Sunday at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Dave Kaufman By

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Sunday was a spectacularly beautiful day in Monterey which was just perfect for the 12-hour marathon of music. The closing day of the Jazz Festival included a stellar lineup of great jazz artists including Joe Lovano, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Brad Mehldau, Regina Carter and the closing event which featured a piano duet with celebrated jazz masters Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. These artists provided many of the great highlights as did some of the lesser known acts including Sandy Cressman, the Rodger Fox Big Band, Tia Fuller and Common, who is a hip hop star, but not well known to the jazz community.

I arrived at the Fair Grounds in time to catch a few selections from John Beasley's MONK'estra celebrating the 100th anniversary of Thelonious Monk. The orchestra is characterized by creative arrangements of the great master's work and features excellent ensemble work and fine soloists. Notable guests such as Regina Carter also contributed to the joyous tribute. Rodger Fox, an accomplished trombone player from New Zealand, conducts and arranges for a rather versatile big band that include many of the finest musicians from his native land. The Rodger Fox Big Band has built a solid international reputation over the course of a 40+ year history. On this occasion, their second of two performances at this festival, the band enthusiastically swung the blues. The concert featured guest soloist and blues master Chris Cain. Cain was featured liberally and thrilled the audience at the Garden Stage with inventive B.B. King inspired solos. It was an immensely enjoyable set.

Common, a critically acclaimed rapper, singer, actor and activist, headlined the afternoon program on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. Fusions of hip hop and jazz have enjoyed some measure of success in both musical communities. I have to admit that my knowledge of this artist was rather limited and I anticipated taking in just a couple of songs, snapping some pictures and moving on to another concert at the Fair Grounds. That said, I was completely enthralled by the performance and watched the entire set. Common has a commanding stage presence, is an impressive communicator (as reflected in both his lyrics and stage banter) and a phenomenal performer. His lyrics are informed by a remarkably literate and astute sense of social injustice. Common was ably supported by an excellent band that played a soulful jazz infused music. The group included the very impressive young flautist Elena Pinderhughes and the impassioned backing (and lead) vocals of Maimouna Youssef. The concert was one of the great surprises and indeed one of the highlights of Sunday at the fest.

Renowned bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh led an outstanding quintet that featured young jazz veterans Ben Wendel on tenor, drummer Rudy Royston, guitarist Matthew Stevens and pianist Fabian Almazan. Each of the musicians have extensive experience as sidemen and also lead their own ensembles. May Han Oh has toured and recorded with several jazz greats most notably Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas. The group performed music from Linda's excellent new recording Walk Against the Wind. The music and musicians seamlessly blurred boundaries between acoustic and electric jazz and negotiated the inside/outside continuum. May Han Oh plays both acoustic bass and bass guitar. She also sang wordless vocals, which were used to great effect on the song Speech Impediment. As Linda recounts, this is a story of a man who is trying to convey his love to someone, but fails miserably due to his profound expressive difficulties. She vocalizes a deceptively simple line which is mirrored by Ben Wendel on tenor. It was quite affecting and was perhaps the highlight of an excellent set.

I dashed over and caught the last 45 minutes of the Joe Lovano Classic Quartet. Lovano's music and extensive catalog has covered a rather expansive range, but the Classic Quartet, as advertised, plays music steeped in "the tradition" and does so brilliantly. The group includes bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Lamy Istrefi who ably anchored the group and marvelous young pianist Lawrence Fields. To the best of my knowledge, this edition of the Quartet has worked together for a couple of years. The music I heard, the latter half of a 90-minute set, consisted of ballads and mid-tempo numbers including originals and standards. I've seen Fields play on a few occasions and was impressed, but never more so than on this occasion. He possesses a remarkably deft lyrical touch and great command as evidenced in his work as a soloist and accompanist. Fields and Lovano have played together on many occasions over the years and recorded a live album at this festival in 2014 with the group “Sound Prints” Quintet. The musicians have a remarkable rapport and telepathic communication on stage. Lovano has always been a superb ballad player, but perhaps the years have conferred an even greater depth of feeling and concision in his playing. The set ended with a sublime version of John Coltrane's "Spiritual" (from the album Afro Blue Impressions) and a beautiful ballad "It's Easy to Remember" recorded by Trane on the Ballads album. I'm running low on superlatives, but this was as great as any set that I had heard at this Festival and that is a pretty high standard.

Next up was the Tia Fuller Quintet featuring special guest virtuoso trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The group also included the exceptional and ubiquitous drummer Rudy Royston playing in his fifth set of the festival, pianist Shamie Royston (Rudy's wife and Tia Fuller's sister) and James Genus on bass. This was quite a contrast to the Lovano set which placed a premium on ballads. The Fuller Quintet came out full throttle with all guns blazing and it was exhilarating. Fuller, who plays alto and soprano sax, is a very animated performer and musician and the exchanges with Jensen were just incredible. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the first 20 minutes of the set before heading off to the catch the next event.

The Chris Thile-Brad Mehldau duet opened the evening program at the Jimmy Lyons Stage. Thile is a virtuoso mandolinist and vocalist. He is a dynamic performer and there was a great sense of interplay with Mehldau. They obviously enjoy a great musical affinity. The music is less a fusion or "jazz grass," but rather strongly steeped in blue grass which is Thile's genre. Mehldau, a remarkably versatile pianist, was evidently quite comfortable playing in this idiom and even contributed vocals. They played music from their recent duet recording and to my ears, it sounded more compelling in this live setting than on album. The musicians were clearly having a great time and it was quite infectious.

Angelique Kidjo, the much celebrated Afrobeat singer from Benin, has been a consummate singer and performer for several decades. This concert was billed as Kidjo pays tribute to salsa and the great Celia Cruz, in particular. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical, but she pulled it off splendidly. Rather than try to reinvent herself as a salsa singer, she endeavored to find the root of this music in African rhythms and deftly explored that very fertile terrain. Master conga drummer Pedrito Martinez, who played multiple sets throughout the fest, was the featured guest. He was a powerful presence and also the perfect foil to Kidjo's dance moves. Kidjo is a marvelously engaging performer and she worked the crowd to great effect.

Dizzy's Den is the largest of the indoor venues and featured some of the greatest performances of this festival. Unfortunately, technical difficulties delayed the start of the Vijay Iyer Sextet and I was only able to catch the first 10 minutes of the set before running over to see the Herbie Hancock-Chick Corea duet. The Jimmy Lyons Stage was completed packed for the closing event and there was much eager anticipation. The pianists first worked together more than 40 years ago and have toured together in recent years. There is clearly a great deal of mutual respect and musical rapport. Although the set did not quite hit the high water mark of their finest performances, it was a thrill to see two jazz greats playing at the peak of their powers well into their eighth decade.

After listening to most of the Hancock-Corea set, I dashed over to Dizzy's Dens (at the other end of the Fair Grounds) to see the last 20 minutes of the Vijay Iyer Sextet, who continued to perform well beyond closing time. Although they were playing in front of a relatively sparse crowd (with most people attending the Hancock-Corea duet), the Sextet was on fire! They played music from their fine new album Far from Over. Iyer is perhaps best known for his intricate and cerebral compositions. That said, much of the music on the new recordin is played with high octane intensity and a deep funk groove. In live performance, the music packs a visceral wallop. The front line of Mark Shim on tenor sax, Steve Lehman on alto and cornetist Graham Haynes were in peak form and the sextet was just electrifying! This was a fitting conclusion to a brilliant festival. To quote my colleague Walter Atkins, "The Monterey Jazz Festival 2017 was a blissful musical and spiritual heaven on earth for thousands of old and new supporters alike." Enough said!

This is the final installment of three "In Picture" articles on the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival.
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