10 Great Things About the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival

Norah Jones, Donny McCaslin, and Joey DeFrancesco were among the performers dazzling audiences at the 61st annual fest

61st Monterey Jazz Festival - Monterey, California September 21st, 2018

Norah Jones at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21, 2018 (photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

The Monterey Jazz Festival, held this year from Sept. 21 to Sept. 23, is a quaint little village that exists for two and a half days in mid-September with a diverse population base decked out in obscure instrumental band T-shirts and at least three other layers of clothing. During the day, the sun scorches. The fog, Monterey Bay’s greatest native product, burns off by the end of the morning, leaving a light breeze and open skies. Mother Nature has a way of selling the shady seats. When the sun drops out of sight, that crisp Pacific air exerts itself mightily. Mother Nature has a way of selling commemorative sweatshirts too.

Across the 20-acre fairgrounds, there are three outdoor stages and three indoor venues, plus a smattering of more informal performance spaces. An active attendee is never not listening. At any given point during the festival, there are at least two acts you’d love to see and one you could roll the dice on. Casting as wide a net as the “jazz” label can muster, Monterey offers something for everyone, but rarely does it pay off to park yourself in front of one stage until the end of the night. There’s also little room for pretension, which is great for both listeners and performers, whose audiences can swell and diminish at the whim of a jam-packed schedule.

There were enough noteworthy features at Monterey this year to fill at least two JazzTimes 10 lists, but one will have to do.

Gender Equity on the Agenda
Monterey was quick to respond to the gender imbalance of festival lineups in the past. It has always skewed toward male artists, but this year was a welcome opportunity for performances from the likes of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Tia Fuller, and flutist Jamie Baum. Norah Jones closed the weekend, filling the 5000-seat Jimmy Lyons Arena for her first performance at the festival. Backed by drummer Brian Blade, organist Pete Remm, and bassist Chris Thomas, Jones led a master class in tranquil vulnerability. She coolly matched the night air, providing ample excuses for attendees to cozy up to one another.

A mid-day symposium hosted by Suzan Jenkins on “women in jazz” was, fortunately, a relaxed discussion that touched on many great points, thanks to a panel that included Fuller and Jensen. Their honesty and, in particular, Jensen’s sense of humor made the event feel inclusionary without being accusatory. Problems were far from solved, but at least we’re admitting there are problems now.

The Legacy of Ray Brown
The spirit of the late bassist Ray Brown was summoned at least twice during the weekend. Christian McBride filled Brown’s role in a group filled out by Brown alumnus pianist Benny Green and drummer Gregory Hutchinson on the Arena Stage. The trio dug deep into a hard-swinging groove, each beat an opportunity to surprise, but it was a whisper-soft dance through Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’” that displayed their true mastery of the blues. Even the planes flying overhead couldn’t distract from their patient, immaculate playing.

Katie Theroux (right) performs with her trio at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2018
Katie Theroux (right) performs with her trio at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2018 (photo: David Royal/Monterey Jazz Festival)

The following afternoon, bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux evoked both Brown and McBride as she fronted her own hard-swinging trio. A solo homage by way of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” was bold, not an easy task for an outdoor gig in the middle of the day but a successful one. Her original tune “Ray’s Kicks,” a reference to her acquisition of a pair of Brown’s old shoes, was more sprightly, a youthful nod to the foundation of jazz.

Outdoor vs. Outdoor: José James
The Jimmy Lyons Stage is the festival’s largest performance area, breaking up each day with two three-band sets. José James, a charismatic and seductive frontman, headlined Saturday afternoon’s set. When he moved to the more intimate Garden Stage an hour later, his vibe became more immediate and casual. The crowd surrounded the stage and James wandered out among the blankets and beach furniture for “Lean on Me,” soaking up the enamored cries of one particular audience member before apologizing to her husband. Such moments can be a danger when leaving the safety of the stage.

Outdoor vs. Indoor: Bill Frisell
Guitarist Bill Frisell would probably maintain the same level of cool whether he was on the Arena Stage or in the middle of a hurricane. First he, along with pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, supported saxophonist Charles Lloyd on the big stage. It was a stripped-down sound, driven by drummer Eric Harland’s JB breakbeats. Singer Lucinda Williams joined the band for a few tunes, adding a shock of pink lipstick and a ragged smile to the band’s country-rock swing.

Later in the evening, Frisell appeared fronting his trio in the intimate Pacific Jazz Café. Along with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, he conjured crystalline phrases and an ethereal strum for an attentive crowd. Seemingly more an indoors guy, Frisell was just right for that room.

Donny McCaslin at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21, 2018
Donny McCaslin at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21, 2018 (photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

Indoor vs. Outdoor: Donny McCaslin
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who first played the festival in 1982 while still in high school, dug into two very different bags. On Saturday night, he closed Dizzy’s Den, the largest indoor space, with a plugged-in quartet that also featured vocalist/guitarist Jeff Taylor, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Zach Danziger. They were the loudest band of the day, a churning blend of rock riffs and electronically manipulated horn lines, and some people were not prepared, likely hoping for something more straight-ahead.

On Sunday night, McCaslin completely changed directions, taking on the role of Michael Brecker in the Arena Stage’s tribute to the late saxophonist. With help from trumpeter Randy Brecker and the unstoppable propulsion of drummer Antonio Sánchez, McCaslin ripped into a postbop sound, unadorned and full of fire, a reminder that even though his career is rapidly evolving, he’s still grounded in the fundamentals.

Appreciating Bill Withers
José James’ set, like his new album, was a fitting tribute to 80-year-old soulman Bill Withers. But it was blues vocalist Thornetta Davis who really put a stamp on Withers’ material with an a cappella take on “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Hushed and controlled, Davis seemed to have a great time during her set, hypnotizing the crowd with a welcome touch of gospel.

Thornetta Davis (right) performs with her band at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2018
Thornetta Davis (right) performs with her band at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2018 (photo: David Royal/Monterey Jazz Festival)

Higher Learning
It is kind of amusing that the high-school band tent was sponsored by the North Coast Brewing Company. (Hey, this is California; why not a cannabis company?) The parade of teenagers in ill-fitting suits was reassuring, however. They knew the music and weren’t afraid to test the waters. In particular, William Brandt and his band showed tremendous confidence in both abilities and repertoire—tasteful and unwavering, not flashy or unhinged, as some kids can get. A major bonus for the students performing at Monterey is the opportunity to hear and meet some of their idols. It’s refreshing to see so many young musicians checking the scene; the music is in good hands.

Bria Skonberg at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21, 2018
Bria Skonberg at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 21, 2018 (photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

Legacy: Monterey Jazz on Tour
After 61 years, the Monterey Jazz Festival is a tight ship. The brand is strong, and internationally recognized. This year, the festival’s ambassador ensemble (in its fifth iteration) is a killer combination of skill, youth, and diversity that bodes well for the festival and the genre. Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and trumpeter Bria Skonberg form the frontline while pianist Christian Sands, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Jamison Ross fill out the rhythm section. It’s a tight, swinging group that was immediately uplifted by the presence of vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Joining the band mid-set on the Arena Stage, Salvant approached the microphone fearlessly, opening with a dark a cappella tale that transfixed the oversized space. Once again, Monterey has managed to corral some of the music’s best young talents into a touring band.

Up Close & Personal: Blue Note Tent
A small white tent barely eight folding chairs across was Blue Note Records president Don Was’ home for the weekend. Each afternoon he led listening sessions, with headphones for each attendee, and conducted interviews with festival headliners. Located in the center of the fairgrounds, the tent’s door (or, more accurately, flap) was a few feet from the stage, and it wasn’t unusual to see Charles Lloyd or José James discussing their craft several feet from the main walkway.

Joey DeFrancesco at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2018
Joey DeFrancesco at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2018 (photo: Jim Stone/Monterey Jazz Festival)

B-3 Boogie
The rather drably named Nightclub was just that, with a slight commuter-hotel vibe thrown in. Padded chairs filled the space that hosted the most amplification of the weekend. Guitarist Adam Rogers and pianist Cameron Graves opened the festival here, but the final night was arguably Nightclub’s best of the fest, featuring three organ-led bands including Bobby Floyd, the electro-soul of Delvon Lamarr, and the unapologetic positive vibes of Joey DeFrancesco. Adding an electronic keyboard to his already hulking B-3 sound, DeFrancesco was in top form alongside saxophonist Troy Roberts, guitarist Dan Wilson, and drummer Michael Ode, blasting out cleansing soul before the fairgrounds wrapped it up for another successful weekend.