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Friday Night at the Monterey Jazz Festival


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The Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 60th anniversary and has been witness to some of the greatest concerts in jazz history as reflected in many stellar live recordings from the festival. This was my first trip to this much heralded event. The festival is held on the Fair Grounds and resembles a little village. There are interesting shops, food stands serving quality ethnic cuisine, craft beers and excellent coffee available—in other words, the essentials of life. There were 8 music venues including outdoor stages and indoor facilities. The Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after the festival creator, is an outdoor amphitheater that seats more than 5000 people. There was much magnificent music to see and the only downside is that you can't see it all. As a photographer, I tried to get to as many venues as possible. However, I was able to see at least a half hour of most performances and also took in a few shows in their entirety. The experience was more than a little overwhelming, but also incredibly exhilarating. I have attended many jazz festivals over the course of 30+ years, but I can truly say that this was one of my greatest experiences. There are quite a number of people who have been coming to this festival for decades and there seemed to be a consensus (at least among the few I spoke to) that 2017, their 60th anniversary, featured one of their best ever lineups.

There were many name acts that played the festival, but I also endeavored to cover some of the lesser known acts. The discovery process is part of the fun and there were some great ones this year. The Friday concerts began around 6 PM and formally ended at 11 PM. However, the music continued into the wee hours at the after hour jam sessions at the hotel where most artists stay. Several notable artists sat in including James Carter, Roy Hargrove and pianist Chano Dominguez. They thrilled a more than full house to some very exciting music and great showmanship.

The Ray Obiedo Latin Jazz Quartet played the opening concert of the festival. They served up a funk and blues infused set of Latin Jazz. The crowd was stoked by the stinging blues guitar leads of front man Obiedo, a veteran sideman and band leader and by virtuoso multi-instrumentalist (saxophones and flutes) Melecio Magdaluyo. Some of the highlights were also furnished by Phil Hawkins fine percussion and steel pan work. The Garden is the most picturesque and perhaps the best of the outdoor venues. At the beginning of the evening, there were dark storm clouds over head, but they disappeared and there was beautiful sunny weather for the rest of the festival. No doubt, the music played its part.

Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt project is a deeply personal and even reverential, but also humorous tribute to the great American poet Carl Sandburg. The excellent front line of cornetist Ron Miles and Jeff Lederer are a study in contrast with Lederer's animated demonstrative style and Miles more stoic form, but equally fiery playing. Special guest guitarist extraordinaire Bruce Forman proved to be a great addition to this ensemble as both an inventive soloist and accompanist. During the performance, drummers Jeff Hamilton and Peter Erskine were invited on stage, not to play, but rather to read one of Sandburg's poem, "We Shall Be Polite," which includes advice as to proper etiquette when meeting a gorilla or elephant (a valuable life lesson!). It was just hilarious. This joyous event was one of the highlights of a great Friday evening of music.

Violinist Regina Carter, was one of the "artists in residence and performed multiple times over the course of the festival. On Friday night, she led her longstanding quintet in a moving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on the occasion of her 100th Birthday. They played music from her recent tribute album, Accentuate the Positive, which features the groups modernized take on a selection of "deep tracks" songs performed by Ella over the course of her career. The deeply personal take emphasized the core strengths of this rather versatile ensemble including the underrated guitar work of Marvin Sewell. Singer Alicia Olatuja has excellent vocal technique and is blessed with a powerful and a simply gorgeous voice that lends itself well to a wide range of material. Her own music tends to blend R&B and jazz in a rather distinctive fashion. Olatuja's performance featured a tribute to R&B greats of more recent vintage including Chaka Kahn and Michael Jackson. On an evening that featured several great guitarists, David Rosenthal joined the class with some beautiful melodic playing and a blistering guitar solo that was one of the concert highlights.

The Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, an ensemble featuring the most accomplished jazz students enrolled at the prestigious Berklee Global Jazz Institute played Friday night at an outdoor stage. This edition of the group was led by young Israeli born faculty member, Lihi Haruvi, playing soprano and alto sax. It was a fine ensemble that featured several notable players. However, the virtuoso playing of Vasilis Kostas on lauto (a Greek lute) was what made this concert especially memorable. His contribution gave the group a completely new dimension and very distinctive sound. It is not an exaggeration to say that you don't often see a lauto player in a jazz band. But Kostas played with a genuine jazz sensibility and was just phenomenal.

The festival featured live interviews with jazz greats such Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Lovano. I attended an interview with Wayne Shorter hosted by Don Was, president of Blue Note Records. It took place in an incredibly packed Blue Note tent. At 84 years of age, Shorter is remarkably sharp and has an extraordinary ability to recall conversations that took place 60 years ago. The first question asked by Don Was referred to a recent and controversial Lee Morgan documentary that was playing at the festival. Wayne took the cue and played off that riff to recount a dozen different stories about Lee, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and other musicians. His was exceptionally funny and his stories included dead-on impressions of Blakey and Davis (maybe the best impression of Miles I have ever heard). It was a thrill to be present at an event and catch a glimpse of the personal side of one of my all-time jazz heroes.

The Kenny Barron Trio led a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie on the occasion of his centenary. The Trio was augmented by special guests including trumpeters Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones and (relatively young) master conguero Pedrito Martinez. They performed some of Dizzy's best known tunes including the venerable Night in Tunisia. Although the guest stars acquitted themselves rather well, Baron's masterful lyrical piano playing, which included solo performance of Con Alma, proved to be the highlight of the concert. Incidentally, Dizzy Gillespie was one of the featured performers at the very first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958.

Herbie Hancock performed twice at the Monterey Jazz Fest including the closing concert in duet with Chick Corea. On Friday night, he brought his electric band which play a kind of modern take on the great Head Hunters band of the 1970s. The music is a little less funky and a little more electronic, but bears a certain similarity. The group performed a compelling update on one of Head Hunter's signature tunes. Lionel Loueke is a wholly distinctive guitarist with his unique combination of pedal effects coupled with a beautiful melodic sensibility and vocalizing. James Genus, best known to me as an acoustic bassist, brought a thunderous groove to the party. Genus coupled with master of the drum universe, Vinnie Colaiuta constituted a formidable rhythm section. They both had ample opportunity to solo and really stretch out. Celebrated producer and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin was a recent and integral addition to the band. Martin played keyboards, alto sax, vocoder and also contributed vocals.

This year would have marked Stan Getz's 90th birthday, a relative youngster in comparison to the centenarians, Dizzy, Monk and Ella, celebrated at this year's festival. Festival organizer, Tim Jackson, invited tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm to perform Getz's mid-late career masterpiece, Captain Marvel. These tributes are sometimes lackluster affairs and I really did not know what to expect. However, this turned out to be a brilliant idea in conception and execution. Frahm was supported by a superb band of all-star musicians who really came to play including Billy Childs on piano and (mostly) Fender Rhodes, Peter Erskine on drums and Scott Colley on the bass. Chick Corea composed all but one of the tunes (Lush Life) on the original album and also played keyboards which is central to many of the tracks on the album. Billy Childs was featured liberally at the concert and channeled Corea brilliantly, though not literally. Joel Frahm, a very accomplished musician was confronted with an enormous challenge leading a band of jazz stars in a very high profile gig. Frahm really rose to the occasion and acquitted himself just brilliantly. Like Getz, he has a rather mellifluous sound and bold tone. Frahm can really burn when the occasion presents itself. Peter Erskine and Scott Colley laid a rock solid foundation. I had not seen Erskine in several years and was reminded of his tasteful playing and fantastic drum sound. La Fiesta is the first track on the album and has become one of Corea's signature tunes and modern day standard. It is an incredibly infectious Latin carnival inspired tune. The group, led by Frahm and Childs, played an incredibly joyous and just electrifying version of this tune. It was one of those really great moments that you remember for a long time. The concert was certainly the highlight for me of an incredible evening of music.
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