“You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” Bob Dylan stated profoundly in 1963. Throughout its unrivaled 65-year history, the Monterey Jazz Festival has demonstrated an uncanny ability to keep swimming (figuratively): to adapt, survive, and flourish. COVID-19 made Monterey a virtual event in 2020, highlighting concerts of the past; in 2021 the MJF’s capacity was reduced, and most of the music happened in the daytime.
This year, for round number 65, the festival came roaring back with full-capacity audiences and a complete schedule featuring a colossal roster of artists. Concurrently, there were only four outdoor stages—all of them deluged by a storm several days earlier—compared to almost twice as many indoor and outdoor ones during pre-COVID years. Despite that, MJF was fully dried out and functional by its first day, and attendees excitedly entered the Monterey County Fairgrounds ready for musicians and singers to soothe, delight, and sometimes astound them.
Meeting all criteria, and then exceeding them, was vocalist Samara Joy (McLendon) on the Westend Stage. The 23-year-old impressively possesses the confidence, technique, and charm of a seasoned pro twice her age. Supported by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Keith Balla, she made her MJF debut sounding like a mixture of Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, but with her own definite style and approach. Joy thrilled the audience with the classic “’Round Midnight,” the title track of her newly released album Linger Awhile, and a bluesy vamp through “Never Trust a Man.” There’s no doubt that this young vocalist will be returning to Monterey.
Vastly different was former child prodigy guitarist Julian Lage’s trio with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King (also of the Bad Plus). They followed Joy’s performance on the same stage, showcasing selections from their newly released View with a Room and previous outing Squint. The set was essentially a freewheeling, slightly raucous, crowd-pleasing fusion-like jam. Numbers such as “Fairbanks,” “Boo’s Blues” and “Saint Rose,” along with atmospheric country-flavored ballad “Call of the Canyon,” seamlessly flowed together.
On the Jimmy Lyons Main Stage, “A MoodSwing Reunion” brought together titans Joshua Redman on saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, Brad Mehldau on piano and Brian Blade on drums. The impactful quartet initially formed to record Redman’s MoodSwing album in 1994, just as the musicians’ respective careers were starting to gain traction. Twenty-six years later they reunited for RoundAgain; their 2022 release LongGone maintains their momentum and launched a world tour that included MJF. In performance they were like a fine wine, improving with age. Original compositions spanning their collective works—the postbop “Mischief,” classically tinged “Undertow,” slow-burning ballad “Your Part to Play” and vibrantly swinging “The Oneness of Two (in Three)”—exhibited the quartet’s brilliance and incredible cohesiveness.
“MJF on Tour—Celebrating 65,” also on the main stage, rekindled the festival’s ambassador-like road ensemble with a new multi-generational assemblage of artists after a two-year layoff. Spearheading the group were two vocalists, Kurt Elling and multi-Grammy winner Dee Bridgewater (also an NEA Jazz Master and Tony winner). Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and this year’s Artist-in-Residence, keyboardist Christian Sands, represented the rising stars of jazz, while bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn were the steadfast journeyman players.
Elling heated things up with a vocalese interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” that included segments of poetry and verse, while Sands soloed extensively. In her typical audacious fashion, Bridgewater paired with Benjamin for a captivating version of Nina Simone’s provocative “Four Women.” The saxophonist then took the reins on John Coltrane’s “Liberia,” a scintillating tribute to both the composition’s author and the recently departed Pharoah Sanders. Bringing the set to a close, Elling and Bridgewater teamed up, with Benjamin rapping and cutting loose, on Les McCann/Eddie Harris’ searing and timely “Compared to What.”
Continuing in a similar vein on the festival’s closing day was Ravi Coltrane’s fast-paced “Cosmic Music: A Contemporary Exploration of the Music of John and Alice Coltrane” on the Lyons Stage. His special guest, harpist Brandee Younger, beautifully rendered the Coltrane matriarch’s atmospheric and spiritual pieces “Los Caballos,” “Journey in Satchidananda” and “Blue Nile,” with Rashaan Carter on bass, Gadi Lehavi on keyboards and Elé Howell on drums solidly supporting. In honor of his iconic father, Coltrane blazed away on “Wise One” and an abbreviated version of “A Love Supreme.” Notably, the set was dedicated to the late Sanders and drew a standing ovation as it closed with his signature composition “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”
Another extraordinary MJF 65 moment came with the premiere of celebrated film scorer/composer/alumnus of the festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra Kris Bowers’ 2022 MJF Commission Asylo (Sanctuary in Greek). It commemorated the nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s 30th anniversary, and unlike previous festival commissions, it had visual and natural soundscape components; video screens exhibited both rarely seen marine life and interstellar vistas. Incorporating a full orchestra and his own amazing piano playing, Bowers’ work was serene, complex, edgy, and mesmerizing.
Eighty-year-old Cuban master pianist Chucho Valdés was by far the oldest 2022 MJF performer. Nevertheless, his massive 23-piece ensemble directed by Hilario Durán and John Beasley may have given the most dynamic of all the weekend’s performances. Valdés’ La Creación (The Creation) was a vibrant three-movement suite that mixed the pianist’s incomparable playing with a big band and dancers, raising the onstage heat level considerably. Beasley’s MONK’estra inserted a couple of Thelonious Monk’s archetypal compositions into the set for extra kindling.
A decade or two younger were the hard-bop sextet the Cookers; the Dave Stryker Quartet featuring Warren Wolf; and the Reunion! Trio featuring Bruce Forman, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton. In the mid-range age group were the all-women ensemble Artemis, co-led by pianist/musical director Renee Rosnes and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, with drummer Allison Miller, alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover and bassist Noriko Ueda. This edition of the group was vocal-free and performed a suite-like segment of original compositions. Elling resurfaced with SuperBlue, a funk/R&B-oriented band that included octopus-like guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter, keyboardist DJ Harrison, drummer Corey Fonville and the Huntertones brass players.
Additionally, the Bad Plus—now consisting of Chris Speed on tenor saxophone, Ben Monder on guitar, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums—pushed the threshold by melding fusion, avant-garde, and jazz. Nicholas Payton on trumpet, bass and keyboards in tandem with New World Order (Cliff Hines: modular synthesizer and guitar, Sasha Masakowski: loops, drum machine and vocals) daringly created experimental grooves and textures, with interpolations of Nina Simone’s “Freedom.” Ever-popular “people’s vocalist” Gregory Porter concluded performances in the Lyons Arena with a soul-drenched set that included the Temptations’ “My Girl” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” along with “Musical Genocide,” “Mister Holland,” and “No Love Dying.”
Most importantly, MJF yielded to the winds of change and spotlighted a significant amount of youthful and fast-emerging artists. Among them were harpist Younger, who played her own set in addition to guesting with Ravi Coltrane, and British multi-instrumentalist/singer Emma-Jean Thackray, who presented groove-oriented selections from her Yellow and Yellower Vol. 2 albums. Vibraphonist Joel Ross spun a web of intoxicating rhythms and motifs with his Good Vibes Band; he also took part in an equally spellbinding “young lions” set with keyboardist Gerald Clayton and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.
Veronica Swift made her Lyons Stage debut and zealously spanned jazz, rock, and Broadway. Butcher Brown, a Richmond, Virginia-based quintet, served up ’70s funk/jazz with a touch of hip-hop. Blind virtuoso organist Matthew Whitaker was spontaneity plus and jumped from jazz to pop to Motown. And not to be forgotten or overlooked was the 2022 edition of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, directed by Gerald Clayton, which gave the audience a hearty sampling of the great talent destined to be leading their own ensembles at some future Monterey Jazz Festival.