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As the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival presented by MCI passes its halfway mark, the traditionally blues-oriented program of Saturday afternoon gives way to an eclectic mix of modern-jazz and international sounds, along with a wave of vocalists led by first-time performer Tony Bennett. I continue my venue-hopping, trying to drink in as much music in as many styles as I can.8:00pm - Jimmy Lyons Stage (The Arena)
Commissioned works have become a central part of the Monterey tradition. For this year's festival, the unpredictable Carla Bley
has cooked up a beautifully conceived suite entitled "Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid." Before premiering it, however, Bley puts her 17-piece Big Band (featuring many fine Northern California musicians) through their paces in two preliminary numbers.
"On the Stage in Cages" opens with a Monkish statement followed by percolating solos from trumpeter John Worley and George Young on alto sax. With Bley herself alternating between the piano chair and conducting the group, the piece moves through several distinct phases: it's a quirky mechanical bounce one moment, a slow gospel moan the next, and at one point each horn blows in turn for about a measure and a half.
Bley gives a deadpan introduction of "One Way," describing the piece as "really simple." And on one level it is simple, a big-band ballad built largely on variations of a two-chord vamp. But this is a Carla Bley concert, and even simplicity comes with a twist. Occasional dissonant moments of decision crop up throughout, and each time the piece threatens to spin wildly onto a new axis before settling back into the original theme.
"Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid" has its origins in a solo gig Bley played in Monterey as a teenager, fifty years ago "my first and last gig as a cocktail pianist," she quips. To set the scene, Bley's bandmates gather round her piano like lounge patrons as Bley plays a medley of standards such as "My Foolish Heart," absolutely straight.
A perky guitar riff and vague horn rumblings get the suite rolling in earnest, gradually building to a stylized bop line which bounces amongst the horns. Fragments of standard melodies, presumably the same 17 tunes Bley says she knew in 1955, sneak in at intervals, each time subtly changing the suite's narrative flow. A percussion-led breakdown shows that Thelonious Monk influence again, before settling into a Latinized bop groove with extended solo space for trombone.
The suite moves into an after-hours mode as Bley's contemplative piano break leads into a smoky trumpet melody from Worley. The "set 'em up Joe" balladry continues for a while before the previous movement's thematic ideas reassert themselves. The massive horn section all begin trading fours as the ensemble rises to a rousing conclusion. Bley doesn't stick around long for the applause, but "Appearing Nightly" is a success that deserves to be released on CD soon.9:15pm - Dizzy's Den
I make it across the Fairgrounds in time to catch the last few numbers from the Lounge Art Ensemble
, an inviting modern-jazz trio led by drummer Peter Erskine. A steaming post-bop brew is bubbling here, and the room is about two-thirds full despite the large crowds gathered elsewhere for singers Tony Bennett, Sheila Jordan, and Ledisi.
It's a trio of listeners, three guys who have a good time playing together as they spin around the gravitational center of Erskine's busy drum kit. Taking on the standard "Sweet and Lovely," the three start with a quick, staccato rephrasing of the melody before sliding into a cool but slightly askew solo section. Bob Sheppard, playing tenor sax at the moment, renders "Sweet and Lovely" in a sweet and pulpy way, while Dave Carpenter walks all over the chords with his six-string electric bass.
"Mr. Jones to You," based loosely on "Have You Met Miss Jones," takes on a low rolling rhythm line under a popping melody. Sheppard moves from tenor to soprano sax mid- tune, and his previously bouncy play smoothes out into longer, flowing lines over rapid bass and drums. The set concludes with "Cats and Kittens," an Erskine original with a cool strutting rhythm and a bit of bluesy, second-line funk in the approach.9:45pm - Night Club
There's barely a free seat in the house when the Andy Bey Quartet
takes the stage. The master vocal stylist gently insinuates himself into his set with "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," the Depression-era lament given a modern treatment as Bey twists the phrasing, scats, and toys with the melody on piano. His extended coda fades gently as Bey repeats and varies the title line again and again.
Joking about his dreadlocked hair during the band introduction, Bey identifies himself as Ziggy Marley. But Marley, talented as he may be, has never treated a lyric with the almost painful tenderness Bey gives to "Never Let Me Go." Indeed, no other singer sounds quite like Bey, who glides freely from a husky whisper to a high-pitched squeak and into a powerful soul shout, bending notes as he goes in a way that occasionally gives his elusive voice a guitar-like quality. For "Midnight Sun," Bey steps away from the keyboard and stands, caressing the ballad with a slow, tension-laden dance around the tunes melody.
I can hear Miguel Zenón starting to pour it on across the road in Dizzy's Den, but I can't tear myself away as Bey rolls through "Caravan," taking the first chorus smoothly before belting out the second. Although I have heard some excellent performances so far at this year's festival, Bey's is the first truly transformative experience. I sit for an hour that feels like fifteen minutes, and glance down at my notebook to find I have written almost nothing.10:35pm - Coffee House
For the second time tonight, I enter the Coffee house just in time to see Joey Calderazzo
leave the stage at the end of a set. I will not hear Calderazzo's trio tonight. But that's the risk one takes at a sprawling festival like Monterey. No matter what path one chooses to navigate through the grounds, one will always miss more than one hears.11:00pm - The Arena John Scofield
is the Showcase Artist at the Monterey Jazz Festival this year, which means that each evening he appears on stage with a different band. For tonight's Arena capper, a tribute to the late Ray Charles, the guitarist is working with electric bass, drums, and the festival's seemingly ubiquitous Hammond B3 organ.
The quartet kicks things off with "Sticks and Stones," propelled by drummer Steve Hass' chicken-strut backbeat. Scofield, never shy about effects, tweaks out with a one-finger electronicized solo that sounds uncannily like a turntablist scratching vinyl.
Meyer Statham lends both vocals and trombone to "I Don't Need No Doctor," a tasty strut with some excellent organ/guitar dialogue. But the featured vocalist tonight is the great Mavis Staples
, who incredibly has already pulled double-duty today with a pair of solo shows at the Festival.
When Staples emerges in a spangly black dress, the now-complete band eases gracefully into "Georgia on My Mind." Staples' raspy voice gives a gentle spiritual weight to the song, making it sound something like "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," until Scofield lightens the tone with an optimistic solo. The tune ends with Scofield and Staples standing face-to- face in a lighthearted jam.
An upbeat revival-tent feel pervades "Talkin' About You," the frst duo vocal of the night. And in Charles country-music hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You," Scofield ramps up the reverb while Staples goes all-out, wresting every bit of feeling from the song.
The band wraps up a few tunes later with "What'd I Say," taken here with a rumba beat. Bassist John Benitez doubles on conga while Scofield again surprises by imitating a cuica on his guitar. But despite the good band energy, and spirited vocal sparring from Staples and Statham, the tune underscores that no tribute will ever match the real thing. We miss you, Ray.