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Monterey Jazz Festival 2014

Josef Woodard By

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From a very different musical corner, Becca Stevens is, quite simply, a folk-jazz-musical force to reckon with, easy categorizations be damned. She is coming out of Joni Mitchell's innate jazz-flavored inventiveness and cliché-dodging adventurism—the shifting meters and unexpected chordal twists—and she made the unabashed Joni connection clear by ending her set in the Dizzy's Den venue with a righteous version of "Help Me." But Stevens has her own kind of language and sound to offer as a singer-songwriter who also relishes the weave of an ensemble (she was joined by a mostly acoustic trio) and painterly use of dynamics and words-music interplay.

As testament to Stevens' versatility and artistic reach, she also appeared with Akinmusire (singing the sighingly poignant song she co-wrote on his latest album,Our Basement) as well as part of Billy Childs' loving and invitingly chamber-esque tribute project to Laura Nyro late on Saturday night.

In quite a different corner and set of cultural reference points entirely, the Garden Stage came alive in strange and wonderful ways on Sunday afternoon, courtesy of the fascinating South Korean vocalist Youn Sun Nah, who has been slowly working her way around the world with the help of her fine albums on ACT and an expanding touring map and festival circuitry. She is a petite and polite woman, whose shy between-song speech can be startling for audiences, as the polar opposite of her commanding power and experimental charisma in the heat of a song. Said songs range from the opening cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," in a brooding bluster of an arrangements, to the punkish growl of her take on "Ghost Riders in the Storm" to close a set which inspired a palpable ecstatic air in the crowd. She also cooed a rubato rendering of "My Favorite Things," with thumb piano, and handily maneuvered the tricky, odd meter lines in songs by her Al Di Meola-esque acoustic guitarist, Ulf Wakenius, and brought fresh ideas and eccentric intensity to reworked folk songs from Scotland to Korea.

There were lesser moments in the festival flow, of course. A late Saturday night set by the Roots—America's favorite late night talk show band, and a great American band, period—was a high-energy blast of goodness, but it felt out-of-place in the "jazz portion" of the programming, better suited to the traditional groove zone of the Saturday or Sunday afternoon schedule. Michael Feinstein cooked up his Sinatra-esque suavity and good humor to close the festival on Sunday night, but was a bit too far from jazz syntax and swing (swingtax?), proper, and too close to the effect of a piano bar-rista for comfort.

Standards tend to naturally rise at the Monterey festival, especially for us long-timers (going on 27 consecutive years for this hopeless pilgrimage-maker) tickled by profound and strange and otherwise notable memories on these hallowed, dusty rustic fairgrounds. On the whole, though, the 57/75 year was one for the books, particularly regarding the issue of young artists carving out new places and patois in jazz.

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