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Monterey Jazz Festival 2017

Josef Woodard By

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By the time Vijay Iyer's uniquely dynamic sextet, riding high off its newly-released cerebrally high voltage album Far From Over, played the final late Sunday night show at the Dizzy's Den venue, the band's fertile mix of intellectuality and visceral, grab-your-sternum energy felt like blessed relief from the nostalgia floating around the compound that weekend. (Interestingly, while I heard Iyer's sextet twice at festivals this summer, in Ojai and Molde, Norway, with powerhouse-ing drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the band in Monterey, with Marcus Gilmore in that seat, supplied a steadier pulse, straightening out some of Iyer's thorny rhythmic patterns and juicing up the innate groove element in the music—and possibly making it more accessible to some ears).

Earlier in the day, another blast of fresh creative intensity hit the Garden Stage in the form of Linda May Han Oh's fine quintet, working with music from her latest album, Walk Against Wind. Oh (the Malaysian-born, Australia-raised bassist-composer-bandleader, who only recently expanded her name from the former Linda Oh), has appeared in Monterey before, as the bassist in the Joe Lovano/Dave Douglas-led band Sound Prints, and also as part of Pat Metheny's latest band.

But to hear her own music here, and to witness the maturation of her musical concept as a leader/composer, made for one of the few new musical revelations of the weekend. The band featured the impressive youngster-to-watch Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone, seasoned drummer of ever greater importance Rudy Royston, pianist Fabian Almazan, and nimble guitarist Matt Stevens (fresh off his publicly-exposed work on Esperanza Spalding's 77 project, in which she and her bandmates created a 10-song album from scratch in 77 hours, streamed live from the studio for all to watch on her Facebook page).

One of the most inspiring programming features of the 2017 was a family affair and focus of the sweetest and deserving kind. Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the festival's artists-in-residence, appeared multiple times, and with just the right approach in each setting. His own captivating trio (with drummer Obed Euman and bassist Joe Sanders) put on one of those ear-catching sets teeming with contemporary ideas and a strong ensemble identity during this festival, and the trio itself was the core of the Saturday night commissioned piece, by Gerald father John Clayton, and his mighty, polished Los Angeles-based Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Clayton the Elder's fine new suite, aptly entitled "Stories of a Groove," shifted easily between the melodic sheen and big band-savvy the leader is known for, with some nods to his son's personal voice as a musician—and as one of our most promising young pianists, plugged into the moment as well as steeped in the tradition.

There were plenty of other bold moments to be taken in around the grounds on this weekend. The newly-named Pacific Jazz Café, an expanded variation on the former, piano-featuring Coffee House venue, hosted powerful and poetic sounds from the great and still-underrated pianist JoAnne Brackeen (although her NEA Jazz Master award was a comforting accolade) and saxophonist Joel Frahm, riding high atop a stellar band, with pianist Billy Childs, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Scott Colley.

Down at the Night Club (venue), the fast-rising Kandace Springs-the Prince ally/protégé who made a splash with her Blue Note debut this year—amply demonstrated her dominant skills as keyboardist, vocalist and magnetic presence who is finding fresh and valid artistic magic at the juncture of R&B, jazz and other styles, done up in her own style. Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile's duo, in the arena, was "jazz" only to a degree, but more a case study in two versatile virtuosos bending towards the light of the other's musical energy. And Hamilton-fueled singer Leslie Odom Jr. flexed his admirable Nat King Cole-ish musical powers, warming up the cool evening even if fragilely straddling some line between jazz and theater.

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