While there is no disputing the hegemony of New York City as jazz’s artistic epicenter, some of the music’s stronger enabling forces have bases far away from Gotham. Take, for instance, the examples put forth on two of the finer jazz albums this year, the Monterey Quartet’s Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival and the SFJAZZ Collective’s Live 2009, both with direct links to historically strong West Coast jazz festivals, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival, respectively.
A shining (if fleeting) example amongst “all-star” confabs, the Monterey Quartet-a sleek powerhouse unit featuring bassist Dave Holland, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba-was brought together by MJF director Tim Jackson for the milestone 50th-anniversary event in Monterey. As this newly released live recording reminds us, the group’s sets were possibly the boldest act on that festival’s program, period.
On the live album, the sum of the parts and the delicate balance of individuality and ensemble purpose ring true. Holland and Potter, of course, have a natural kinship, through years of playing together in Holland’s bands, and the versatile Harland falls right into the empathetic fold. Framing the song set are odes to cohesion, emotional restlessness and ensemble intensity in Harland’s “Treachery” and Potter’s “Ask Me Why.” Holland, an odd-meter-leaning composer of note, offers his Latin-infused “Step to It” and simmering ballad “Veil of Tears.” Rubalcaba’s playing and writing are stellar throughout; he injects his special brand of romanticism and virtuosic bravura and loans the group his sumptuous slow tune “Otra Mirada” and “50,” a funky theme. A short summer tour last year rekindled some of the quartet’s magic, before Rubalcaba was replaced by pianist Jason Moran, but the MJF 50th anniversary may have been its zenith.