Monterey Jazz Festival: Monterey, CA, September 16-18, 2011

Monterey Jazz Festival: Monterey, CA, September 16-18, 2011
Larry Taylor By

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54th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey Fairgrounds
Monterey, CA
September 16-18, 2011
The Monterey Jazz Festival—still going strong after 54 years. What's more, this year, Sept. 16-18, it was better than ever: the music was great; weather warm yet crisp and the atmosphere bucolic at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Northern California.
What schedulers did so well this time was to creatively juxtapose the old and the new, bringing veteran jazz masters and their work alongside newer stars on the rise.
As always, this heterogeneous assemblage of groups played in five venues, scattered throughout the grounds: the large outdoor Jimmy Lyons Stage; the smaller outdoor Garden Stage; the mid-size indoor Dizzy's Den and Night Club; and the intimate Coffee House Gallery. In addition, the barn-like Jazz Theater held simulcasts of Lyons Stage events.

Having this much jazz at a fan's disposal posed a lot of hard choices. Although many headliners featured on the Lyons Stage appeared in other place, many attractions could be seen only in smaller spaces. As usual, here, there was a lot of picking and choosing. Regrettably some favorites had to be missed.

Friday Night

The opening night on the Lyons Stage presented a perfect example of new and old. On the scene since 2003, Hiromi, with The Trio Project, came on ready to wail on piano, accompanied by a high-powered rhythm section—electric contrabassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Philips. Playing with extreme animation, Hiromi sometimes held herself back for effect, only to punctuated chords by standing up and stomping. It wasn't long before the music brought the crowd to its feet, too.

The highlight of her set was an ingenious take on Beethoven's "Sonata No. 8, 2nd Movement." She took this well-known melody and created incredible tension, finally giving the crowd an exuberant release. Hiromi clearly knew how to play her audience.

An older pro who also knows how to please a crowd, guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli was up next. His musical agenda definitely pays obeisance to the past, selecting liberally from The Great American Songbook.

Besides his regular quartet of fleet-fingered pianist Larry Fuller, brother/bassist Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Anthony Tedesco, the guitarist also featured his very talented and witty wife, Jessica Molaskey. Their duet on what Molaskey said was Vincent Youman's meditation on co-dependence, "I Want to Be Happy," was priceless. She quoted lyrics to illustrate: "I want to be happy, But I won't be happy until you're happy too."

Next, they charmed with their doubling of George Harrison's "My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Fox-Gimbal's "Killing Me Softly." Soon, Bucky Pizzarelli—John's celebrated 85-year-old father, guitarist and banjoist—joined in. They took off on some tight, swinging duos, especially Juan Tizol's "Perdido" and Duke Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone." This family knew how to sell a song, and the audience loved it.

Earlier that evening, the Robert Glasper Trio played the Garden Stage. His witty repartee and eclectic style, as he played around with rhythmic and chord textures, was well-received.

Saturday Afternoon

This time slot on Lyons Stage is always for blues or good-time music. This year it was Afternoon in Treme, named after the HBO series placed in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The set started with the Soul Rebels Brass Band merging street music with hip-hop. After a spirited start, the old-time favorite, Kermit Ruffins, came in on vocals and trumpet, getting things going with the wildly rhythmic "Skokiaan."

Dumpstaphunk then took the stage, and keyboardist Ivan Neville led the band in raucous New Orleans funk. The group was also joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

On a radio interview earlier in the day, Blanchard made the point that Caribbean music had greatly influenced the New Orleans sound. This fact could certainly be heard all day, illustrated by Ellington's "Caravan," with the group igniting at the end, lit up by Blanchard and Ruffin's scorching trumpets.

Later that afternoon, rock group Huey Lewis and the News came on. Not jazz, but at venues nearby the crowd's cheers could be heard.

Saturday Evening

Early on, vocalist Pamela Rose and her Wild Women of Song brought her show to the Night Club, delving into the lives and times of women songwriters, from Tin Pan Alley to the swing era. It featured slides to illustrate her narrative, and selected songs from the work of these talented women, many unheralded.

Pamela Rose

Rose's pantheon included Doris Fisher, Alberta Hinter, Dorothy Fields and Mary Lou Williams. Standout vocals, accompanied by a fine quartet, included Tot Seymour's virtually unknown "Crosspatch" and Peggy Lee's classic "I know A Little Bit About A Lot of Things."


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