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50th Monterey Jazz Festival Sets Record


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To mark its 50 years, the festival brought back a handful of the players who were here for the first one in 1958: Sonny Rollins, Ernestine Anderson, Jim Hall, and Dave Brubeck.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey Fairgrounds
Monterey, California
September 21-23, 2007

A new record was set for the 50th Monterey Jazz Festival with 45,000 tickets sold for the three days, September 21 to 23. All this in spite of rain which came midway Friday evening.

The brief showers didn't dampen spirits. Those wanting shelter came into one the several inside venues, including the large Jazz Theater where the concert was televised for those that who don't have tickets for the outside Jimmy Lyons Stage. On the stellar program were stars who were veterans of the first- ever festival in 1958. In fact, some had appeared many times over the course of the five decades, but there were outstanding newcomers as well.

Altogether, it was a rich banquet for fans, conducive to gorging with so many acts appearing in the six locations scattered throughout the fairgrounds. A visitor was likely to be faced with some tough choices. For example, who do you see when the groups of Terrence Blanchard and Dave Holland and Cyrus Chestnut are all playing at 8 p.m. Saturday? Fortunately, most performers, besides appearing on the large Jimmy Lyons Stage, also played at one of the smaller inside halls during the three days.

Special anniversary programs on the program included legendary Gerald Wilson's commissioned piece, Monterey Moods, on Saturday night. Wilson has also written special pieces for the 20th and 40th anniversaries. Another major orchestral composition on the program was Terrence Blanchard's recently completed, touching and powerful A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina), with the trumpeter's quintet backed by a chamber orchestra.

To mark its 50 years, the festival brought back a handful of the players who were here for the first one in 1958: Sonny Rollins, Ernestine Anderson, Jim Hall, and Dave Brubeck—along with Ornette Coleman, who appeared in 1959. Now all in their mid- seventies and eighties, the returnees showed that they have retained their drive and skill after five decades. All turned in impressive sets.

Of particular interest was Coleman's performance. More than 50 years after introducing his controversial free-form type of jazz to the world, he received a Pulitzer this year, marking the official recognition of his innovations. A few in the audience walked out Saturday afternoon, apparently still finding his unique sound hard to take. But most stayed and gave him a rousing ovation at the finish. His current group is made up of three bassists (two upright and an electric) along with a drummer, his son Denardo. The basses formed a solid foundation on which he built his creative improvisations.

Honoree Rollins' rousing set with his sextet closed the festival with one of his inevitable calypso-based tunes that had the audience up, dancing and shouting. Ernestine Anderson, on the occasion of her return after 50 years, had to sit while singing. Still, she showed that she had her blues chops, drawing a lot of approving "yeahs from fans. Also on the final evening Dave Brubeck's quartet teamed up with Jim Hall for a thoroughly satisfying set. What the two legends may have lacked in the bravado of years past, they more than made up for in taste and finesse. Again, the capacity crowd cheered long and hard.

Another nod to the beginning was the appearance of comedian Mort Sahl, the emcee for the first event. In the 1950s Sahl had established his hip reputation as opening act for numerous jazz bills, particularly Brubeck and Kenton, while making close friends with many West Coast musicians. On Saturday afternoon, he held forth at a question-and-answer session, recounting the old days with hilarious anecdotes about his jazz friends—like the one about Paul Desmond leaving his sax in the trunk of Mort's car, its owner oblivious to its presence while driving from L.A. to Santa Barbara. The audience cracked up listening to Sahl recounting Paul's furtive efforts to get it back in time for that night's gig.

A popular feature of all the festivals has been the blues Saturday afternoon. This year patrons wiped the rain off their seats surrounding the outside stage while joyously welcoming the Honeydripper All Stars, singer James Hunter and the Otis Taylor Band.

Sunday afternoon traditionally is dedicated to young musicians, with award-winning student bands performing on the Lyons Stage and throughout the grounds. In fact, the festival is committed to awarding student scholarships from festival proceeds, and a great many listeners look forward to hearing the young talent competing for the awards. This year's MJF artist-in-residence Terrence Blanchard oversaw the concerts and played with winning bands.

The billing of marquee jazz vocalist-pianist Diana Krall on Saturday surely helped set this year's attendance record. Greeted with whistles by the audience, the striking blonde responded with a broad smile, adding that the reception was very encouraging because she had just recently given birth to twins. She then performed for well over an hour, leaving the audience wanting more. It becomes increasingly apparent over the years that her excellence as a pianist contributes to her skills as a jazz singer. Her stylings were those of a complete musician, someone knowing the music inside-out, as evidenced in the expressive phrasing and flawless timing.

A few of the other numerous highlights:

  • The Dave Holland Quartet. These innovative players raised the bar with their music— bassist Holland the hub around which dynamic tenor player Chris Potter and Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rublacaba revolved, with drummer Eric Harland driving the engine.
  • Terrence Blanchard Quintet. In addition to leading his stirring orchestral piece, he and his group turned in an impressive show on the Bill Barry Stage Friday night. "Raising the roof is an apt cliché here as Blanchard strolled from player to player, his trumpet urging them on—the interplay truly exciting.
  • Jazz Gallery pianists. Each evening in the intimate Gallery outstanding piano players played the entire evening. We took in Cyrus Chestnut, who dug down to his soulful gospel roots while swinging with the fervor of an Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum. On Sunday, we heard Jackie Terrason, whose percussive explorations were as cutting-edge as the lyricism of his ballads was soft and subtle.
  • Atsuko Hashimoto on the Hammond B3 organ. This delightful young organist from Japan and her journeymen American cohorts—Jeff Hamilton, drums and Houston Person, tenor sax—displayed the essence of jazz, the oft-quoted Whitney Balliett phrase "the sound of surprise, in their three-way musical conversations—one playing a riff, the other picking it up and answering—and then some. After Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings, a listener might have walked out exhilarated, knowing what makes jazz so great.

And there are always serendipitous moments—dropping by a stage, not knowing who's playing and then being rewarded beyond expectations. For instance, we looked in on the Gallery and were stopped short by Smith Dobson, a new voice on vibes who swept up the listener into his lush textures and exotic bossa nova rhythms. Another time, music coming from the Garden Stage sounded like a reunion of the ghosts of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Hurrying toward the sound, we arrived in time to discover the Hot Club of San Francisco—a reincarnation of le Hot Club de France from over 50 years ago.

Always, one of the great pleasures is strolling the fairgrounds, looking over all the eclectic merchandise on display and checking out the mouth-watering food. We decided years ago not to leave the fairgrounds for dinner with such delicious items on hand—barbecued ribs and turkey legs, in addition to Korean, Thai and Cajun specialties and much more. On the first day, we had Caribbean grilled salmon with plantains, spinach and rice; next, a large turkey leg with corn-on-the-cob. Stoking up for the music to come, of course.

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