The Monterey Jazz Festival 2008 Music Sampler

Tod Smith By

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It's hard to single out highlights from a compilation of highlights.
Frequently, even free music downloads can be overpriced. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule and the Monterey Jazz Festival 2008 Music Sampler from iTunes is one fine example of how free can be worth so much more than nothing.

Upon entering the Monterey Fairgrounds on a festival day, there's an assortment of people selling programs, providing security and generally just wandering around. Add to it the sounds of music emanating from the various stages and the smells coming from the food booths surrounding the grounds' perimeter and you have a perfect recipe for sensory overload. Hidden in this mélange of music, merriment and meals are a few people whose sole purpose for that day is to give you something for nothing.

Skeptics in the crowd simply walked passed them. The self-absorbed ignored them and attended to more important things. But the polite, the curious and the experienced gratefully accepted this small token of appreciation. An obvious promotion, it was not an unreasonable expectation that this card would deliver retreads of old, overworked covers of all too familiar sounding compositions. On the contrary, this deceptively simple lanyard attached a gift card from iTunes that unlocked a musical treasure chest worthy of the digital gods.

This may clearly be exaggeration, but given past experiences with free music, the 25 selections on this little gem are strong representations of performances by Monterey Jazz Festival artists. Ranging from modern, to world to Latin and even rock, the music in this compilation is just plain good.

Nearly three hours long, the 2008 Music Sampler is a clever way for the Festival, iTunes and the artists themselves to get festival-goers to try something new. With a broad representation of musical genres, this compilation provides something for all musical tastes and just as importantly, offers an opportunity for the listener to experience something he or she might not try otherwise.

It's hard to single out highlights from a compilation of highlights. Maria Schneider's Sky Blue is a breathtakingly beautiful orchestral composition featuring exquisite soprano work by Steve Wilson, while Barbara Dennerlein's contribution, Funkish is from the opposite side of the jazz spectrum—a blues-funk, Hammond B-3 driven house party that grooves from start to finish. Marc Cary's Gentle Wind is anything but gentle and highlights the considerable talents of this fine keyboardist. Clearly a departure from the traditional Monterey performances is Stablemaster by Rudder. The musicianship is apparent here and their experiences with artists as diverse as Sting, Jeff Watts and even Harry Belafonte have helped them create a nice rock-based, jam band sound.

Of course there's a healthy dose of the classics with selections from Sonny Rollins (Kids Know); Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke (Airegin); and John Coltrane (Little Melonae). And vocalists Kurt Elling (Undun) and Nancy Wilson (with Tom Scott's The Masquerade is Over) are also given their due. Many other fine recordings are featured here and the promotion is a good one. It serves the Festival, Apple, the artists and listeners well; a rare win-win in this increasingly consumers versus retailer, winners take all world.

Now, there is one problem. The cards were distributed at the Monterey Jazz Fest and to my knowledge, nowhere else. In fact, the expiration date says November 30, 2008. iTunes does allow one who already has the sampler to "gift" it to others, but there is a catch - a 0.99 charge for each song. So, the free compilation would cost your beneficiary almost $25 with tax. That said, for those at the festival, it presented a great way to sample artists they might not have noticed otherwise. By the way, a word of advice—if you find yourself at a music event, perhaps even Monterey in 2009, take the free gift. It might be worth something.

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