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Monterey Notebook 2006, Part 3: Sunday

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Sunday, September 17, 12:30pm - The Night Club

Day Three of the 49th annual Monterey Jazz Festival kicked off with a lively discussion on the topic of "Whatz Jazz and Whatz Not," moderated by writer Dan Ouellette and sponsored by the Jazz Journalists Association. I had the honor of sitting on this panel, along with Seattle-based writer Paul de Barros, writer/broadcaster/producer Willard Jenkins, KCSM-FM morning host Alisa Clancy, and super-reviewer Scott Yanow.

Adopting the format of a Down Beat blindfold test, Ouellette played a series of recordings by artists who have either topped the jazz charts or appeared at Monterey, beginning with two vocalists (Michael Bublé singing "Fever" and Cassandra Wilson's "Go to Mexico"). Each of the selections could be argued as jazz or non-jazz, and the panel quickly got into a groove. There was general agreement that where singers are concerned, personality and some level of improvisation are essential (although scatting is definitely not).

Jenkins pointed out that while might not play Bublé on his radio show, he wouldn't hesitate to book someone like him for a festival, since few straight-ahead musicians can draw the same level of ticket sales and keep a festival afloat. This notion of "the draw" came up time and again, bringing with it a whole new set of questions: do such artists actually expand the jazz audience, or just create a mixed message about what jazz is?

De Barros sagely noted that the approach of the rhythm section and blues feeling are common stumbling blocks to questions of jazz validity. Both factors came into play in the next track, a bombastic attack by The Bad Plus. As one of the most divisive groups around, it's not surprising that they split the panel, too. Clancy argued for them, Jenkins against, although he did not question their claim to the jazz tag. I suggested that the key to appreciating the band was to see them perform live, but de Barros reported a contrary experience: he found the Bad Plus less "authentic" on stage than in their recordings.

It was only a matter of time before the G-Man (you know who I mean) got dropped into this conversation, and the response was predictably savage. Perhaps the best line of the day came from a member of the audience: "G is to jazz what Dr. Seuss is to medicine."

All in all it was a sparkling hour. Although no definition of jazz was reached, or even attempted, the panel really clicked. The event drew a decent audience (including legendary producer Orrin Keepnews) and most of the crowd stayed until the end. One spectator suggested that Ouellette should try to continue this conversation at the 2007 IAJE convention in January. Sign me up.

Botti Makes a Stand

2:45pm - The Arena

After the panel discussion, there seems no more logical place to go than the Arena, where Chris Botti is the afternoon's headliner. After all, Botti's the current poster child for ambiguity over the "smooth jazz" label: some dismiss him as all style and little substance, others say he's the real deal despite his (ahem) "pop-ularity". Where does he really fit in?

In the Arena, Botti is declaring his jazz bona fides. The tune is "When I Fall In Love," but this is not Time-Life Romantic Romance for Lovers—although miles away from Miles [Davis] in execution, Botti wears Davis' influence on his sleeve. He shows surprising passion and power, blasting holes in the backing band's smooth r&b groove with short, sharp jabs. After Botti's burning solo, the band begins to move a bit further out. Mark Whitfield ignites a bluesy fusion-guitar break, and pianist Billy Childs follows up with an extended thundering that almost shakes the stage.

As if to further impress a Miles Davis connection on his listeners, Botti next calls an acoustic version of the tone poem "Flamenco Sketches" (from Kind of Blue). His playing on mute is warm and creamy, striking just the right note of melancholia. Between songs, Botti is outgoing and personable, praising a high school all-star band that performed earlier in the day and sharing anecdotes about his own group. It's easy to see how this guy's become so popular.

But his take on Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep" comes off a bit too slick, with Botti's playing now calling to mind Herb Alpert rather than Miles Davis. The electric midnight vibe from the band screams "quiet storm"—all it needs is a vocal contribution from Sade.

Botti throws in a small virtuoso twist, holding a fragile high note for an exceptionally long time, and then drummer Billy Kilson is suddenly stomping out a bass-heavy jungle groove that opens up into soaring contemporary jazz-funk. It's exciting and well-done, but the whole set seems so premeditated, so carefully planned for effect, that I can't stop thinking about the panel and what Charles Lloyd said the day before about being in the moment. I decide it's time to move on.

Burning Down the (Coffee) House

3:30pm - The Coffee House Gallery

Bassist Reuben Rogers is at it again, playing his third gig of the Festival. Last night he played back-to-back sets in the Arena with Charles Lloyd and Dianne Reeves. Now he's anchoring the Aaron Goldberg Trio, and the mood is intense.

The packed house erupts with applause as Goldberg breaks the tension built up by an insistent, repeated piano phrase. But it's a brief respite. Eric Harland, another crossover from the Lloyd band, turns the pressure boiler up even higher, banging out a drum solo like a piledriver carving a shortcut to China. A standing ovation follows, causing the bemused Goldberg to note, "we're not even done yet!"

"Lambada de Serpente" turns the vibe around 180 degrees. It's a thoughtfully folksy piece, the sort of thing that might have appealed to the late Penguin Café Orchestra. Rogers alternately plucks and bows, at one point moving in unison with Goldberg, later playing a casual, woody solo over Harland's quiet hand-drumming and Goldberg's minimalist comping. The leader's turn is sparkling and exuberant, riding a cresting wave of positive energy.

Next up is a speedy, fractured scramble that scurries along like a small rodent. Goldberg takes the twisty staccato line as a solo the first time through, then its a mad roller coaster ride as Harland drives the others to a seemingly unsustainable pace. Given sole ownership of the stage during his own solo, Harland does his level best to demolish the building. Fortunately, this is California and most structures are earthquake-proof. There is, predictably, another standing ovation. But this time it really is the end of the set.

It's Jazz, Baby!

4:30pm - The Night Club

Less than an hour after his powerhouse trio set, Aaron Goldberg is back on stage. But this time, he's swinging "Old McDonald Had a Farm" and the Alphabet Song (yes, that one: "A-B-C-D..."). He's not alone. "Downtown" trumpeter Steven Bernstein is there too, as are saxophonist John Ellis and the dynamite drummer Alison Miller. Soul diva Sharon Jones is carrying part of the vocal duties as sidekick to the hipster comic jive of Babi Floyd.

These are some heavy duty musicians, so what's up with the nursery rhymes? Meet Baby Loves Jazz, a jumping ensemble that could do for children's music what Ashton Kutcher did for trucker caps — making the corny cool. Although geared to the under-six set, and taking itself about as seriously as the Muppet Show, the music is real jazz, as much about musical education as entertainment.

Interacting directly with some eager tykes in the front row, the band runs through a delirious introduction to the various instruments on stage. "What's that?" Floyd asks as Tony Scherr plugs away on bass. When the kids shout "bass," Floyd pretends not to follow. "Face? That ain't nobody's face, man! Naw, that's a kalimba! That's a zither! That's a sousaphone!" Each time, the kids correct him, and they're delighted to eventually be proven right.

Soon, Floyd and Jones are giving the kids a rollicking clinic on scat vocals, using an animal song to scat out the sounds of monkeys, cows, owls and other critters. Next stop: naming colors! The band's high spirits are irresistible, and even childless adults in the room are having a ball. This may not be one of the high-profile shows in the Festival; there are no sweeping premieres or innovative postmodern experiments going on here. But a better time can't be had anywhere on the Fairgrounds.

Dave Brubeck: The Main Event

7:15pm - The Arena

Clint Eastwood is looking out over a sea of faces in the nearly-full Monterey County Fairgrounds Arena. "You all picked the right night to be here," he says, for on this evening two of the greatest living jazz giants will appear in back-to-back sets. Dave Brubeck has come to premiere his "Cannery Row Suite," a commissioned musical portrait of John Steinbeck's novel, and Oscar Peterson is waiting to follow him.

But "Cannery Row" comes later. When Eastwood's brief introduction is over and the preemptive standing ovation has subsided, the Brubeck quartet slips gracefully into a light, swinging rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," taken at a deliberate tempo with brisk playing on all sides.

Brubeck's solo reading of "Stormy Weather" has a relaxed, after-hours feel, flirting with stride piano and blues of the Bessie Smith variety. When the rest of the band comes in, those blues jump forward a generation or so, as sax man Bobby Militello bends low over his alto to produce a searingly soulful cadenza. Brubeck is solo again for the start of the next number, this time taking a grandiose approach before dropping into a mellow bounce. Bassist Michael Moore returns a sense of classicism to the tune, engaging the others in a delicate dialogue that turns into a fugue. The band flirts with a higher gear in a steaming, beboppish number before mellowing out again in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Brubeck's achingly tender intro and Militello's serene flute daydream draw sustained applause.

"You know," says the maestro in a lighthearted introduction to "Tantum Ergo," "people say to me, why don't you play some of the old tunes? Well, this one is two thousand years old." The piece (from Brubeck's "Pange Lingua Variations") is a sort of desert groove that reflects the entire history of this well-known melody: a Jewish dance, reputedly co-opted by the Roman army and eventually transformed to a Gregorian chant.

Cannery Row Suite

8:00pm - The Arena

The Arena stage grows crowded for "Cannery Row Suite," as Dave Brubeck's quartet is joined by singers Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini, his son Chris Brubeck's Triple Play band and a male chorus from the University of the Pacific. Many of the newcomers are in early 20th-century period dress, and a few large barrels have been placed at the edge of the stage for atmosphere.

In his introduction, Brubeck wryly tells the story of how Festival producer Tim Jackson initially asked for a full-blown opera based on John Steinbeck's novel. Brubeck managed to haggle him down to a 30-minute oratorio, something "more appropriate for a jazz festival." He then tries to lower expectations, pointing out that the finished piece had not been rehearsed before Saturday. "But I trust this audience," he says, recalling how a previous success—"The Real Ambassadors" with Louis Armstrong — managed to come together with equally little preparation. "In New York they would have made us wait three more days." Brubeck warns the audience that some sections of the suite are "practically impossible to sing," and apologizes in advance to the onstage cast.

The suite opens with the voice of Thomas Steinbeck, who reads the first paragraph of his father's novel over a series of projected photographs. A lone harmonica provides what Brubeck calls "the feel of the [ranch] bunkhouse." This leads to the jaunty "Overture," a catchy theme that recurs throughout the suite. The chorus celebrates Steinbeck's legacy and sets the scene of the book: "Monterey, Monterey, a hell of a place to work and to play..."

Gambarini takes center stage for "Dora's Song," playing the role of a local madam/ mother figure. Her pure-toned, drawn-out and soulful delivery is sharply reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald at several points. Brubeck provides a soft, enveloping piano interlude, but the song belongs entirely to Gambarini, whose performance is supple, immediate, and visceral. Brubeck looks delighted.

Elling is superb in his first feature, the ballad "Doc's Song," but here it is Dave Brubeck's gorgeous song structure and Iola Brubeck's sensitive, philosophical lyric that demand attention. As Doc muses on the biological specimens in his laboratory and the human specimens on Cannery Row, he brings the Festival full circle: as Babatunde Lea's band chanted on Friday, "we are all connected." Saxophonist Bobby Militello then offers a spirited aria that ripples through the crowd and up into the night sky.

There turns out to be some truth behind Brubeck's introductory warnings: a Broadway-eque section of the suite devoted to the freewheeling character Mack and his "boys" is a bit wobbly, the melody slipping beyond Chris Brubeck's grasp. Gambarini also seems to be reaching at one point, so perhaps this section is just a casualty of the abbreviated rehearsal time. But the Triple Play band soon puts things back on track: quick-stepping trombone, roadhouse guitar and good-time harmonica clear the way for a rip-roaring scat duet between Gambarini and Elling.

In an abrupt change of pace, the voice of Thomas Steinbeck returns to explain plot developments from the book. Elling gets the last word with "Doc's Soliloquy," a poignant twelve-tone composition. The audience to its feet en masse, and they remain standing for some minutes as the ensemble replays the overture as a recap. Dave and Iola Brubeck are ecstatic. Once again, they have triumphed at Monterey.

And Into the Night...

9:40pm - The Arena

"This piano is colder than I am," jokes Oscar Peterson, as he battles the chilly night and his own advancing age, striving to give the Festival a fitting conclusion. The crowd is supportive, but the results are decidedly mixed. Peterson plays almost entirely with his right hand, his left hovering above the keyboard but rarely striking. Unlike the Oscar Peterson of old, the master tonight sticks to medium-tempo swingers and slow ballads.

The ballads are striking. "When Summer Comes" endures two false starts as Peterson balks at microphone feedback and the noise of a passing airplane. But once the interruptions end, Peterson crafts a hushed, delicate jewel. Guitarist Ulf Wakenius' solo is gently lyrical over a restless undercurrent, and bassist Dave Young moves to his instrument's upper register for a tender statement. "Requiem," dedicated to jazz figures who have passed away, goes even deeper. Peterson is placid and deep in this melancholy piece, Wakenius quiet and thoughful, Young lyrical and dreamy. It is perhaps the most heartfelt — and most moving — moment of the Festival.

Unfortunately, the numbers taken at a faster tempo have less to offer. "Wheatland" and "Backyard Blues" have relaxed swings; the tunes are pleasant enough but the performances lack verve. With the cold weather clearly affecting his hands, Peterson manages to put together stylish single-note runs, but his chords and timing lack precision. Still, he remains determined.

The crowd is smaller by the end of the set, but Peterson gets a standing ovation. It has been a great day, concluded by one of the giants of jazz on one of its most esteemed stages. There is more: in the Night Club, Dr. Lonnie Smith is still performing feats of wizardry on the Hammond B-3 for a hip, young crowd, and the Ben Monder Trio still has one full set to go in the Coffee House. But as the final strains of jazz float into the starry sky, most people are looking ahead: to 2007 and the next Monterey Jazz Festival, coming up on 50 years old and still in its prime.

Photo Credit
Janna L. Gadden



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