When everything’s clicking at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the weekend feels like far more than a densely packed series of performances. By both serendipity and design, Monterey creates a free-flowing dialogue between musicians and eras, so that a tune played in one venue can reverberate across the fairgrounds. The 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its milestone 60th season Sept. 15-17, and the cross-generational talk between various stages and venues grew richer as the weekend progressed, climaxing with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea’s transporting and deeply playful piano duo in the Main Arena.
But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. Matt Wilson figured the best way to start a weekend-long party was by inviting his comrades to sit in with his band performing tunes inspired by Carl Sandburg’s poetry. It took two players to replace Honey and Salt guitarist/vocalist Dawn Thompson, with ace guitarist Bruce Forman and Seattle-based pianist/keyboardist Dawn Clement (covering the vocals with aplomb) joining cornetist Ron Miles and reed expert Jeff Lederer for a rip-snorting set. As rowdy, raucous and trenchant as a New York Post headline, the music attained a Wilson-ian apotheosis of screwball sublimity when Peter Erskine and Jeff Clayton recited Sandburg’s advice for encountering gorillas and elephants in “We Must Be Polite.”
In the Main Arena the centennial tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, a presiding spirit at Monterey from 1958’s inaugural festival through his last appearance in 1990, was underwhelming despite the always-vivifying participation of conguero Pedrito Martinez and the trumpet pyrotechnics of Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones. Kenny Barron, whose trio anchored the tribute, made “Con Alma” into a deliberate but sensuously flowing dance—it was the first time he’d played it solo, he said. The performance evoked Diz with far more, well, soul, than the blazing horns.
Friday night concluded in the fairground’s most intimate venue, now called the Pacific Jazz Café, with a 90th birthday salute to Stan Getz by tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Making his Monterey debut, he played tunes from the 1974 album Captain Marvel in sequence. It’s easy and often tempting to dis tribute gigs when they feature an accomplished, well-traveled musician who fully merits a set performing his own music. But Frahm and his superlative band with Erskine, bassist Scott Colley and Billy Childs on Rhodes (more please!) was utterly compelling from beginning to end, referencing the classic source material while bringing fervent intelligence and muscular drive to some of Chick Corea’s greatest tunes.
After the Colombian band Monsieur Periné woke up the fairgrounds with a celebratory set, a joyous wave of soul washed over the fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon. The rising Bay Area R&B combo Con Brio kept the sun-kissed Garden Stage audience on their feet with frontman Ziek McCarter’s imploring vocals, and Dee Dee Bridgewater delivered a Memphis soul tour de force distilling the various secular and sacred currents that flowed out of River City in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Flutist Ali Ryerson made a point of playing Corea’s “Windows” and Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” the latter on liquid-toned alto flute that captured the tune’s aquatic spirit.
Opening Saturday evening’s Main Arena action, the premiere of John Clayton’s “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” was the festival’s centerpiece. Having seen just about every commissioned work since Monterey’s artistic director, Tim Jackson, reinstated the program in 1994, “Stories of a Groove” surpassed all expectations. The bassist offered a brief emotional roadmap to the eight-movement piece, making it clear he was responding to the divisive political climate. A sense of anger and dismay came through clearly on “Tidal Wave” and “Slow Burn Baby Burn,” but what was most striking about the piece was the way he effectively melded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Gerald Clayton Trio.
With the orchestra’s Tamir Hendelman, on keyboards, playing unison lines with Gerald’s piano, and several drum duets between Jeff Hamilton and Obed Calvaire, the two ensembles worked as one, roaring and whispering into a spiritually charged duet for Gerald and his uncle, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton.
As beautifully conceived and executed as it was, “Stories of a Groove” was my second favorite set of the festival. The most revelatory act I caught was the second of three sets by pianist Joanne Brackeen with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Rudy Royston. After years of listening to her albums, the first time hearing Brackeen live, and with such a responsive ensemble, felt like transitioning from black-and-white Kansas to the Technicolor Land of Oz.
Common, the weekend’s most surprising booking, brought righteous electricity to the Main Arena on Sunday afternoon. Politically charged but not partisan, sexy but not vulgar, he freestyled with rhythmic force, and employed the full textural palette of his stellar band that included rising flute star and vocalist Elena Pinderhughes. Seated in a row near the stage, Herbie Hancock had his arms in the air with everyone else as Common rallied the crowd (and name-checked the pianist as a sage).
Drummer Scott Amendola and organist Wil Blades delivered their wicked funk in the Night Club, while next door in Dizzy’s Den, saxophonist Tia Fuller led a formidable band with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (the fiery duo announced they’ll be serving as the festival’s artists-in-residence next year). Mandolinist Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau’s singular jazz-grass collaboration worked better on instrumentals (like Mehldau’s bucolic “Tallahassee Junction” and a woozy but sharp “Love for Sale”) than on Thile’s vocal features.
The weekend ended with an almost overwhelming flood of pianistic pleasure. After half a dazzling set of Chano Domínguez’s trio, during which they transformed the relaxed, finger-snapping groove of “Freddie Freeloader” into a metrical steeplechase, it was back out to the Arena for Hancock and Corea, who were positioned facing each other from across the vast expanse of two grand pianos. Eyes locked, they dissected Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” and turned “Cantaloupe Island” into a grooving fantasia. Challenging and playing for each other, they both looked a good decade younger than their ages, and they sounded as fresh as anyone who preceded them.