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Monterey Jazz Festival Turns 50

Chuck Koton By

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It might be tough to get a minyan for a jazz performance in L.A., but it's easy up north where a record 45,000 jazz fans endured rain and mud that threatened to turn this annual jazz bacchanal into Woodstock Redux.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey Fairgrounds
Monterey, California
September 21-23, 2007
It might be tough to get a minyan for a jazz performance in L.A., but it's easy up north where a record 45,000 jazz fans endured rain and mud that threatened to turn this annual jazz bacchanal into Woodstock Redux. But the spirits of Bird and Dizzy, Duke, Miles and Monk blew away the storm clouds and let the sounds of jazz spread love and happiness over the County Fairgrounds. The theme of this year's golden celebration might have been the bridging of the years between veterans like the great Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Jim Hall and Ernestine Anderson, all of whom played at the inaugural festival in 1958, and the younger generation of musicians like Terence Blanchard, Chris Potter, Benny Green and the teenagers in the MJF Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

The blend of experience and youth was displayed on Friday night in the duet performed by Jim Hall and the youthful Geoff Keezer on piano. Hall and Keezer traded up-tempo licks on Mrs. Hall's favorite tune, "All the Things You Are." Later, a meditative Keezer original, "Wide Angle Lens," instantly transfixed the audience as guitar and piano seemed to nuzzle each other tenderly like two lovers. The Terence Blanchard Quintet closed the night out at the Bill Berry Stage by evoking plaintive trumpet tones that echoed the suffering wails still emanating from his abandoned hometown of New Orleans. Blanchard played selections from his suite composed for the Spike Lee documentary, "When the Levees Broke," that were soulful enough to bring tears to the listener' eyes.

Dawn arrived glumly Saturday morning, accompanied by a rain steady enough to have sat in on percussion with one of the bands. But the clouds parted and the sun shone through as the blues of the Otis Taylor Band put the thousands of fans in a funky mood. The afternoon also included an interesting" Blindfold Test" put on by Down Beat magazine, of course. And even though the great Gerald Wilson and his son, guitarist and bandleader in his own right Anthony Wilson, failed to identify any of the musical offerings, some were rather obscure in all fairness, their comments were well worth the audience's attention. Serious jazz finally kicked off at 4pm with the great Rashied Ali, John Coltrane's last drummer, leading a smokin' hard bop band with two up and coming horn players, Lawrence Clark on tenor sax and Josh Evans on trumpet , Greg Murphy on piano and Joris Teepe on bass. The band played selections from Ali's two most recent recordings, Judgment Day Vol. 1 and 2. with an extended jam on the title tune that had Ali's powerful polyrhythms driving the beat while a duet with tenor player Clark recalled Ali's classic duet with Coltrane on "Interstellar Space."

So much great jazz kept coming on Saturday night that some very difficult choices had to be made. I chose to begin the evening at Dizzy's Den, hosted by L.A.'s own LeRoy Downs. The affable, knowledgeable, and eminently hip former KJZZ DJ, who can now be checked out on his Jazzcat web site, introduced the Dave Holland Quartet, with Chris Potter on tenor, Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano , and the hard-driving Eric Harland on drums, an all-star band indeed. On an original Holland composition, "Step to It," Chris Potter displayed the influence the late, great Joe Henderson had on his swingin', hard bop style. The band shared solo space equitably and the band's easy interaction reflected their extensive time playing together. They ended their set with an island-flavored tune, "Calypso," that recalled the festive excursions of tenor titan, Sonny Rollins.

There was no time to lose so as soon as the last note faded into the night it was off to hear the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, with guest soloist Kenny Burrell, perform "Monterey Moods," Wilson's suite commissioned especially for the MJF50 celebration. But rather than run across to the other end of the fairgrounds, I opted to take in the performance at one of the three tents Bose had set up. People sat in chairs or on a patch of grass in front of giant screens and listened as state of the art audio brought the concert to life. The suite included the blues, a waltz, and a Latin mood, among others. The band also played Wilson's classic, "Viva Tirado", with Kenny Burrell taking several swinging solos along with members of the saxophone section like Carl Randall, Louis Van Taylor, Scott Mayo and the explosive young Kamasi Washington, all of whom electrified the audience into loud applause. No sooner had this show ended when both Wilson's orchestra and Burrell's quartet, with Mike Melvoin on piano, Roberto Miranda on bass and Clayton Cameron on drums took the stand on two other nearby venues. Burrell's band played a few blues numbers, since as he often says jazz is the blues. The particularly funky "3/4 for the House" was dedicated to its composer, long-time Burrell saxophonist Herman Riley, who recently passed away all too soon. Every Burrell performance inevitably also includes a trip to Ellingtonia, and on this occasion the band played a delicious Ellington medley which included "Star Crossed Lovers," "Azure," and a rarely played "Melancholia." "Autumn Leaves" opened with a mellow duet between Burrell and Melvoin's elegant and restrained phrasing and included a passionate bowed bass solo by one of the great bassists, L.A.'s own Roberto Miranda.

Finally, as the clock ticked a-round midnight, and the last, lingering notes from Gerald Wilson's band soared up into the moist night air, the last tired jazz lovers went back to their hotels to recuperate for one more day of music.

Hard as it is to believe, Sunday was even better. At 1pm the MJF Next Generation Orchestra took the stage, and inspired solos by teenagers like L.A. native drummer Adam Starkopf and altoist John Palowitch among others on a number of big band charts reassured the audience that the future of jazz is in good hands.

Next to take the stage was the great innovator, Ornette Coleman. Some members of the audience may have left the arena muttering, "Whatever that is, it's not for me," but for people with broader musical taste the performance was nothing less than extraordinary. Accompanied by three throbbing basses, Charnett Moffet plucking and Tony Falanga bowing their respective acoustic instruments and Al McDowell on electric bass, as well as Denardo Coleman on drums, Coleman pierced the atmosphere with his mournful, wailing alto on his classic composition" Lonely Woman." After several other Colemanesque originals that included his characteristic rapid playing in unison, and unexpected stops and starts, the band returned with "Lonely Woman" as an encore. Thank God for Ornette Coleman! Incredible as it may seem, Coleman performed on the same stage here at Monterey with Ben Webster back in 1959, and he is still creating uncompromising music. The rest of the afternoon included a conversation with noted Carmel jazz lover, Clint Eastwood and film-maker John Sayles, and several competition ·winning high school bands including the L.A.County for the Arts and local Hamilton H.S..

Kenny Barron and his trio of Kiyoshi Kitigawa on bass and Francisco Melo on drums opened the last night of the festival at Dizzy' Den. A Philadelphia native, Barron is a prodigious pianist, the result not only of endless hours of practice but also of growing up with a great but under-appreciated tenor sax playing older brother, Bill, who not only nurtured Kenny's talent, he also introduced him to other local Philly musicians with names like Coltrane, Tyner and Golson, among others. The trio played a seamless medley of Billy Strayhorn tunes that included "Lotus Blossom," "Star-Crossed Lovers," and "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." Barron also visited the music of Thelonius Monk, playing the tune, "Ask Me Now." Barron is one of the great interpreters of Monk's music, having been an integral part of the band, Sphere, which he formed with Charlie Rouse, Ben Riley, and Buster Williams, and recorded an album of Monk originals the day the great pianist died. The band even played a swingin' tune that was so fresh it didn't have a name yet.

The room was buzzing with so much excitement that I couldn't leave, which was cool because the MJF All-Stars were getting ready to close the festival. That meant, however, that everyone in the audience would miss Sonny Rollins and his band. Talk about tough choices. But the All-Stars, led by piano prodigy, Benny Green, and also including the legendary, James Moody on tenor and flute, the indefatigable Terence Blanchard on trumpet, who, in addition to playing also was this past year's artist-in-residence, the lovely and talented vocalist, Nnenna Freelon, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums, provided not only incredible music but also a beautiful festival highlight. The irrepressible Moody and the seductive and charming Freelon put on a memorable exchange during the band's rendition of "Squeeze Me" that had everyone in the audience mesmerized. The romantic banter of the song's lyrics and the pair's flirtatious exchanges and delirious scatting was truly an unforgettable Monterey moment. On the fast-paced Dizzy Gillespie classic, "BeBop," Green, who first performed at the festival as a high schooler, exhibited his monumental piano skills and knowledge on a frenzied solo. They closed the festival with a funked up version of "Time After Time," with Freelon, Moody and Blanchard taking solos that left the audience boppin' on their last legs to the parking lot.

The Monterey Jazz Festival has traveled a long road over the last 50 years. Once upon a time there was only one stage, and too many of the greats are no longer with us. But many of our jazz idols are still creating great music and they have shared their wisdom with others, inspiring new generations to dedicate their own lives to keeping this great music alive. And that is certainly a blessing.

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