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Monterey Jazz Festival 2015

Monterey Jazz Festival 2015
Josef Woodard By

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Monterey Jazz Festival, at 58, is still a fine model of how to present a jazz festival which pays respects to all the many branches and legacies of jazz, from the historicist perspective to more adventurous artists on the current scene.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey County Fairgrounds
Monterey, CA
September 18-20, 2015

Try as one might to just take the venerable but vibrant Monterey Jazz Festival for its immediate, present-tense and face value pleasure, historical angles keep filtering into the event, intentionally and otherwise. For this year's big, multi-staged jazz meeting at the Monterey Fairgrounds, celebrated its 58th birthday (and born in 1958, a numerical synchronism), and number-nerds will recall that last year's model had a 57/75 resonance, between the festival's 57th anniversary and the Blue Note Records 75th anniversary being toasted.

Perhaps the strongest in-house historical aspect of the 2015 Monterey Festival involved an artist who is all of 33, but whose link to the festival goes back over half his life to high school days as a prodigious young trumpeter-to-watch. The unique and forward-thinking Ambrose Akinmusire has appeared in Monterey several times in different settings during his current life as a prominent jazz artist on the global scene, but this year's visit was two-fold: a hot, heady set with his quart in the Night Club venue, and a high profile moment as this year's recipient of the festival's annual commissioning tradition.

Akinmusire was more than up to the challenge of coming up with something fresh and substantial, as he unveiled the intriguing chamber jazz piece "The Forgotten Places," for his quartet "+ 5" from a classical perspective, plus limber vocalist Theo Bleckmann (who appeared on Akinmusires' last album, The Imagined Saviour is Far Easier to Paint, on Blue Note). "The Forgotten Places," like former commissioned artist Bill Frisell's memorable suite "Big Sur," Akinmusire's new music is something of a double tribute—to Monterey and also to the remote Big Sur property, the Glen Deven Ranch, where commissioned artists can stay to write in an undistracted, idyllic retreat setting. What resulted was a glorious and fairly meditative work, with atmospheric sonorities weaving between chamber-esque structured sections, and only passing interest in expression of the virtuosity that the trumpeter is capable of unleashing (he saved that for his Night Club set later on Saturday night).

From a very different historical vein, this year's festival opened with a fascinating tribute to Erroll Garner's classic Concert by the Sea album, subject of a respected reissue in its 60th anniversary year, and which was recorded in nearby Carmel, a lovely coastal town neighboring the Monterey Bay. For the Monterey tribute, Garner-isms met with fresh-minded interpreters, including music director Geri Allen, Christian Sands, and, most impressively, the innately history-hopping Jason Moran.

In the late slot on opening night, a different kind of tribute hit the stage, with the dazzling project "Jaco's World," a big band paean to the late, great Jaco Pastorius, led and arranged by Vince Mendoza. Ironically, Pastorius didn't get much love from Monterey during his strong years of the '70s, when the festival director Jimmy Lyons steered away from music of the "fusion" or left-leaning sort: one can imagine him on this legendary stage, turning in a "Hendrix at Monterey"-like wonder to the tune of his famous mischievous wizardly "Slang" solos. But history wouldn't have it.

"Jaco's World," clearly a festival highlight, was a set fortified with vivid reminders of Pastorius' sensitivity and mastery as a composer, with "Teen Town," "Liberty City," "Slang/Punk Jazz," "Havona" in the mix, and a slight detour, from Joni Mitchell's Mingus project, "Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," with guest vocalist Tierney Sutton nailing it, as usual. Soloists included Pastorius big band alumnus Bob Mintzer on tenor sax, bassist Christian McBride, and an organically virtuosic turn from the bassist's son Felix Pastorius , a real, genetic link to the man of the hour.

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