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Monterey Jazz Festival 2017

Josef Woodard By

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

A Feast of Tributes, to Itself, Included

The distinctly stunning California outpost that is Monterey has been in the news, and making cultural history, in various ways this year. Over the summer, the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival was duly noted and feted with a special commemorative festival. Over in the realm of the tube (the New, Improved TV landscape), the dramatic Limited Series Big Little Lies—set in Monterey, though with liberal creative license in terms of veracity to the reality of the place—ushered the city and its inviting ambience into America's living room. And, last but most importantly, on the very night that series was garnering a handful-plus of Emmy Awards on Sunday night, the grand and glorious Monterey Jazz Festival was on the last day/night of its milestone 60th anniversary edition.

The historical aspect of this year's jazz weekend in Monterey was not at all lost on the inspired and long-standing artistic director Tim Jackson, possibly to a fault. This was a weekend chockablock with tribute programs to bygone or otherwise absent legends who have graced the festival's Arena stage, including the opening act of Regina Carter's nod to Ella Fitzgerald, which actually involved inventive new arrangements, as part of her new Ella-homage project, Accentuate the Positive. Carter may have slyly made a political statement in this otherwise mostly socio-political reality-avoiding weekend, pointing out the pressing message of the mantra-like lyrics in the Ella-popularized "Accentuate the Positive:" You've got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative/Don't mess with Mister In-Between." "We gotta' live by those words more than ever," Carter told the arena crowd, with a hint of a grin.

Later that Friday night in the arena, we heard a tribute to past Monterey regular Dizzy Gillespie (a program with the eminent and ever-hip pianist Kenny Barron at the center, with trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones and percussionist Pedrito Martinez), to a saxophonist-featured tribute to Sonny Rollins. There, the horn spotlight went to Rollins admirers and proteges Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, and a moving "Round Midnight" by Rollins peer Jimmy Heat, on soprano, with all aboard for a round of "St. Thomas."

Saturday night featured a welcome return by the great vocalist from Benin, Angelique Kidjo, but this program was a tribute to the inspiration of salsa music, generally, and her hero thelate Celia Cruz, specifically (with percussionist Martinez again in the fold). Even Dee Dee Bridgewater's strikingly powerful new project (and persona), linked to her new album Memphis... Yes, I'm Ready, is a tribute of sorts—to the great vintage soul music she listened to, coming out of the station WDIA in her birth city of Memphis. The record, and her powerful live show (especially killing it on "Try a Little Tenderness" and an encore of "Purple Rain"), validates yet another aspect of this master vocalist's range—of style and musical aplomb. But her super-tight Memphis-based band is put in the position of being basically a stellar cover band.

Echoes of and genuflecting to the past was a trend that kept rolling onto the Monterey Fairgrounds, to the point where the present tense and new musical energies in jazz seemed sorely wanting this year. Generally, a hallmark of the artistic success of the Monterey Jazz Festival, especially during director Jackson's long and inspired guidance, has been the delicate balancing of satisfying the many contingencies of jazz fans and old school festival-goers. Avant-garde music and other musics of the "now" have been craftily woven into the programming fabric, but not so much this year. It was a time, for nostalgic reflections, upon the turn of age 60. This is arguably the world's oldest continuously-run and contiguously-placed jazz festival, although the more roving and on-off again Newport jazz festival narrowly preceded and inspired the festival that founder Jimmy Lyons built.

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