52nd Monterey Jazz Festival Presents Best of Old and New


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52nd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey Fairgrounds
Monterey, California
September 18-20, 2009

Three Generations of Pianists, a celebration of piano jazz, spotlighting a family of greats from Jason Moran through Dave Brubeck, highlighted the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival at Monterey County Fairgrounds in Northern California. And surprisingly, celebrated folk legend Pete Seeger got the loudest cheers for his eyebrow-raising appearance.

As always, Monterey was a movable feast with music taking place in four venues simultaneously. Practically every musician featured on the large outdoor Jimmy Lyons Stage could be seen in other spots on the grounds. Couple this with the fact that many outstanding players are signed to perform only at the smaller indoor spots—Dizzy's Den, Bill Berry Stage and the Coffee House Gallery, as well as the outside Garden Stage, and it becomes a scramble to see even those who are your favorites.

Spalding, Wright Lead Off Festival

Young vocalist/bassist Esperanza Spalding dominated Lyons Stage opening Friday evening. Only 24, small in stature but standing tall with a bass at her side, Spalding delivered in her bright, expressive voice in multi-languages. She hit the heights with the Milton Nasciemento-Wayne Shorter tune "Point of Sale." Midway, she changed directions and sassily declared that she was going to do a rock number written by Shorter in his period experimenting with rock and roll. "For those who don't like jazz rock," she said, "it will take about only six minutes." Clapping and cheering, everybody urged her on and liked it.

Down the way in a packed Dizzy's Den, Lizz Wright, four years Spalding's senior, stood imposingly facing a crowd filled with whooping fans. She remained a dominant presence throughout, delivering such disparate titles as "CC Rider" and Neil Young's "Old Man." Her sense of dynamics was impressive, building themes to a powerful climax. Nina Simone is Wright's inspiration, as was apparent in the emotionally shattering "Blue Rose (Lost in a Tangle of Vine)." Her back-up, David Cook, keyboard, and Robin Mactangay on guitar were flawless all the way.

MJF All-Stars Shine

The Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars capped off Friday on Lyons stage with a rousing set of mainstream jazz at its best. As happened last year, a group of greats had been assembled to perform at the festival on tour. Fronted by vocalist Kurt Elling, this year's quintet featured Kenny Barron, piano, Regina Carter, violin, Russell Malone, guitar, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass, and Jonathan Blake, drums.

Those in the know caught the All-Stars' full set Saturday night indoors at Dizzy's Den. (It's always better to hear a small group in a club.) Things started deliciously with Elling and Carter trading licks on the venerable chestnut "When I Grow too Old to Dream." Another gem was a Barron-Carter duo on Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," with the two poetically interweaving the melody. Guitarist Malone, his steady backing always apparent, was particularly impressive with his driving solo on his original "What If."

Kurt Elling's limber tenor, takes Sinatra phrasing, pushing it further into the jazz sphere. His sly surrealistic bent also came out in his spewing of Daliesque visions. This was aural modern art some appreciated, but it did have the band shaking heads in bemusement. Further, Elling introduced what he said was a politically incorrect version of "Soul Food." It was funky, indeed soulful, and it rocked. The group finished in a party moody with a calypso tune. It brought hand-clapping and dancing from the crowd.

Seeger and Friends Wow Crowd

Saturday afternoons in Monterey are normally dedicated to the blues. Mostly true again this year with John Scofield and the Piety Street Band beginning the day and blues vocalist/guitarist Susan Tedeschi finishing. But Pete Seeger, in the middle, really conquered the crowd, with his band of five fiddlers and pluckers. The word "legend" is overused, but folk singer Seeger truly is one. He is enshrined for bringing folk music and grass roots activism to the fore in the fifties.

At 90, Seeger is still tall, straight and vigorous. His voice may not have the power of old, but his banjo- picking and guitar-playing seemed good as ever. In charge of the group and reinforcing Seeger's vocal range was grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, a budding star himself.

Along with baby boomers, the crowd was filled with former folkies and old hippies, as was apparent from the get-go, as most cheered and sang along with the opener, "Midnight Special." This was followed by a departure for Seeger—his rapturous rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

No heart in the arena was left un-tugged during the final segment. First, "Guantanamera" brought from Cuba to fame in the fifties, was given a hauntingly beautiful rendering with Tao reciting the humanistic lyrics of poet Jose Marti. Next the finisher—"This Land Is My Land." At its start, the crowd almost rushed the stage in delirious joy.

Later, band member Ruth Unger Merenda confided that Seeger doesn't perform much anymore—much less fly from up-state New York where he lives. It seems Seeger was coming West for a family member's wedding, thus enabling festival general manager Tim Jackson to sign him up. One of Seeger's conditions was that he be scheduled to put on a children's concert. As a result, late Saturday afternoon Bill Berry Stage was jammed with kids, grown-ups in back. The house boisterously sang along as soon as Seeger and friends began with "She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain."

Lovano Seemingly Everywhere

Saxophonist Joe Lovano was a ubiquitous presence during the three days. Saturday night he led off the Lyons Stage program. He was to have played with a quartet, featuring Hank Jones at piano. Jones was ill so John Scofield on guitar took his place. Previously, on Friday, Lovano had performed in a trio setting with John Patitucci, bass, and Brian Blade, drums, on Bill Barry Stage. In the tradition of saxophone trios pioneered by Sonny Rollins, this format gave players room to stretch out in their solos and closely interact with each. With Patitucci the nominal leader, selections from the group's recent release Remembrance were among numbers played.

With amazing dexterity of fingering, whether on electric or upright bass, Patitucci's performance was that of a genius, whether cutting-edge, straight-ahead or plain old funky. A highpoint was an excerpt from Rollins' "Freedom Suite." In his raucous solo, Lovano slipped in bits from other Rollins' hits—"Doxy," "Alphy," "Blue 7," among them. Blade's impeccable drumming was always right on, sensitive and at times furious.

Still going strong, Lovano's US FIVE performed Sunday night at Dizzy's Den in what could be called a "rhythmic binge." Two drummers encouraged the spree: Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III. It was all wild fun, with Lovano's hyper tenor coming on like Big Jay McNeely and Coltrane combined. The great sax man will need his rest after that weekend.

Bridgewater and Marsalis Take Charge

Dee Dee Bridgewater was a force of nature herself when she sashayed on to Lyons Stage Saturday. Her gaudy attire reflected her high-test personality. Whether swirling Flamenco fashion or prancing hip hop style singing rap, she was a mass of motion.

Sometimes she was soothing, though, with her soulful "Besame Mucho," and sometimes fiery as in her fierce condemnation of prejudice, "My Name Is Aksara." Her audience was with her all the way, particularly when she finished off with a fervid version of Les McCann's "Compared to What." Much appreciation goes to Edsel Gomez for his arrangements and piano backing.

Late Saturday, on Lyons Stage, the great Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis ended the long day. This band is surely a national treasure, consisting of some of the world's best musicians, playing meticulously honed arrangements—from Lee Morgan's gorgeous ballad "Ceora" to Joe Henderson's escalating "A Shade of Jade." Marsalis, seated in the back row of the trumpet section, was at his best on the latter, with his solo soaring into the night sky.

Sunday night, one more person could not be shoe-horned into Dizzy's Den to see Marsalis and the Orchestra—it was that crowded. Monk's music was featured again with the sax section taking honors. (NOTE: It seemed like there were Ellington and Monk tributes daily from different groups.)

Student Musicians Star

Sunday afternoons in Monterey are given over to student performances. On Lyons Stage, the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra was featured. The band was made up of high school student finalists who came to Monterey last spring from throughout the country to compete for spots. The band is always impressive, playing crisp arrangements, led by Paul Contos—leaving ample room for student soloists.

This year Marsalis made a guest appearance and held forth in a gospel-powered rendition of Charles Mingus' "Better Get I In Your Soul." The afternoon sun was warm, but this tune was hotter, with the blistering trumpets of Marsalis and the student horns leading the way.

At the other venues, college and high school groups played all afternoon. It was heartening to see this swarm of students mingling with Marsalis and other jazz stars and listening to the music in the venues. The fine musicianship of these youngsters augers well for the future of jazz.

Moran, Brubeck, Akiyoshi: A Trio of Greats

Jason Moran & the Bandwagon was first up on Lyon's Stage in Sunday's piano celebration. Moran was commissioned for a composition by the festival, and he provided "Feedback" as his piece. He said the number was inspired by Jimi Hendrix's creative use of feedback in 1967's Monterey Pop Festival. Indeed, Moran used feedback but not jarringly so. Later we caught him up close on Bill Barry Stage.

Known for exploring the boundaries of jazz, the prodigiously talented Moran rewards listeners' close attention. In his set, several numbers were preceded by audio tape. Very effective was a piece that began with a recording by Billie Holiday of Bernstein's "Big Stuff." After a couple minutes, her voice fades, and Moran and his men come in, taking the tune to another level. Lifting it one era to the next, one might say.

However far out Moran goes, he keeps a toehold in the mainstream. He may be pounding away with crashing atonal chords, then a few seconds later, say, a hint of Monk is heard. Then at the finish it dawns—yes, I think that's "Bemsha Swing."

The last bit was the best. The segment started with an old recording of King Pleasure re-creating a James Moody sax solo in vocalese. After a bit, Moran comes in and improvises over Pleasure's improvisation. Here, we didn't ponder the possible paradox; just fascinated, we enjoyed. His cohorts, Tarus Mateen, bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums, always on the same wave length, were indispensable.

Following Moran, Brubeck came on Lyons Stage with his usual group: Bobby Militello, alto sax, Michael Moore, bass, and Randy Jones, drums. At 88, Brubeck has naturally slowed down a bit. There is little of his bombastic chords as in days gone by. Now he has settled into a more relaxed, lightly swinging mode. During his set he gave a salute to Ellington with a medley including "Mood Indigo," Duke's Place," and "Take the A Train." As ever, Militello's alto took swinging solos and gave lively backing.

Across the fairgrounds on Bill Berry Stage another veteran pianist, Toshiko Akiyoshi, showed that, at 80, she really is as good as ever. A Bud Powell protege, former band leader and arranger, she vigorously attacked the piano, setting a lightning fast tempo on her "Long Yellow Road." Her co-leader, husband Lew Tabackin, was peerless on tenor and flute. On Akiyoshi's "Autumn Sea," Tabackin's flute evoked rustling breezes while drummer Mark Taylor provided Kabuki flavor. The band also included the wonderful Peter Washington on bass. He and Tabackin collaborated on Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism," the tenor getting almost in the face of the bass. While soloing, Tabackin is constantly in motion, rocking back and forth, roaming the stage; he gets into it with his whole body.

Cutting-Edge Pianists at Gallery

In the intimate Coffee House Gallery, piano is king. In all years, this is the place to see exciting new artists with each grouping having the stage for the full evening. This year, we managed to at least catch a segment each evening.

Not to over-praise, but we were blown away by 23-year-old Jonathan Batiste. Wonderfully talented, with technique to spare, his influences seem to encapsulate jazz history from Scott Joplin to Oscar Peterson to Monk. With his group—two saxophones, bass and drums—each tune turned into a suite with various movements. For example, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," went from a jazzy beginning, into a swirling atonal middle, winding up in a haunting evocation of America's pastime. Everyone was moved. Then, leaving the audience beaming, he took Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" rag through several movements. We should be seeing a lot more of Batiste.

In the Gallery Saturday, we took in a few minutes of the very tasty music of the Peter Erskine/Alan Pasqua Trio. It was interesting to see how master drummer Erskine molded the three into one. Including Derek Oles on bass, it was a case of the sum of the parts adding up to more. On Sunday Vijay Iyer and his trio held forth in the Gallery, furthering the cause of piano exploration.

As said before, when one comes down to it, a lot of great sounds are necessarily missed over the weekend. On the Garden Stage, for example, people urged us to see the Alfredo Rodriquez Trio from Cuba and the New Orleans All-Stars, featuring Cyril Neville. And, last but not least, on Sunday influential pianist Chick Corea closed out the festival, appearing with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. But we could stay no longer. That is the way it is in Monterey—can't do it all.

Photo Credits

Gail Taylor

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