Live Review: 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival

The tide of female musicians continues to rise at the Fairgrounds—and it’s not such a big deal anymore

Allison Miller
Allison Miller performing at the 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Stuart Brinin)

Much like Ernest Hemingway’s famous description of how bankruptcy happens (“Gradually and then suddenly,” he wrote in The Sun Also Rises), the pervasive presence of women instrumentalists at the Monterey Jazz Festival seemed to materialize in an instant, but actually resulted from a long, often underground buildup. Last year’s breakthrough, with more than 15 ensembles led by female players, felt radical and urgent, a response to the zeitgeist if not the sickening cascade of #MeToo and #TimesUp headlines. The festival’s longtime artistic director Tim Jackson acknowledged that lobbying by players like veteran trumpeter Ellen Seeling, co-director of the Montclair Women’s Big Band, played an important role in his concerted move toward booking equity, and he didn’t take half-measures.  

Knowing Jackson, I wasn’t surprised to see that women players were just as visible—and impressive—at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival, which ran Sept. 27-29. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how quickly the novelty would fade. What seemed revolutionary last year felt disarmingly normal in 2019. Assuming next year follows the same trajectory, the ubiquity of women players will be almost as unremarkable as the presence of men on the bandstand. From undersung masters like organist Amina Claudine Myers and keyboardist Patrice Rushen to rising stars like pianist Connie Han, trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, and bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, Monterey resounded with women who are defining 21st-century jazz.

The season’s programming was built on a redoubtable foundation with artists-in-residence drummer Allison Miller and bassist/producer Derrick Hodge. They both performed in several disparate settings, but their collaborative Mary Lou Williams tribute on the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the main arena kicked off the festival with a stellar only-in-Monterey moment. Drawing on songs from her 1964 album Black Christ of the Andes arranged for luscious three-part vocal harmonies by Johnaye Kendrick, Jean Baylor and Michael Mayo, the tribute encompassed Williams’ devotional songs and the Gershwins’ great ode to skepticism “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But it was in instrumental-quartet mode that the tribute truly soared, with pianists Shamie Royston and Carmen Staaf zipping lines at each other across the stage buoyed by the co-leaders’ ferocious swing.

On the outdoor Garden Stage, Gerald Clayton’s quartet with altoist Logan Richardson, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Kendrick Scott gave a master class in the blues with his measured and steady-rolling “Mama Said,” a piece inspired by Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But Friday’s incandescent highlight took place in Dizzy’s Den, where the Chris Potter Circuits Trio with drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland and keyboardist James Francies generated a tsunami of energy. It wasn’t so much the band’s extreme velocity as the masterly manipulation of texture and rhythmic cycles, with Potter using electronics to bend and subtly distort his tenor tone while Francies supplied the low end with his left hand on the piano and thick hammered keyboard chords with his right.

Derrick Hodge & Allison Miller performing at the 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Stuart Brinin)

Saturday opened with the transporting duo of Natalie Cressman and guitarist/vocalist Ian Faquini, who focused on exquisite original songs that draw equally from jazz and the sophisticated corner of the Brazilian Songbook where Guinga, Chico Buarque, and Joyce rub shoulders. A little later in the afternoon, Luciana Souza’s perfect set with bass maestro Scott Colley and brilliant Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro, centering on her original songs that draw on verse by Leonard Cohen and other poets, left me contemplating the pleasure afforded by bossa nova’s combination of melodic opulence, distilled dynamics, and emotional restraint.

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom played one of the festival’s most consistently enthralling sets. Featuring longtime collaborators such as pianist Myra Melford, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Todd Sickafoose, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and recent addition Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, the sextet bristles with singular musical voices. On Miller’s “Congratulations and Condolences” the high, piping theme gave way to a clarinet solo so elegant and lyrical it felt like an aria. Restraint wasn’t a factor for Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra West, which also featured Scheinman and Goldberg as well as tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, baritone saxophonist Rob Sudduth, guitarist John Schott, drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Tony Scherr, and trombonist Jeff Cressman (a.k.a. Natalie’s father). Conducting and arranging on the Garden Stage, Bernstein led the band through a set of extremes, from Cressman’s playfully smutty trombone work on “The Boy in the Boat” to a pizzicato feature for the strings on Ellington’s theme to Anatomy of a Murder.

The Cressmans weren’t the only father/daughter combo at Monterey 62.  Over the course of three days storylines have a chance to develop on the fairgrounds, and my favorite centered on bassist Kanoa Mendenhall. Raised in Monterey, she’s participated in the festival’s extensive education program and is now based in New York. She was featured throughout the weekend playing half-hour sets with her father, pianist Eddie Mendenhall, at an outdoor stage in the middle of the food court. She also performed with vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, a fellow alum of the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, and in the weekend’s most dramatic casting reveal, she took over the bass from Christian McBride when his big band premiered the festival commission “Roy Anthony: The Fearless One.”

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Recommended by Tim Jackson to McBride as the rehearsal bassist, Mendenhall made it clear she was ready for prime time. McBride concentrated on conducting his band for the tribute to Roy Hargrove, a three-part suite that touched on the trumpeter’s swaggering command of postbop and grooveaphilia in between a brief opening brass fanfare and lonely closing solo clarinet line. Stationed at the center of the Jimmy Lyons Stage, Mendenhall guided and supported the music with authority, a young star on the rise.  

Sunday closed with a blast of sanctification. DJ Pete Fallico, a dogged champion of the Hammond B-3, presided over a program showcasing organ greats in the Night Club, starting with Amina Claudine Myers, an artist scarce to the point of invisibility on the West Coast. Her marvelously idiosyncratic set with bass guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Reggie Nicholson started on the piano with the insistent “Jumping in the Sugar Bowl,” but before long she was at the console, coaxing rapturous waves of sound out of the B-3. At the same time that Myers was invoking multiple names of God, pianist Tammy Hall and bassist Ruth Davies were paying tribute to Steal Away, the sublime 1995 album by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden. The women brought a similar feel of swinging restraint to the program of spirituals, hymns, and folk songs, with the added feature of Hall’s soul-steeped vocals.

The festival ended with Mike LeDonne’s Groover Quartet featuring guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Joe Farnsworth, and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. LeDonne dedicated the set to Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands, a triumvirate of just-departed piano masters. Part of what gives Monterey its singular identity is that the festival has always drawn heavily on California talent, featuring artists from the backyard in the Bay Area and Southern California. But showing love to the home team doesn’t mean overlooking New York City’s riches, and the Groover Quartet played a set of irrepressibly swinging postbop that exemplified Gotham’s grit and spirit.

Read Sean J. O’Connell’s review of the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.