Monterey Jazz Festival 2006

After years of being a bit overshadowed by the Newport/New York Jazz Festivals, Monterey is finally being recognized as one of the truly great annual American jazz events; some musicians now call it the premiere jazz festival. The 49th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was held at the same venue as the previous 48, making it unprecedented among festivals. The Monterey Fairgrounds hosted over 50 sets of music at five locations (two outdoor stages and three nightclubs, all easily within walking distance) over a 2 1/2 day period on a September weekend. With a record turnout of over 40,000 attendees, Monterey is unusual among American jazz festivals in that there is no need to water down the lineup with R&B, pop or world-music acts. Saturday afternoon does include some blues-oriented performers (this year Bonnie Raitt and Keb’ Mo’ did quite well) and on Sunday afternoon, in addition to college and high-school bands at two venues, one encountered the remarkably dull trumpet playing of Chris Botti, who apparently thinks that holding long notes on a very slow "When I Fall In Love" makes him a 21st-century Chet Baker.

Michael Franks

Russell Ferrante of Yellowjackets

Otherwise, Monterey, under the direction of Tim Jackson, gives the audience a very good sampling of the state of jazz today. Whether it was guitarist Robben Ford having a reunion with the Yellowjackets, the very versatile bassist-singer Richard Bona, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd returning to Monterey 40 years after his hit Live in Monterey recording of “Forest Flower,” Babatunde Lea's modern Latin jazz, guitarist Duke Robillard's jump-blues band, keyboardist Uri Caine rocking out with his eccentric trio Bedrock, Roy Hargrove starring with both his exciting hard-bop quintet and his funky RH Factor, the Jeff Hamilton Trio with pianist Tamir Hendelman, the very original guitar playing of Lionel Loueke, singers Tierney Sutton and Dianne Reeves (if only she would stick to jazz!), organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and trios led by pianists Robert Glasper and Aaron Goldberg, there was an awful lot to choose from this year.

Most memorable was the playing of the following seven pianists and the singing of two vocalists: Kurt Elling was a constant during the weekend, sitting in with the Yellowjackets, answering questions onstage with his longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, performing with a college band (the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra), guesting with Dave Brubeck, debuting the intriguing “Red Man-Black Man Suite” with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and singing with his quartet before an overflowing crowd. His vocalese to Dexter Gordon's lengthy solo on “Body and Soul” is classic.

Roberta Gambarini is a future poll winner. Many in the jazz world have been aware of her for quite a while but it took a long time for Easy to Love, her debut CD (not counting an earlier obscure effort in Italy), to come out. At Monterey she was joined by the Hank Jones Trio and displayed a perfectly in-tune voice, a very attractive tone, the ability to bring out hidden beauty in ballads, a wide range and scatting that can keep up with any living singer. Her version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which places her lyrics over the recorded solos of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins from their 1957 recording, is quite memorable.

Among the many great pianists who appeared at Monterey were three relative youngsters and four classic veterans. Eldar, who really became noticed four years ago, is now at the ripe old age of 18. His technique is brilliant and, as is true of many young players, he can play with impressive energy and fill the air with notes. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is also expert at using space and his renditions of ballads are sensitive. While he performed at the smaller outdoors stage, he could easily have excelled in the main arena.

Taylor Eigsti is a few years older at 21 but has been known in California since he was 13. His career has been similar to Eldar's and his technique is also formidable. While Eldar is most influenced by Oscar Peterson, Eigsti is more of a postbop player as he showed on his own “Get Your Hopes Up” and during his long unaccompanied introduction to “Giant Steps,” which was quite impressionistic before his quartet tore it up.

Hiromi, almost an elder stateswoman in comparison at 27, has as much energy as Eldar and Eigsti put together, as difficult as that is to believe. A completely uninhibited player, she can play remarkably fast chordal solos, dancing a bit while she plays, though she has the tendency to go overboard at times. But every note she plays is articulated well and her solos, even when playing a standard, are adventurous and lively.

Of the veterans, Oscar Peterson was a bit sad to watch. His 1993 stroke long ago reduced him to being essentially a one-handed pianist but his right hand's virtuosity covered up his limitations for a time. However, during the past few years, his right hand has slowed drastically and now one can hear him making mistakes. He was at his best on slow pretty ballads, including his original “When Summer Comes,” of which he commented, “In Canada we say ‘If Summer Comes.’”

In contrast, McCoy Tyner, who had suffered from ill health and looked very thin a year ago, is back in prime form. His trio with the remarkable bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Eric Gravatt was joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, performing vintage modal music and modernized standards, all driven by Tyner's percussive playing.

While Dave Brubeck is 85, Peterson is 81, Tyner is 67 and Eldar is 18, Hank Jones is clearly the youngest of all the pianists. At 88 he walks faster than the others, has endless enthusiasm and still plays flawlessly. He was on Roberta Gambarini's set, taking several instrumentals as features and playing in a flawless style that has changed little since 1944.

Dave Brubeck wrapped up the festival with his climactic “Cannery Row Suite,” a tribute to author John Steinbeck that had his quartet with altoist Bobby Militello augmented by Chris Brubeck's Triple Play (with Madcat Ruth on harmonica and guitarist Joel Brown), several background singers and both Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini, who had opportunities to play parts and at one point scatted wildly together. Brubeck, who apologized to the audience beforehand for the lack of rehearsal time, was exuberant by the close of the suite when it was obvious that it was a major success. It deserves to be filmed.

Next year the Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 50th year. One can only imagine what Tim Jackson and the Monterey crew have in store for the 2007 edition.

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