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Monterey Notebook 2006, Part 1: Friday


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The elusive piece is loaded with unsettled emotion. It is the quiver after the sob, the surge before the kiss.
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It was clear from the first press release that the 49th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, presented by Verizon, would feature a mind-boggling array of top jazz talent—Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Kurt Elling, Roy Hargrove and many others crowded the program on five stages over three days (September 15-17). But no roster of names can convey the deep-seated sense of community and exultant atmosphere that pervades the Monterey County Fairgrounds each year. This year's festival was a harmonic convergence of fine weather, musical fireworks and enthusiastic jazz lovers that should be long remembered. It also bodes very well for next year's golden anniversary event, which promises to be one for the ages.

Arrival / Settling In

6:00pm - Near the Fairgrounds:

The young man behind the desk shuffled his papers for a minute. Finally he could avoid his work no longer and checked me in, handing over my plastic room key. It had been a quiet day at this Fremont Street motel, despite the growing air of anticipation just blocks away at the Fairgrounds. Surprisingly, the motel's "VACANCY" sign remained lit, and only three cars were present in the parking lot. It looked like just another sleepy off- season day.

At precisely 4:00, everything changed.

The windows of the white bus were dark. But even from the motel office, we could see that the vehicle was crammed. The bored kid's eyes grew wide, a rude comment escaping his lips as the bus spilled forth a complete high school big band, along with piles of instrument cases and several harried-looking chaperones.

Now, the motel is alive with sound. Sax licks, passionate if not perfect, burst forth from the second floor and are answered by tentative phrases from below. A pleasing ring—perhaps a tuning fork?—bleeds through the wall once, twice, a third time. Voices chatter and giggle. The shadows grow long and the wind gusts — it's going to be a brisk night. After what seems like mere moments, it is six o'clock. Two blocks away, the Fairgrounds' main gate is opening.

7:00pm - Garden Stage:

The Festival kicks off simply, as the 2006 Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellows, one of many student groups on hand this weekend, leap into a spirited set of modern bop standards. In the tune "Footprints," pianist Julian Waterfall Pollack locks into an African rhythm, teasing spinning lines from the keys, and trumpeter Billy Berg displays masterful poise in his aggressive solo.

Meanwhile, a line is already forming outside the venue known as the "Night Club" for local favorite Taylor Eigsti. His set is still an hour away. As the temperature drops, the clothing stalls are beginning to do brisk business. One hooded sweatshirt is already becoming ubiquitous among the band from my motel: "I didn't know there was a uniform," one teen says to two black-clad friends.

As the Brown/Getz septet gamely tackles a challenging Woody Shaw composition (which bassist Dominic Thiroux assaults with particular verve), the air grows thick with the greasy smells of Cajun food. The mood changes with the atmosphere, settling into the comfortable joy of a holiday gathering. The table is laid, the family has reunited. The feast has begun.

"We Are All Connected"

8:15pm - Garden Stage:

Babatunde Lea wastes no time as he takes his music back to the motherland. Hurling himself into action with his left hand on the congas and his right at the drum kit, he creates a rich carpet for Richard Howell's streetwise yet spiritual tenor sax. The pair look like brothers in their matching white robes and long dreadlocks, and it's easy to imagine them as shamen of a distant tribe.

But in a wink, the Afro-Cuban jam gives way to hip urban bop. Glen Pearson's piano mines an uptown groove as Howell begins to dig deeper. A passing airplane tries to obliterate Geoff Brennan's urgent bass solo—common hazard at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, which are adjacent to an airport— ut Brennan will not be denied as he sets up another black pearl of Afrocentric jazz. The crowd grows vocal in response, shouting encouragement to Lea's burning conga solo, their heads nodding as Howell tears into a searing line.

Later, Howell sums up the band's philosophy by leading the audience in a healing chant: "We are all connected / so we must treat each other right." There's no doubt that they've treated the audience right.

This One Goes to Eleven!

8:45pm - Dizzy's Den:

The African vibe continues outdoors as Richard Bona's delicate melodies waft over from the Arena. Indoors, the Dizzy's Den stage has exploded in a technicolor orgy of Brazilian-tinged electric funk. Uri Caine's Bedrock trio with Tim Lefebvre and Zach Danziger seems to be producing enough music for a band twice its size, and their sound board is pumping at full volume.

The setting is almost surreal. Blue light shines off a spinning disco ball hanging from the barnlike ceiling. Bassist Lefebvre begins playing emcee, introducing the next number with the patter of a Catskills comic. The left side of the stage is awash in keyboards: Caine is surrounded by Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 organ, several small synths, and poking out of the depths, an actual piano. All three musicians have laptops.

Out of this menagerie, it's the Rhodes and the Macs that are getting all the work as a deep thump suddenly bursts into a headlong robotic rush. Danziger's hypercaffeinated drumming has a punkish intensity as Caine bounces between electronic tones, reacting to seemingly random samples from the laptops. Lefebvre keeps it all grounded with his solid bass work, but "grounded" is a relative term. As the younger listeners squeal, hoot and shift closer to the thundering speakers, many of the older ones begin streaming for the doors. At the end of the set, when the band asks if there are any requests, one wag shouts, "play some jazz!" To each his own.

Glasper (Take 1)

9:15pm - Coffee House Gallery:

Not too far removed conceptually from what Uri Caine is putting down, but miles away in its effect, Robert Glasper's trio has taken a pleasant jazz riff, mixed in a little r&b harmony, then dumped it into a blender and hit the "puree" button. Damion Reid's jumbled, stuttering rhythms are complex but articulate, as Glasper falls in and out of pointillist patterns, playing with that riff for a while and then gleefully hammering at one note for 15 seconds like a skipping CD.

Unfortunately, I have arrived just at the end of the set. But this is the Coffee House Gallery stage, where one artist performs two or three sets over the course of an evening. I make the possibly rash decision to skip the Yellowjackets performance in the Arena in order to hear more of Glasper later tonight. I just know that everybody's going to be talking about the Yellowjackets set tomorrow, but I don't care. This is too good to miss.

Checking In on the Up 'n' Comers

9:45pm - Night Club / Garden Stage:

In between Robert Glasper's sets, I make a quick visit to the other side of the Fairgrounds to check in on two other young musicians with lots of buzz.

In the Night Club, the folksy singer Sasha Dobson surveys her audience and says, "I am related to the entire front row." It may not be an exaggeration. Dobson grew up just up the road in Santa Cruz and comes from a family full of jazz talent. But any homecoming jitters evaporate with the first note. Dobson's voice is warm and assured, buoyed by a pair of acoustic guitars, electric bass and drums. Deftly walking the line between jazz and Americana, and backed by a quirkily simpatico band, Dobson seems like a natural for the sort of crossover success that major labels keep finding with the Norah Joneses of the world.

Over at the Garden Stage, Eldar is smashing a sweet wisp of a melody into submission through his piano, driving it headlong, his shoulders bent low over his keyboard as bass and drums urge him on. Soon he is displaying virtuosity of another kind, dropping into a delicately filigreed solo introduction to "You Don't Know What Love Is." This is an impressive display, but it's time for me to get back to the Coffee House.

Glasper (Take 2)

10:15pm - Coffee House Gallery:

As I walk in on Robert Glasper's second set mid-tune, the band seems to have picked up exactly where they left off. But this time the tune seems to be Sam Rivers' "Beatrice." It is nearly impossible to be sure where one tune ends and the next begins, as melodies fade in and out of each other like a DJ's mix.

In a ballad Glasper identifies as "One for Mulgrew," the leader caresses a repeating melody line while the others wrap textures around him. Vicente Archer's bass solo is eloquent, and Damion Reid shows a great ear as he gilds the edges in just the right places, adding sparkle to the shimmering lines. When Glasper solos, he refracts the melody like a prism, casting it in shades bright or melancholy, letting it break apart and coalesce into new, ever-shifting forms.

Somewhere along the line, the band slides into De La Soul's "Stakes Is High," which Glasper welds to the old standard "Blue Skies." Later, Glasper's own "Enoch's Meditation" melts into Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," and even a Radiohead song. The elusive piece is loaded with unsettled emotion. It is the quiver after the sob, the surge before the kiss. Tension grows as Archer and Reid drop out, but release does not come. Glasper spirals about the fragile center, singing quiety as he plays, and finally lets the moment pass into silence. It is just one highlight of a superb set. This hour has gone by too fast.

Red Man - Black Man

11:30pm - The Arena

Kurt Elling has already appeared on the Monterey Jazz Festival's main Arena stage once tonight, as a guest with the Yellowjackets. As the Festival's Artist in Residence for 2006, he will appear throughout the weekend in a variety of settings. Just now he is on stage with the mighty Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra to premiere "Red Man- Black Man," an ambitious collaboration with John Clayton that explores the intersection between Native American and African-American music and culture.

Half an hour before, the band came out swinging. Chasing the chilly night breeze with hot blowing and precision modernist twists in "Silver Celebration" and "Squatty Roo," the CHJO demonstrated why it has become the first-call big band for so many high-profile projects lately.

Elling joined the band for three more tunes from the songbook. "Close Your Eyes" had a punchy yet subtly executed arrangement well-suited to Elling's scatting vocal style, with flutes and solo bass leading up to a powerful swing. The band was orchestral for "My Foolish Heart," painting in soft tones as Elling slipped into the tune as one might a beloved old overcoat. Finally, Laurence Hobgood took the piano chair for a warmhearted rendition of "Man in the Air," Hobgood and Elling's celebratory tribute to Wayne Shorter.

As Elling and the CHJO turn at last to "Red Man-Black Man," the tone changes abruptly. The first movement, "Shawnee Stomp Dance," features wood flutes and rattles in a lilting melody that reflects both Native tradition and the work songs of the deep South. This parallel is drawn more sharply in the second movement, "Chained Gang," a somber blend of poetry and droning bass that moves from despair to resolution, deeply resonant with the concurrent and lasting struggles of two oppressed peoples. An instrumental breakthrough resolves briefly into a gospel hymn, then Elling delivers a poetic oration, finally leading a triumphant declaration of freedom.

It is difficult to fully assess "Red Man-Black Man" without the additional context that program notes might have provided. But the emotional depth of the piece, the power of Elling's poetic selections and the strength of Clayton's musical conception are undeniable. This outstanding composition hits home with substantial force.

Photo Credit
Janna L. Gadden

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