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Monterey Notebook 2005, Part 1: Friday Night


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The Monterey Jazz Festival, presented by MCI, is off to a flying start. Now in its 48th year, the festival draws some 40,000 people annually to the Central California coast for three days of concerts at the sprawling Monterey County Fairgrounds. It is not possible to hear everything, as events take place on five stages simultaneously. But with a little planning one can hear a lot, and with such a smorgasbord spread out for the voracious jazz fan, it's impossible to attend and not have an ear-opening experience.
5:30 pm - The Fairgrounds
In the hours before the gates open, the atmosphere in the fairgrounds is relaxed and collegial. Vendors crack jokes as they set up their wares. The sound of Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet wafts out of the double-wide booth of a national record store chain. A guitarist — John Scofield, perhaps? — tunes up in a little hut away from the main drag. Workmen straighten banners as the yellow-jacketed event staff prowls the perimeter.
A cell phone rings. "Hey, you still in Baton Rouge?" Talk of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast two weeks earlier, is everywhere. Some of the vendors are temporarily locked out of their hometowns, or worse. One man tells of the stench pervading the still-flooded city even as the mouth-watering aroma of Cajun cooking emerges from another booth. Just 200 feet away, yet almost invisible from here, a long line of eager music fans snakes down Fairgrounds Road, waiting for 6:00 and the official opening of the festival.

Just within the main gate, the irrepressible New Orleans Jazz Vipers prepare to greet the crowd. A swinging ensemble forced by Katrina into temporary exile from their long-running gig at the Spotted Cat, the band has found a new base in Austin, Texas. While many artists from the disaster zone have had to postpone or cancel their tours, the Vipers are happy to be here.

At 6:00, the Vipers jump into a spirited version of "Avalon" just as the first ticket holders cross the threshold. And in the finest New Orleans tradition, sorrow is stared down and conquered with a smile and a hot rhythm.

6:30pm - Garden Stage

At the outdoor Garden Stage, San Francisco vocalist Jacqui Naylor is turning the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" on its ear. Sounding more like a Joan Armatrading composition than one of David Byrne's, the melody flows like the underground water Naylor sings about, buoyed on the familiar pop-fusion bass line of Joe Zawinul's "Birdland."

Naylor stands alone at the front of the stage, her band spread out behind, gesturing slightly with her hands as she renders the words with an aching forthrightness.

Later, in the up-tempo "Black Coffee," the dapper guitarist Art Khu switches to piano for some snappy interplay with bassist Jon Evans and drummer Josh Jones. The latter two construct a stone wall groove as Khu stabs and parries, then Jones digs in for his own in- the-pocket break. Now Naylor's plaintive call is reworked as a low growl, an engine-like throb that cuts through the band rather than resting on top.

Yet another side of the mercurial Naylor emerges in a folksy ode to San Francisco, as the now-seated singer caresses her lyric over Khu's lullabye patterns and Evans' slow accents. She turns coy with a kittenish "But Not For Me" that gradually morphs into vintage soul- jazz, then grows moody on the next number. This multifaceted style carries through to Naylor's open phrasing, as she drags and bends one syllable, then wads the next six into a tight ball and tosses them away.

8:00pm - Starbucks Coffee House Gallery

The cool September evening gives way to stuffy heat as this indoor space fills up for the Benny Green/Russell Malone duo's first set. The pair will have this stage to themselves for the evening, playing until midnight.

With the lights turned down to a cave-like darkness and a few impotent ceiling fans struggling vainly overhead, the pair waste no time in demonstrating the art of melodic conversation.

Malone is eloquent on guitar, Green terpsichorean on piano as the duo strolls through a program of lesser-known standards. Jarring bursts of applause from the otherwise silent crowd threaten to upend the delicate atmosphere, but Green and Malone are used to it by now. They smile and play on.

The duo trades off the knuckle-busting melody line of Paul Chambers' "Tale of The Fingers" with ease, then pull back for a hushed take on "Where Is The Love." This tune, best known from Roberta Flack's hit recording, here acquires a lazy summer feel that matches the room's heat, with just a hint of bossa nova lapping at the edges.

8:45pm - Jimmy Lyons Stage (The Arena)

Forty years ago, John Handy's quintet took Monterey by storm with a fiery, innovative set that helped to cement the alto saxophonist's career as a leader. To commemorate the milestone, Handy is opening this year's Arena program with a nearly identical group.

A soul-drenched "Basin Street Blues" opens the set with searing breaks from Handy and violinist Carlos Reyes, but then the group suddenly changes gears, moving into a slinky India-inspired tune. Handy trills and glides through his lengthy lines, then leaps into a series of squeaks to set up Reyes, who accompanies his own searing solo with a wordless vocal. Guitarist Steve Erquiaga follows with a rippling, classical break that bridges the traditions of Asia and Europe.

For the enigmatic standard "Nature Boy," Handy announces a special guest singer: pop/ bluesman Steve Miller. Reyes, now on harp, swoops from a quietly meditation into a bright South American rhythm before settling down for Miller's breathy vocal.

Miller sticks around to lend some guitar licks and another vocal turn to "St. Louis Blues," an old-fashioned jam with a Latin beat slipped into the bridge. Then Handy returns to an Eastern frame of mind, his searching solo dovetailing with some energetic Flamenco- tinged playing from Erquiaga. Somewhere in the middle of this, the band explodes. Reyes is like a man possessed, rocking and twisting through a furious violin solo, and Erquiaga burns through some unison comping from sax and violin. The crowd roars with each new twist.

9:45pm - Garden Stage

On the Garden Stage, Jay Collins is tearing it up.

Collins is the kind of glorious musician who gives writers fits. With his rough voice, explosive chops on saxophones and flutes, and a killer band behind him, Collins gleefully evades categorization. At any given moment, the Collins band might evoke a vintage Stax soul record, Dr. John's voodoo-tinged funk, or the blues-rock band at your neighborhood bar.

Many of the tunes in this set wrap serious messages inside tasty riffs. "Songbird and the Pigeon" attacks religious fundamentalism of all stripes while Dred Scott lays down a strong line on Hammond organ and Moses Petrou lends solid conga support. The same duo connects on "Running in a Circle," a tune whose insistent, perky groove, monotone vocals and street-smart sax solo recalls Eddie Harris and Les McCann's "Compared to What."

And then Collins mixes it up with tunes like "Taking My Landlord to Court" or "My Dreams Came Back Last Night," friendly little ditties that sound like Randy Newman fallen through the looking-glass. What is to be made of this band? What can be said is that everything Collins does onstage exudes an urban hipness, and the music is consistently engaging.

10:30pm - BET Jazz Theater

While the Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, those without pricey Arena tickets can follow the action from here via a live simulcast.

Although the musicians are on a video screen and the music is piped in from across the Fairgrounds, the party atmosphere is real. The hundred or so people in the room applaud a hot solo just as their Arena counterparts do. Three women dance under the ghostly blue lights in the back of the room, while a seated man pounds out bongo rhythms on his knees. Somewhere in the dark room, somebody lights a spliff.

Outside, the Jazz Vipers continue to play as they have throughout the evening. The half-dozen spectators they had at 6:00 have multiplied tenfold. In the room known as Dizzy's Den, John Scofield's Uberjam Band has given way to the free-funk frenzy of Banyan, which grows steadily louder as the night progresses. Carla Bley is wrapping up on the Bill Berry Stage in the "Night Club," and John Handy will follow with his second set. In the wings at the Arena waits Sonny Rollins, who was at the very first Monterey Jazz Festival and remains a fresh, vital force 47 years later.

The night is young.

Continue: Part 2

Photo Credit
New Orleans Jazz Vipers by Forrest Dylan Bryant
All others by Mark Sheldon

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