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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


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