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Impressions of Monterey Jazz Festival 2017: MJF At 60

Walter Atkins By

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Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey County Fairgrounds
Monterey, CA
September 15-17, 2017

The 60th edition of the long running Monterey Jazz Festival 2017 was well received. This year boldly continued the MJF's opulent tradition of presenting a special blend of fantastic jazz and other music genres in a casual multi stage setting.

Over the last six decades, this Northern California venue has seen extraordinary performances by Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Modern Jazz Quartet, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Heath Brothers, Terri Lyne Carrington and many other jazz luminaries. Featured high points of this weekend included major tributes to the eminent triumvirate of Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk by current artists. The abundant roster of world famous artists was lavishly enhanced by other musicians including: Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, John Beasley's Monk'estra, Regina Carter, Ranky Tanky, Angelique Kidjo, Pedrito Martinez, Monsieur Perine, Kandace Springs, and Mr. Sipp.

Friday

One of the most unexpected impressions and comments of the distinctive festival was offered by Mike, a smiling MJF regular staffer and bee keeper. "Music is a pheromone for joy." Pam, another MJF staffer confidently added, "Still rocking at 60." These Friday night impressions set the tone for another intensely rich weekend of outstanding MJF music programming.

Ray Obiedo's Latin Jazz Project opened at the Garden stage and he happily mentioned his bassist Marc van Wageningen, (Tower of Power) had recovered from a train accident and was performing again at full strength. Regina Carter and her group presented the Simply Ella Tribute to the eternal Ella Fitzgerald for the knowledgeable listeners. It was a wonderful way to launch opening night at MJF60 on the expansive Jimmy Lyons Stage.

The capacity crowd stayed in place for Kenny Barron's Tribute to Dizzy At 100 set. Barron's special guests, Sean Jones, Roy Hargrove and Martinez were well chosen for the momentous date. The lethal one-two punch of trumpeters Jones and Hargrove generated a knock out standing ovation that filled the sweet Monterey night. Jones said he always wanted to teach and had combined his creative musicianship with education as the head of the Berklee College of Music's Brass Department.

Veteran attendees Paul & Jane from Florida commented on their festival experience and Jones. "A pleasant surprise! When I received the full line up in the mail prior to the festival, I was expecting a "good" #60. But, after the first night and the Dizzy tribute with Jones and Hargrove, my opinion started sliding toward outstanding. I deliberately went to see the Sean Jones Quartet at Dizzy's Den on Saturday afternoon to reconfirm that he was indeed for real. He was!"

The incomparable Herbie Hancock, fourteen time Grammy winner and 11 time MJF performer closed the opening night festivities with his band in grand style. Hancock's classic sounds included material from his ground breaking Head Hunters and Dis is da Drum albums. Backstage after his effervescent performance, the legendary pianist and music innovator was greeted by the legendary film star and MJF supporter Clint Eastwood. Legends and good friends abound at MJF60!

Saturday

The Jimmy Lyons site provided a cool way to start the day by leading off with a band new to this photojournalist. Bogata based Monsieur Perine served up a provocative potpourri of fun Django gypsy jazz and vocals infused with a generous dose of Latin seasoning. It made for a very tasty sound & sight mix. They were followed by another artist on his maiden voyage to MJF, Mr. Sipp.

Had the pleasure of talking with guitarist/vocalist Mr. Sipp (real name Castro Coleman) just before he and his band took the main stage. His quietly calm demeanor did not betray the super soulful, bluesy energy nova he was about to unleash on the sun kissed Arena attendees. He offered his initial impressions of performing on the MJF's biggest stage: "Yeah this is my first time here. I'm glad to be here. The name is Mr. Sipp, the Mississippi blues man from McComb Mississippi. Excited about being here. Ready to knock a hole in it." His vibrant BB King influenced sound and his stage showmanship simply overwhelmed the packed venue. He "walked" on stage and later strolled deep into the enormous crowd playing directly to the people without a care. The raucous audience was on its collective feet. Mr.Sipp had enjoyed a successful thirty year gospel recording career, and toured with the venerable BB King on his private bus. The spirits of Chuck Berry and King were certainly enjoying this session. Mr. Sipp didn't just "knock a hole in it," he left a sonic crater on the MJF60 landscape.

Scott Andrews, the San Luis Obispo JazzFest Director was blown away watching Sipp and his solid band at the smaller Garden Stage later in the day. "Mr. Sipp not only walked into the crowd naturally playing amazing blues guitar-tasty riffs after riffs, but he's taking selfies all the way without missing a note!! He did it for about 15-20 minutes and a thousand selfies. Mind boggling!"

Dee Dee Brigewater's Memphis Project, a cozy collection of R&B pearls enjoyed a zestful response and brought up some fond musical memories. Caught the rising San Francisco based band Con Brio (With Spirit), lead by dynamic vocalist Ziek McCarter at the Garden stage. Having seen them twice before in the city, it was fun watching them give another electrifying performance at their first MJF visit.

The huge range of enthusiastic impressions and opinions were shared by MJF newbies and seasoned guests. A visitor said, "My name is Joe and this is my second time here at the Monterey Jazz Festival. My wife is a 20 year veteran of the MJF. She has a lot of brochures and articles on the festival and she's enjoyed a multiplicity of things here at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And I enjoy talking to you. Have a great day. We love it and will be back next year."

Talked with Blue Note Records President Don Was on the bustling fairgrounds. We discussed his meticulous work in preserving the bountiful heritage of the famous jazz label with the upcoming subscription-based Blue Note Review series (http://www.bluenotereview. com), while also bringing it forward with a new generation of gifted artists like Kandace Springs. He graciously had his friendly staff arrange some interview time in the Blue Note At Sea Tent with pianist Springs. Her stunning album Soul Eyes (Blue Note, 2016) was an impressive platform for her mature brand of singing, song writing and musicianship. Definitely looking forward to hearing her next album. Springs, who worked with Prince, also enjoyed working on modifying and driving her own cars.

When Springs was asked to share her fresh impressions of her inaugural MJF visit, the pianist /vocalist was excited. "First people are beautiful, the food good and (the) music was awesome. On the question of her early inspirations, she had an extensive list of influences. "For me it was my father's friend in Nashville Tennessee, Joe Wooten, one of the Wooten Brothers." She took a lot of piano lessons. "I was raised in Nashville and at a young age, I listened to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday... Luther Vandross, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum. Art Tatum was my first inspiration. I heard him when I was 10 years old. Another inspiration was the one and only Oscar Peterson...he is the man."

Springs described herself as an "old soul" and her riveting performance at the Night Club venue introduced her to many new fans. Ken, a serious jazz fan from Carmel asked this photojournalist for a recommendation and was amazed when he saw Springs. "I can say right away—that Kandace Springs was the highlight discovery of the entire weekend for me. Second time visitor Julie said, "Several guests artists captured my attention and heart. Pianist/vocalist Kandace Springs, James Carter, saxophonist, and Pedrito Martinez, percussionist. These three artists brought more passion, intensity and talent that was deserving of their own arena show."

Violinist Regina Carter, the 2017 Festival Showcase Artist, was next up at Dizzy's Den and also played to a house overrun with delighted admirers. MJF veterans Paul & Jane from Florida commented on their festival experience. "A pleasant surprise! When I received the full line up in the mail prior to the festival, I was expecting a "good" #60. But after the first night and the Dizzy tribute with Jones and Hargrove, my opinion started sliding toward outstanding. I deliberately went to see the Sean Jones Quartet at Dizzy's Den on Saturday afternoon to reconfirm that he was indeed for real. He was!"

While sharing a table at the open food court, first time MJF visitors Blake & Vivian said, "The festival was fantastic with great music, fellowship, weather and food! We are from Hampton, Virginia and plan to make it an annual event!"

Paul and Jane provided more observations. "Saturday was the real treat. The Clayton/Hamilton tribute and performance was masterful and one of the best festival commissioned works that I have seen. Leslie Odoms, Jr. was next. We were all waiting to see what this Broadway (Hamilton), commercial singing superstar was going to do in the belly of the Jazz Beast! He SLAYED! He was outstanding from A to Z and because of his theatrical training, he brought a stage presence rarely seen by a performer at the Jimmy Lyons."

The Tribute to Sonny Rollins was another MJF pinnacle. This star studded line up included Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Lewis Nash and Scott Colley. After the show, Marsalis was complimentary on every thing about MJF60 except the weather. It was too cold for him. On the over flowing Saturday night tribute for Sonny Rollins, Paul opined, "The closing with the "Four Tenors" of Marsalis, Lovano, Redmond and Heath to honor Sonny Rollins were what was needed to make this one of the most memorable evenings over the last 60 years. Looking forward to next year."

Sunday

During his time in the main arena, celebrated hip hop artist/actor Common invited a lady from the crowd on stage. He serenaded her at a small table, while treating her to flowers and a glass of wine. The sharp lady noticed his shoe was untied, and showed her appreciation for the singer by graciously tying it for him. The Jimmy Lyons Arena enjoyed this moment and the entire show. A fan noted, "Common did his thing. Us old folks were a little skeptical but he won over the majority of the audience, especially with his sincere reverence to and respect for jazz, it's founders and practitioners. He had a 10 piece band and a sister behind him who could sing! His message was contemporary about what's going on in today' world. He is worth seeing."

The festival offered many other unexpected surprises in its far reaching scheduling. The Linda May Han Oh Quintet, lead by bassist Ho had an intriguing combination of musical styles and her vocalese.

Another pleasing surprise was the Charleston South Carolina group Ranky Tanky (loosely means Get Funky in Gullah), also making their first appearance at Monterey on the Garden Stage. Based on the unique African American folk Gullah tradition, their contemporary jazzy soulful music was firmly based in their gospel up bringing. This was reflected in the stylishly delivered spiritual "That's Alright" sung by poised vocalist Quiana Parler (American Idol). Their self titled debut album also dropped during the busy MJF60 weekend. Trumpeter Charlton Singleton provided his impressions on their inaugural MJF visit. "Fantastic! Great receptive crowd. Good feedback from the audience after the show. Great hospitality. It was a great experience." Let's hope Ranky Tanky will be making more trips to Monterey in mid September.

The Tia Fuller Quartet with Ingrid Jensen was definitely worth checking out at Dizzy's Den. Alto saxophonist Fuller commented this was a "family affair" with her sister on piano. Renowned international vocalist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo also filled the main stage with her socially conscious world beat music. She celebrated the music of the revered Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa. Her flowing, soothing voice had people dancing in front and on the sides of the tall stage. Kidjo confidently sang and briefly walked through the elated throng during her concert.

One of the busiest people at the three day festival (besides Tim Orr and his crack staff & friendly volunteers) would have to be world class Cuban percussionist/singer Martinez. Besides leading his high octane Pedrito Martinez Group, his propulsive work was featured by multiple artists during the busy weekend. The same people dancing at his evening set in Dizzy's Den were also present at Kidjo's concert dancing at one side of the stage. Lead by a friendly Peruvian woman up front, they were quickly joined by dozens of other supporters moving and enjoying the Afro Cuban rhythms.

Late Sunday evening at the Night Club spot, the Chester Thompson Group with tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley held court. This date also featured two distinguished Santana alums: Hammond B3 master Chester Thompson and versatile vocalist Tony Lindsay. Tracks in the varied set included "Speak No Evil," "Clockwise," "Squib Cakes," "Birth of the Blues" (Lindsay) and "Nature Boy" featuring skilled vocalist Destani Wolf. One of the many jewels of the evening was the duet with Lindsay and Wolf on the haunting "Everything Must Change." Wiley contributed a stellar solo to the satisfying session.

For the sixty year MJF milestone, it was only fitting two living jazz paragons, Hancock and Chick Corea should close the Monterey Jazz Festival. Their touching performance resonated with the mesmerized audience. At the completion of their duet, powerful impressions flowed freely from those in attendance. "Herbie and Chick touched my heart and soul! I loved the creative variations of the venue." Deanna added, "The spirit of the crowd made the whole experience such an elixir."

Her sense of spirit and community was shared by others. Julie exclaimed, "The last performance of the festival in the Jimmy Lyons Arena- Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea's masterful piano duo sent me to another planet, a realm of unspeakable delicacies. I was in awe of the beautiful solemn musical mood that wafted over me." She added, "Wow what a weekend! Amazing piano duo and perfect ending to an incredible fest!"

The Monterey Jazz Festival 2017 was a blissful musical and spiritual heaven on earth for thousands of old and new supporters alike. After sixty ecstatic years, the MJF consistently continued to attract new artists and fans while rewarding the festival's faithful. The MJF60 installment clearly extended an already outstanding legacy. As a MJF60 staffer accurately commented its, "Still rocking at 60." And with the artistic direction of Tim Jackson, it should continue rocking and growing for years to come.

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