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Monterey Notebook 2007, Part 1: Friday


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McLaughlin's set is an exercise in fusion wizardry, as each player tosses off dazzling Technicolor solos in turn.
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The 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held September 21-24, had the deck stacked in its favor from the get-go. Already possessed of the ineffable mystique that comes with being one of the most storied venues in jazz, a famously convivial scene in a legendary setting, this year's edition had the added allure of a golden anniversary—and a heavyweight artist lineup to match. The festival shattered attendance records and, despite a rare bout of wet weather, proved that Monterey still has it after all these years.

What follows is a blow-by-blow account of MJF/50 (as the avalanche of official merchandise dubbed it), written as it happened and presented largely as jotted down at the scene. For those who have never been to the festival, a bit of orientation may be in order: the Monterey County Fairgrounds sit about a mile from Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, on a lovely stretch of the California coast. The fairgrounds themselves house two outdoor venues (the large, gated Arena and smaller Garden Stage) along with several indoor stages scattered across 22 acres. As a rule of thumb, the biggest acts appear in the Arena, while the best action is to be found on the grounds. But no matter where you go, you're sure to find something delightful.


Friday, 5:40 p.m.—The Fairgrounds

If you haven't been lucky enough to score a hotel room within walking distance of the Monterey County Fairgrounds—that is, if you didn't book a year in advance—then the experience of attending Monterey begins with a cloud of dust.

See, the Festival's official parking is a golf course out behind the fairgrounds, a short walk that seems like miles away. And before you reach the neat green lawn, there's that field of dusty earth, kicked up by a thousand cars, that gives you the unofficial welcome.

Parking completed, the long march begins— clear around the fenced-off grounds, past the smell of a dozen charcoal fires starting up in the food court. A legion of volunteers stands ready, some fresh- faced and eager to help, others wary veterans alert for scam artists. Finally, you reach the line of early arrivals stretching along Fairground Road, a jolly band of comrades that goes through the same ritual year after year.

Inside the gates, things are buzzing. Golf carts whiz to and fro as VIPs and messengers conduct their final tasks before opening. Vendors put the finishing touches on carefully arranged displays of wares. Members of the press meet, greet and drink at an official pre-party. And then, suddenly, it's show time.

A Change in the Weather

6:40 p.m.— The Garden Stage

The 50th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival slides into life on a cool, swinging groove.

Along Came Betty, a streamlined quintet with classic West Cast style, is making pianist Biff Smith's quirkily titled pieces ("Brad Mehldau's Monogrammed Guest Towels") sound like old favorites. Smith lays on a touch of the blues as Pete Stock's personable trumpet and flugelhorn weave gently through the gathering outdoor crowd.

It's a breezy evening under an unsettled sky—forecasts predict rain before the weekend is out, a rarity for the festival. But spirits are warm at the Garden Stage. Riding the band's steady bounce, guest guitarist Storm Nilson spins clean, riffing lines that defy the gray clouds.

Elsewhere, people are already queuing up for the evening's other sets. By 7:15, more than 40 people are already in line for guitarist Anthony Wilson's set in the Night Club venue, nearly an hour away. That number will double within a few minutes.

And when the first raindrops fall at 7:45, the Night Club is instantly full.

Anthony Wilson: All Together Now

8:15 p.m.—The Night Club / Bill Berry Stage

The Anthony Wilson Nonet eases in slowly, allowing themselves a few minutes to drift from their leader's atmospheric solo guitar meditation up to a casually loping fantasia. Standing hunched over his guitar, Wilson carries the daydream forward into a funky strut, giving his five-horn front line a chance to show off its tight ensemble coordination and simpatico improvisational chops. Donald Vega's stabbing piano break pushes the band into higher gear as the atmosphere of the packed room grows thick and humid.

Stringing tunes together into lengthy hybrids, Wilson's ensemble breathes—suspending time, revealing wide vistas or working grooves as a single organism. Wilson guides it with an open, almost vocal tone that is picked up in a sprightly dialogue with the band.

With the room jammed, only two or three people are admitted at a time, as others depart. Midway through the set, Wilson's father, the great bandleader Gerald Wilson, manages to get in and is guided to a seat near the rear of the room. The elder Wilson nods appreciatively at Alan Ferber's rhythmic trombone work, which slips into a rumbling drum break by Alan's twin brother, Mark Ferber.

Outside, the drizzle grows heavier.

Bonerama: Slammin' at Dizzy's

8:45 p.m.—Dizzy's Den

The slamming horn attack of Bonerama is audible far beyond the barn-like venue known as Dizzy's Den. Inside, a damp but enthusiastic crowd of hipsters bobs in time as the band slathers on layers of dirty, four- trombone funk.

Backed by electric guitar and the metronomically perfect time of drummer Eric Bolivar, sousaphonist Matt Perrine wrenches out a remarkable, chattery solo with the suppleness of an electric bass, the physicality of a one-man marching band and the breathless creativity of a human beat-box. But the band is still warming up.

Morphing briefly into an Afrobeat juggernaut that threatens to derail like some runaway Nigerian train, the group instead slips sideways into psychedelic soul with a heavy dose of New Orleans-style mourning.

The audience follows every twist. Indeed, it takes me some time to realize that the tambourine accompaniment I've heard throughout the set is not coming from the stage at all, but from the back row of the house. But as the beat goes on in Dizzy's Den, the main events are just getting under way in the Arena...

Dave Holland: Four Corners

9:20 p.m.—The Arena

The persistent drizzle has left small but dastardly puddles in the center of each seat of the Arena, hidden in the darkness until sat upon by unwary jazz fans. But any thought of discomfort is quickly dispelled by the finely-tuned all-star machine on the stage.

Dave Holland, looking professorial in the spotlight, is spinning a virtuosic monologue on bass, the fingers of both hands flying like those of a pianist before settling into the indigo balladry of "Veil of Tears." Saxophonist Chris Potter gently probes the corners of this tune, and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba comments on these explorations through gauzy arpeggios and furtive statements. Drummer Eric Harland, who was declaring himself to the heavens only minutes before in a powerful solo, now slinks stealthily underfoot as sax and piano coil into ever-tighter knots.

In Potter's popping "Ask Me Why," the saxophonist describes taut orbits around Holland's shifting yet gravitationally stable axis. Rubalcaba hops and scurries while Harland pushes the band smoothly but firmly into the fire. He easily overpowers the sound of a plane passing low overhead, turning it into a mere accent concluding a masterful set.

DJ Logic: But Is It Jazz?

9:45 p.m.—Lyons Lounge

Off the beaten path, beyond the Arena and past the point where the Monterey Jazz Festival normally draws its borders, there is a new alley called Lyons Lane, named after the Festival's legendary founder, Jimmy Lyons. The Lane houses a historical exhibition, with reproductions of old posters and newspaper clippings recalling fifty years of jazz magic, decade by decade.

From beyond this display, perhaps representing the future, comes the unfamiliar thump of dancefloor electronica.

Yes, this is still part of the Festival. "Lyons Lounge" is a tent at the very end of the lane, decorated with palm trees, parquet floor and soft white cubes for chairs. Here, DJ Logic and Vinnie Esparza are tag-teaming sets throughout the weekend, slapping a steady stream of vinyl discs onto a pair of turntables.

Attendance is sparse despite the rain outside, with many of the seats occupied by somewhat bemused older patrons. The younger ones get it though, and they move fluidly to the heavy beats. For his part, DJ Logic is keeping the flow fresh and hard-hitting. Swing horns and fusion basslines collide and diverge kaleidoscopically—sampled, chopped and pasted back together. It's quite a good set, until one especially harsh track succeeds in clearing most of the room.

Still, the evening is young, and this nook is mostly undiscovered. I wonder how it will look at a friendlier hour, say 11:00 Saturday night?

John McLaughlin: Out of the Rain

10:10 p.m.— Jazz Theatre

With the rain picking up again during John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension's set in the Arena, the holders of less expensive grounds tickets suddenly hold an advantage of sorts: they can watch the set indoors, thanks to a live video simulcast. Most of the audio fidelity is lost by the Jazz Theatre's small, muddy-sounding speakers, but in exchange the 200 or so people camped in here get a great view via close- up camera angles... and the privilege of staying dry.

McLaughlin's set is an exercise in fusion wizardry, as each player tosses off dazzling Technicolor solos in turn. Five-string bassist Hadrien Féraud and keyboardist Gary Husband continually threaten to steal the show, only to be matched time and again by McLaughlin's own blazing, authoritative proclamations. Drummer Mark Mondesir, who has plenty of pyrotechnic flair himself, looks like he's having the time of his life as he barrels through McLaughlin's tricky, rhythmically complex compositions. And even here, where the audience sits in total isolation, McLaughlin earns resounding applause.

Craig Taborn: (De)construction

11:00 p.m.—Coffee House Gallery

There's a rule of thumb on the Monterey Jazz Festival grounds: those who make up their minds early and stick to the plan are rewarded. The rest are left standing in line, and sometimes in the rain.

So as Papa Grows Funk's high-octane brand of soul issues from the Garden Stage, at least a hundred people have waited outside the still-jammed Night Club for upwards of an hour, hoping to get in to see Terence Blanchard's Quintet. Some of them will still be there after another hour. Across the way, a smaller but equally soggy bunch is trying to see the band Dumpstaphunk at Dizzy's Den. But there's plenty of room in the Coffee House Gallery, where the Craig Taborn Trio is about to start their third and final set of the night.

Dark and close, the Gallery is particularly suited to music with an intimate intensity, and it's often home to the Festival's more cerebral or esoteric performances. Taborn's is textbook.

The band opens with the mechanical angularities of "Little Red Machine," a set of overlapping, lopsided patterns that quickly become hypnotic—or irritating, depending on one's point of view. But underneath the seemingly static surface, all is movement. Thomas Morgan's bass solo flits around Taborn's gradually evolving rhythmic loops until the pianist begins adding his own embellishments, first in tiny doses, then in cascades.

Moving on to less regimented fare, the group nevertheless continues to sound like it's playing with building blocks, albeit oddly-shaped ones. All the players seem to physically fall forward into their instruments as they manipulate eerie fragments of abstract sound in a seemingly boundless space. Slowly, delicate crystalline structures are formed, then set in motion with great, loping strides before being casually smashed into a resolution.

So far, Monterey is living up to expectations.

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