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55th Monterey Jazz Festival: September 21-23, 2012

55th Monterey Jazz Festival: September 21-23, 2012
Larry Taylor By
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Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey, CA
September 21-23, 2012
Standing out this year at the 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, as expected, were the three honorees—Ambrose Akinmusire, Bill Frisell and Jack DeJohnette. Besides receiving accolades they also had busy schedules, appearing in concerts in the festival for three-days, Sept. 21-23, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Northern California.

As always there was a surplus of things to see on the large outdoor Jimmy Lyons Stage and at five additional venues throughout the grounds. Music filled the air, afternoons to late evenings, performed by the best musicians from around the world.

Trumpeter Akinmusire, at 30, was the youngest of the honored recipients. He was featured with his quintet Friday night in the cozy Dizzy's Den. Dubbed as another Miles Davis by many, he was a dynamo during the concert, starting at a low level but soon ascending to full force. He was ably backed by Walter Smith III on tenor, Sam Harris, piano, Harish Raghavan, bass, and Marcus Gilmore, drums.

The Akinmusire group showed why it is worthy of praise, performing unannounced originals in a wholly original style—beyond post-bop. Toward the end, slowing the pace, trumpeter played a moving ballad with the pianist providing grace notes.

Akinmusire was heard again Sunday afternoon with the New Generation Band, made up of student winners from across the country. He was, himself, a member of this all-star band while a student in Berkeley a few years back. The band was precision-perfect under Paul Contos' direction. Midway, Akinmusire came on to join in, resulting in a rousing dueling-trumpets session with none other than Adam O'Farrill, son of Cuban jazz great Arturo O'Farrill. One could bet Adam will be a future featured performer.

Fittingly, Akinmusire ended the festival playing with the Monterey Jazz Festival touring band with personnel that includes vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist Benny Green, along with Chris Potter, tenor sax, Christian McBride, bass, and Lewis Nash, drums. Bridgewater stood out in the opening number, a tribute to Billie Holiday, "Don't Explain." Later the band stirred the crowd with a fast-paced take on Bobby Hutcherson's "Highway 1." With the fleet-fingered Green in charge, the band will tour four months next year.

Honored guitar veteran Frisell was given a festival commission to compose, "Glen Deven Ranch," based on the scenic Ventana Wilderness area which contains picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean. This was perfect fodder for Frisell's music, celebrating rustic Americana as he performed the piece early Saturday evening with his newly formed Big Sur Quintet which included viola and cello. The music of Frisell expands the range of jazz to include folk and country. What stood out in the performance is the way his group of musicians played around, going back and forth with chords, riffs and traces of melody. As soon as one picks up and expands on an idea, they are off. Following that pattern in the number "Shenadoah," the traditional folk tune breaks through. As it increased in force, it was truly an inspiring moment. The set closed with Kang's viola taking the lead on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Jack DeJohnette is clearly a seeker of the new, as was his first boss and mentor, Miles Davis. One of the best traditional jazz drummers, at Monterey he ventured into new territory with his new group: Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto sax, David David Fiuczynski, guitar, George Colligan, piano and keyboards, and Jerome Harris, electric bass, acoustic guitar. With the master drummer at the helm, they brought in elements of Indian and Middle Eastern music, merging them with smooth jazz and post bop. This group is a good illustration of one of the roads jazz is taking today. The crowd, with many young attending, appreciated it and applauded loudly.

Miller, Goodwin and Gardot

Over the years, there have been many great piano trios at the intimate Coffee Gallery. With an early show, this venue was the first performance stop on Friday to see the great Mulgrew Miller. This veteran pianist from Mississippi is the go-to guy on many recording sessions. Highly respected by fellow musicians, he seldom receives the personal recognition he deserves.

Miller was in Monterey with his regular trio, Ivan Taylor, bass, and Rodney Green, drums. A commanding figure, he adds stature to everything he plays. He lifted "If I Should Love you" to new heights, assisted by the muscular pull of the bass and drums. On an earthy version of "Monk's Dream," he proved the adage: "You can take the boy out of Mississippi, but you can't take Mississippi out of the boy."

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