10/06/09

Monterey Jazz Festival

Sept. 18-20, 2009; Monterey County Fairgrounds; Monterey, Calif.

Aside from its ever-deepening historical significance as the world’s oldest continuous jazz festival, and the health and breadth of its programming, the Monterey Jazz Festival’s hosting Monterey County Fairgrounds boast a unique cultural microclimate. Repeat festivalgoers witness the gradual stylistic evolution of premier jazz artists, most of whom have come across the continent from NYC for this early fall tradition.

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John Scofield
By Nick Suttle
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Vijay Iyer
By Pooja Bakri
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Jason Moran
By Clay Patrick McBride

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At this year’s MJF, for instance, the most daring piece heard was Jason Moran’s festival-commissioned piece, “Feedback,” a prime example of this artist’s conceptual range and taste for invention. A few years ago, Moran’s trio, Bandwagon, played a few sets in the small Coffee House Gallery—one of now seven different stages around the fairground property. This time, Moran, an increasingly respected and commanding figure on the current jazz-piano scene, migrated 100 yards to the vastly larger Arena stage.

Capping off a set which included live and sampled allusions to Billie Holiday and Jaki Byard, Moran’s new 20-minute “Feedback” drew its central concept from a site-specific source—recordings of feedback from Jimi Hendrix’s historic show at the Monterey Pop Festival on this very stage back in 1967. Moran’s piece gamely mixed feedback sounds from then and now—waving a microphone in front of a Marshall stack to match drummer Nasheet Waits’ feedback-like scraping of cymbals—and fervent work on both grand and electric pianos. If not a complete success, musically, Moran’s “Feedback” fulfilled the all-important role of experimenting with new ideas and composite blends.

A critical charge and challenge for general manager Tim Jackson—whose stint at the head of the festival has turned it into one of America’s finest jazz institutions—is the delicate balancing act between tending tradition and pushing into jazz’s future. The veteran core audience isn’t necessarily a chance-taking bunch, as seen in the flow of audience members sent to the exits during Moran’s explorations, but there is a willingness to sample what’s new and risky on this property.

Just after Moran’s compelling set, for example, the spotlight went to old favorite Dave Brubeck—now 88 and still playing like he means it—who made one of his countless visits to this stage (starting with the very first Monterey festival, in 1958). After being granted an honorary Berklee degree by longtime Monterey festival supporter (and neighbor) Clint Eastwood, Brubeck and his quartet were to ostensibly pay 50th-anniversary tribute to the classic album Time Out. The band mostly avoided that album’s song list, however, apart from the de rigueur math-problem-ditty, “Take Five.”

Following that set on Sunday night—a program dubbed “Three Generations of Pianists”—Chick Corea blended his more straightahead side with his proto-fusion side, opening with “On Green Dolphin Street” and closing with “500 Miles High,” in a not entirely communicative trio setting with old Return to Forever bandmates Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. The latter two aren’t on par with Corea when it comes to giving credence and musicality to conventional jazz turf.

Traditional stylistic credence galore came gushing out of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, paying a visit to the festival and showing once again what a prize big-band entity it has become. In a set of intriguing new arrangements of old tunes by the mostly 1960s-based likes of Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson and early Wayne Shorter, the JLCO served up a clean-machined performance, and leader Wynton Marsalis offered some especially hot solos, with technical polish and creative fervor in his pocket.

In another history-nodding set late on Friday night, following the young dynamo bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side All-Star Band cooked up spicy and tight new Latin-ized arrangements of tunes from other classic jazz projects celebrating the big 5-0: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Guest soloists Joe Lovano and Randy Brecker, on tenor sax and trumpet, respectively, helped keep the heat on high in a set that extended well past midnight.

In between, a Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars throw-together (with pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone and vocalist Kurt Elling) tried to find a common groove and collective identity, with spotty success.

It could be said that the MJF’s programming is lean on the left-field or intellectual jazz front, but Jackson is careful in addressing that end of the spectrum as well. This year that creative bent came through in a captivating showing from Vijay Iyer’s trio in the Coffeehouse venue where Moran once played (that room tends to host the smarter, more venturesome stuff). Also heard in that room was the dazzling up-and-comer Jonathan Batiste, on piano and the unjustly neglected melodica. Another wowing young voice in the festival was the stunning trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a tasty virtuoso whose on-the-mark band included pianist Gerald Clayton.

On this weekend, Lovano was the artist-in-residence, and proved to be an ideal example of an artist whose tastes and skills tend to go broad and curious. Most adventurously, his own new double-drummer band, Us Five, here with Spalding on bass, beautifully shook up the Dizzy’s Den venue, moving in directions both groove-strong and artfully loose. Elsewhere over the weekend, Lovano was a critical third voice in bassist John Patitucci’s wonderful new trio, alongside the endlessly fascinating and hubris-free drummer Brian Blade. The saxophonist also sat in with Herwig.

But the greatest and most memorable surprise of the entire weekend came virtually by accident. Pianist Hank Jones had to cancel his spot in a quartet set opening Saturday night’s arena show. John Scofield—in town to play with his “Piety Street” New Orleans-meets-gospel band and as a guest with Soulive—happily filled the spot, making for a poetic powerhouse group with Lovano, Patitucci and Blade. What transpired, on short notice, was pure magic, undoubtedly because of deep internal liaisons new and old. Blade and Patitucci have, of course, long shared rhythm-section seats in Wayne Shorter’s current quartet. Lovano was an important part of the great Scofield quartet of the early ’90s, and their rapport remains deep and palpable.

While not in the MJF 2009 master plan, this new “Sco-Lo-Pat-Blade” band (they’ve got to go on meeting like this) made for the weekend’s most bedazzling and memorable sneak-attack highlight. Jazz festivals, like jazz itself, can be like that: subject to—and embracing of—last-minute changes, where epiphanies sneak through the door.

And lest we forget to pay due praises in this rather nervous moment for festival sponsorship, Verizon continues to be this festival’s guardian angel. Note to would-be corporate sponsors of the jazz festival scene: Join the party! This music is good for you, smartens up our citizens, and the j-word continues to be a beacon of American cultural pride, even if Joe America is mostly indifferent.

2 Comments

  • Oct 15, 2009 at 12:56AM erle flad

    I must respond to your review of the 52nd MJF and add my own comments on the festival as well. The MJF has been in a slow decline for awhile - I would like to say the 50th, which was a huge disappointment, but it started well before then.
    The overall quality of the music has declined. Some of the choices for headliners, and especially the up-and -coming "young lions" have been especially off the mark. The idea of a featured artist is all well and good, but lately the MJF has adopted a pattern of recycling acts two, three, even four times throughout the festival and just over done it. Yes its great for most everyone to get a chance to see great acts, the arena ticket holders as well as the grounds, but lately I think they could have booked a few more quality acts instead.
    I know you can't please everybody and variety is the spice of life but whoever is doing the booking seems to have dropped the ball a lot lately, booking totally non-jazz acts and a lot of lame sort-of-jazz acts. Remember the Cuban pop band that headlined a couple years ago? And granted while the average age of the MJF goer now seems to be about 65, these folks can appreciate good jazz when they hear it, make no mistake about it.
    What happened to the BOSE live broadcast tent, which was great? I know Tower Records is no longer with us, but Best Buy housing the CD tent! Horrible! They could have called up Amoeba in SF or Berkeley and gotten all the new stuff in as well as the vintage lps and cds - remember the independent CD cellars that used to be there every year? What happened to them?
    You failed to mention Saturday afternoon, unofficially reserved for blues - this year Susan Tedeschi headlined, why her? Because her husband Derek Trucks headlined last year? Ok she was good, and he was great, but not great like Buddy Guy great a couple years ago when he totally tore the place up. And Pete Seeger? Pete Seeger? So I guess the guy deserves a tribute and all those old jazzers certainly know him well, but after all this IS a JAZZ FESTIVAL!

    As for your comments: I caught Jason Moran's second act at the smaller venue and conceptual
    or not it was confusing at best and really boring! Did he even play the piano? I never saw his hands reach either the upper or lower registers of the keyboard. What is he doing?
    Re: the Chick Corea set, it was pretty good once the sound engineer got it together .. yes I am one of those a-holes who will complain to him, which is what I did when I noticed the piano sounded great for Dave Brubeck but like crap for Chick. Well he had just come on board! Can you imagine changing engineers between sets? Anyway, were your ears turned off when Stanley Clarke played? He still has unbelievable chops and stole the show!
    Yes Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra were awesome, such a professional, wonderfully rehearsed, well oiled machine of superstars, I had to see them twice.
    And the sort of contrived all star group with Elling, Carter, etc I agree never found the groove - wrong chemistry or not enough rehearsal time?
    Conrad Herving's Latin Side sets were interesting - I appreciate the concept - and was glad to hear Randy Brecker can still smoke it. But George got ta have the funk Duke?

    My Highlights: Wynton Marsalis and the LCJO as already mentioned. Joe Lovano, with Patitucci and Blade, blowing his ass off riffing on Sonny Rollins compositions - such a tight trio!; and Joe again playing with Patitucci and Blade and Scofield, some of the most dynamic harmonic interchanges I've heard. Esperanza Spalding was pretty impressive too on all levels.

    So what is the MJF to do? With only us old geezers in attendance it is sure to continue its downward spiral - they have got to find a way to entice the young jazz enthusiasts, keep the old, and I think the only way to do it is keep the quality of the music at the highest level possible.
    E. Flad

  • Oct 18, 2009 at 01:02AM Lehman Black

    I take issue with Mr Woodwards positive review of the festival and concur with Mr Flads. The MJF has been in decline for the last 3 or 4 years with a dumbing down of the lineup and musicians to the point that it resembles at times the Playboy Jazz Fest rather than the quality venue it used to be. Each year the ticket prices rise faster then inflation and we get less for our money.

    Being a festival goer for the last 10 years I noticed that Saturday afternoons in the main arena were the first to go. Back in the day you could see Lucky Peterson, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Smith, Keb Mo and many other true blues folks. Now we have Pete Segeer and Susan Tedeschi! What a disappoinment. Unless those of us who are hardcore MJF goers complain the decline is likely to continue.

    Then there were acts like George Duke who is held up as some sort of jazz icon and genius yet is one of the kings of fusion or what Don Pullen called con fusion. I have not heard Mr Duke play an acoustic set in my 40 years plus of being a jazz listener. Last year we were graced with the presence of Herbie Hancock on a Saturday night. Mr Hancock is one of the greatest pianists of all times and was a child prodigy and is a musical genuis yet he chose to bring an all electric hardcore fusion band.

    As for Mr Moran, an extremely talented pianist, I failed to see anything adventurous about what he was or is doing as far as furthering the tradition of the music. Looping in sound bites demonstrates a reliance on electronica that detracts from the true essence the music. What would Mr Moran or Mr Duke done had there been a power or equipment failure. I know what Wynton or Joe Lovano would have done - Played music.

    The vendor situation is not good. The loss of Tower Records was huge but to replace it with Best Buy is a travesty. I agree with Mr Flad. Ameoba Records could have brought in a better selection of music and a friendlier jazz ambiance. What happened to the BlueBeat music tent? I would bet they can no longer afford the vendor fees.

    I believe the majority of the regular festival goers eschew a lot of the rock, folk or popular instrumental music oriented current leanings of the MJF and hark back to the day when there were musicians on stage who were true to the tradition of the music.

    L. Black

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