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The 64th Monterey Jazz Festival

A West Coast tradition returns to live action

Pat Metheny and Joe Dyson Monterey 2021
Pat Metheny (left) and Joe Dyson at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Amanda Wheeler)

The year 2020 tarnished the Monterey Jazz Festival’s revered reputation as the world’s longest continuously running jazz festival (since 1958). Due to the pandemic, the festival’s 63rd edition became a virtual live event, highlighting legendary archival performances and exclusive new content for several hours daily.

For 2021, Monterey came roaring back, but with only 50% capacity in its main venue, the Jimmy Lyons Stage. Entry required a mask plus proof of vaccinations or a negative test within three days. In between the Lyons arena performances, the comparatively intimate Yamaha Courtyard Stage, dotted with picnic tables and bench row seats adjacent to a variety of food venues, showcased artists doing three to four sets daily. This was miniscule compared to the MJF of pre-COVID years, which overflowed with at least a half-dozen larger performance areas. Nonetheless, attendees both new and seasoned hungering for live jazz on a grand scale had snapped up all the tickets only a week after they were released to the general public in July.

The opening day—notably incorporating the only night concerts of MJF64—was a “brass-less” day, featuring Pat Metheny Side-Eye, Herbie Hancock, and Mimi Fox’s Organ Trio for three sets in the Courtyard with temperatures in the low 60s. Metheny’s newest project, featuring fast-rising keyboardist James Francies and drummer Joe Dyson in this iteration, presented lean, muscular versions of the 20-time Grammy-winner and NEA Jazz Master’s repertoire. Highlighting the set was a breezy “Bright Size Life,” swinging hard-bop “Timeline,” and world-fused “Minuano.” All were laden with Metheny’s arsenal of axes, including a synth guitar, 42-string Pikasso guitar (autoharp/guitar combo), and an acoustic guitar with effects.

Hancock, the eldest musician at MJF64, also integrated young talent into his segment with flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes and powerhouse drummer Justin Tyson, along with two veterans, bassist James Genus and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke. The NEA Jazz Master, Grammy-winner, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador launched into atmospheric funk grooves featuring him and Pinderhughes while the other band members accented and soloed, including Loueke scatting through electronic effects. Stylistically, Hancock focused on his popular Headhunters fusion era of the early-to-mid-’70s with “Actual Proof” and the immortal “Chameleon,” which peaked with the keyboardist playing a strap-on synthesizer.

Providing multiplicity was Pinderhughes’ neo-soul original “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” which significantly spotlighted her singing and flute playing, coolly enhanced by Loueke’s backing vocals. Additionally, Hancock served up a 21st-century version of “Elegy” garnished with his vocoder-attenuated singing, and a thoroughly modernized version of his 1964 classic and mid-’90s hip-hop chart-topper “Cantaloupe Island.”  

For her part, Fox provided tantalizing interactions with her trio mates Brian Ho on organ and Lorca Hart on drums. They played standards “Willow Weep for Me” and “Caravan,” and the guitarist rendered exquisite solo interpretations of “500 Miles High” and “Darn That Dream.”

The MJF64 midway day music, although only occurring during comfortable mid-60s sunlit hours, lasted twice as long as the festival’s commencement. Miho Hazama and her 13-piece M_Unit’s artistry on the Lyons Stage nearly rivaled the sun in brilliance. Conductor Hazama, a Tokyo native and alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music, has composed for orchestras throughout the world and been the chief conductor for the highly esteemed Danish Radio Big Band, among other appointments. She unquestionably was a perfect choice for MJF64 Commission Artist, premiering the enthralling three-movement Exoplanet Suite.

Los Angeles-based Las Cafeteras, a sextet representing Latin-oriented world music with a strong melding of hip-hop and folk, unfortunately had to cancel prior to the festival due to several band members contracting COVID-19. Stalwartly filling the void was MJF64 Next Generation Orchestra director Gerald Clayton. The pianist, who also played organ and electric piano, quickly enlisted friends Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Matthew Stevens on guitar, Kaveh Rastegar on bass, and Eric Harland on drums for A Gerald Clayton Experience. Their set was highly nuanced, intermixing Miles Davis Bitches Brew fusion, gospel, and neo-soul through D’Angelo’s “Africa” and ending with “Frederick Douglass,” a neo-bop composition inspired by muralist Charles White’s portrait of the titular American icon.

Another multi-Grammy-winner and one of the youngest NEA Jazz Masters, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington took a stand against a plethora of social and civil injustices with her band Social Science. The ensemble consisted of singer Debo Ray, guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Morgan Guerin, MC/electronics master Kassa Overall, and—returning to the Monterey stage for a second go-round—guest Immanuel Wilkins, mixing hip-hop, modern soul, and fusion. Ray’s caressing vocals and Overall’s aggressive rapping explosively delved into subjects such as mass incarceration, gender inequality, homophobia, racism, and political imprisonment.

Ledisi at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival
Ledisi at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Amanda Wheeler)

Concluding day two of MJF64 was vocalist Ledisi, who dramatically lightened the mood with mostly playful and seductive R&B songs. Within less than a year, the Oakland-based singer released her two most recent albums, 2020’s The Wild Card (including the Grammy-winning “Anything for You”) and 2021’s much more jazz-related Nina Simone tribute Ledisi Sings Nina. Surprisingly, her Monterey set focused on the heartfelt ballads and bumping grooves of the earlier project over Simone’s music. During the second half, though, Ledisi did an evocative reggae mashup of the High Priestess of Soul’s cover of “Baltimore” with her own “Shot Down,” as well as the immortal “Feeling Good,” which inspired some of the audience to get dancing. 

Trumpet Giveton Gelin’s quartet, including pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Philip Norris, and drummer Kayvon Gordon, jubilantly blasted through its short sets on the Yamaha Courtyard Stage. Gelin, the 2020 North America LetterOne “Rising Stars” Jazz Award winner, played intensely with his cohorts and stayed “in the pocket.”

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.