52nd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
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 spotsDizzy'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 Seegerhis rapturous rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."