Monterey Jazz Festival

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

Vijay Iyer
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Jason Moran
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John Scofield
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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.

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.