashied Ali Quintet has worked itself into a frenzy, the air pulsing with raw electric energy from Lawrence Clark's tenor saxophone. Condensing into a tunneling post-bop burn, the ensemble greases the skids for Josh Evans's ringing trumpet solo as a knot of young hepcats standing in the back of the room looks on and nods. The conflagration on stage soon spreads to ignite Greg Murphy's piano, which cuts through a maze of maddeningly fast notes like a laser beam.



Smiling, Ali drives the breakneck pace from his drum kit. But it seems to be less a matter of his pushing the band than of pulling them up to his natural pace. Lifting off into a solo of his own, Ali tempers the thunder with prodding, exploratory pauses, as if seeking to define the underlying structure of his titanic rhythms.



After a workout lasting the better part of half an hour, the band quickly calms things down for "You're Reading My Mind," a mysterious ballad by bassist Joris Teepe. Formed by layers of melancholy, Teepe's solo on this tune carries a tenderness that might have seemed impossible only minutes before.



"Judgment Day," another 30-minute epic, enters with a simple fanfare before launching into a hard 1960s-style thrust. Again the intensity rises to shattering levels, and the dynamite horn solos soon form a sort of force field around the Night Club stage, making everything outside seem almost irrelevant.



Food Glorious Food

6:30 p.m.—The Fairgrounds



BRATS! scream the signs. FUNNEL CAKE! BBQ! DEEP FRIED!



Jazz may be good for the soul, but festival food isn't always good for the body. Sure, if you look a little closer, you can find some options that won't make your doctor scowl—a little salad, maybe some rice and vegetables. But pitted against SAUSAGES! WINGS! SOUL FOOD! GARLIC FRIES!... it's no contest. Why, there's even a booth selling smoked turkey legs, so you can walk around pretending to be Henry VIII.



It's remarkable how many of these same food vendors appear in exactly the same spot year after year, like the "freshly squeezed lemonade" or the "real Philly cheesesteaks." To say nothing of those evergreens in the food court next to the main gate, the bean pies and jambalaya and Kiwanis Club hot dogs. Let's face it, these are almost as much a part of the Monterey Jazz Festival experience as that trumpet-on-a-chair logo. Artists may come and go, trends emerge and die. But greasy, smoky, dripping temptation is eternal, and it always lies just a few steps away at Monterey.



Now if only I could get a cup of coffee in less than 20 minutes, I'd be a happy man...



Terence Blanchard: A Poignant "Tale"

8:00 p.m.—The Arena



Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there is still an ongoing toll in the form of shattered lives, torn memories and lost homes. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans resident, pays eloquent respect to the Katrina's many victims in A Tale of God's Will, released last month by Blue Note Records and now beautifully rendered on Arena stage. Backed by his own quintet and the 18-piece Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra, Blanchard paints a spellbinding, tragic, but ultimately hopeful picture of loss and recovery.



Portions of the suite were originally composed for Spike Lee's visionary documentary "When the Levees Broke." Blanchard, a veteran of dozens of film scoring projects, draws on all of his prodigious skills in this evocative set of music. It is impossible to listen and not see the flooding, hear the cries for help, feel the crushing fear and destruction.



Blanchard's wracked trumpet solo in "Levees" carries power despite some microphone feedback problems. As the string section begins a sad, flowing elegy, an overhead video monitor intersperses close- ups of the musicians with images of the city underwater. Brice Winston, another Katrina evacuee, delivers a passionate, pained sax solo that becomes a gorgeous duo improvisation with Blanchard.



"Wading Through" evokes a slog across a watery landscape, encompassing both desperation and grim resolution. Pianist Fabian Almazan embroiders the haunting refrain with tender threads of confusion and yearning.



Aaron Parks' "Ashe" is a melancholy featre for trumpet and piano. Like a sad lullaby, it offers comfort despite a broken heart. As the music rises at the end like a triumphant phoenix, Blanchard crouches into his downward-cast horn, blaring at the floor as if urging a beaten man to rise once more to his feet.



Winston's "In Time of Need" is dark and atmospheric. The saxophonist's solo is a soulful lament, Blanchard's a heavy sigh. In "Water," Blanchard's lonely trumpet bobs helplessly in the middle of a vast, undulating sea. And "Mantra" begins with a lengthy, meditative bass solo, gradually rising to a position of calm strength before striding confidently into a celebration of the human spirit.



Gerald Wilson: Round and Round

10:00 p.m.— The Arena



Dark clouds dispersed at last, the moon shines brightly overhead as the Gerald Wilson Orchestra salutes Monterey's 50 years with a newly-commissioned suite, "Monterey Moods."



Wilson has been a fixture on the MJF scene since the beginning, and he held the commission for the festival's 40th anniversary in 1997. So it is only fitting that he perform the honors once again. First, however, are three crisp big band performances with special guest Kenny Burrell on guitar.



The orchestra shows its trademark punch and bravado as Burrell reels off some cool-toned solos. He sounds especially at home and even sings in a swinging blues arrangement of "Stormy Monday." Meanwhile, Wilson dances across the stage as he conducts the ensemble, jabbing the air and shuffling his feet with seeming abandon.



Introducing the suite, Wilson says he wanted to capture the "romance and adventure" of the festival. "Think of all the husbands and wives who are here, boyfriends and girlfriends... boyfriends and boyfriends!" He says he wanted to write a piece that would stick in the audience's minds, something they will always associate with the word "Monterey."



He succeeds in creating something sticky, but perhaps not quite in the intended way. "Monterey Moods" is a simple theme—a riff really—repeated endlessly under a series of solos. The orchestra plays it up-tempo, as a ballad, in waltz time, as a blues... but the hook, while undeniably catchy, never stops and barely changes from movement to movement.



The steady pattern does leave plenty of room for hot solos. Kamasi Washington stands out with a full- bodied, filigreed tenor sax turn that turns "Ballad" into something much more aggressive. And "Blues" inspires jaunty, exuberant improvisations from several horn players as the crowd sings along, "Mon-te- raaaay, Mon-te-raaaay." But after half an hour or so, even the catchiest riff gets more than a little stale. "Monterey Moods" has its heart in the right place, but in the end it goes nowhere.



Cyrus Chestnut: Simply Stated

11:15 p.m.—Coffee House Gallery



Cyrus Chestnut is an unassuming, soft-spoken man at the microphone. But sitting at the piano in his third and final set of the night, the man speaks volumes. He takes off at a rollicking, breathless pace, mixing a healthy dollop of Fats Waller into his tricky, utterly swinging phrases. Chestnut and his bandmates—bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith—are tightly grouped both on stage and in the music, playing off each other in hip-wiggling burners and jaunty strolls.



"Polka Dots and Moonbeams" is a perfect example of everything Chestnut does right. He begins the piece as a solo piano etude, dancing lightly and prettily around a wistful motif. When a cell phone bleeps somewhere in the audience, a frown crosses Chestnut's face for just an instant, then he calmly inserts the trilling tone into his reverie, a comic touchpoint that Chestnut will employ three more times throughout the piece. Such rhythmic playfulness is the hallmark of the performance. In subsequent numbers, Chestnut tiptoes across the upper end of his keyboard, spinning in little curlicues, and makes the Elvis Presley hit "Don't Be Cruel" sound like it was written by Thelonious Monk.



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