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The 64th Monterey Jazz Festival

A West Coast tradition returns to live action

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

Sunday, the concluding day of MJF64, maintained the festival’s tradition of showcasing young musicians who will, with luck, develop into innovators of the future. The Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo, directed by Katie Thiroux, got things underway on the Yamaha Courtyard Stage. Trumpeter Skylar Tang, reedist Kaela Seltzer, pianist Brenda Greggio, bassist Laura-Simone Martin, and drummer Ruby Laks, all high-school students in California and New Jersey, rolled out an impressive and crowd-pleasing program belying their age. Among the numbers they played were Ray Brown’s pulsating “FSR (For Sonny Rollins),” Tang’s sophisticated original “Tree Tree Tree We,” Thad Jones’ “Lady Luck,” and Roy Hargrove’s thematic groove “Strasbourg/St. Denis.” Promising and very adept players indeed.

On a grander scale, the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, directed by Gerald Clayton, captivated the audience with robust arrangements of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis’ “Don’t Get Sassy,” Roy Hargrove’s “Tschpiso,” and Don Sebesky’s expansive take on Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” Additionally, vocalist Ellah Brown shone on a Quincy Jones arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and Percy Mayfield’s poetic blues gem “River’s Invitation.” Baritone saxophonist Noa Zebley was a force of nature during Charles Mingus’ raucous “Moanin.’” These budding musicians also interacted amazingly with pianist and MJF64 Artist-in-Residence Christian Sands for John Clayton’s refined “For All We Knew,” and with guest saxophonist Wilkins during the brass juggernaut “The Eternal Triangle.” Clayton commented between selections, “It’s truly an honor to count these beasts off. I say one, two, three, four and they go for it.”

Sands returned for his own full set, focusing on his recent recording Be Water and supported by Yasushi Nakamura on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, and Marvin Sewell on guitar. Similar to Ahmad Jamal, Sands smoothly fluctuated between a variety of tempos and moods that kept his cohorts engaged and made sure to never overlook the melodies on compositions like “Sonar” and “Crash.” From the NGJO, trumpeter Skylar Tang, trombonist Bruno Tzinas, and tenor saxophonist Zeb J-A joined the quartet for the spirited and far-reaching title track of Sands’ 2020 project, drawing a standing ovation. A noteworthy rendition of Steve Winwood and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” featured a gutbucket slide-guitar intro that transformed into a flowing contemporary piece as the pianist reeled away.

Christian Sands Monterey 2021
Artist-in-residence Christian Sands at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Amanda Wheeler)

Keyboardist/vocalist Kandace Springs, in keeping with advice that the late Prince once gave her to “just be yourself,” brought a much lighter and inviting vibe to MJF64. With Caylen Bryant on bass/vocals and Taylor Jones on drums/vocals, she displayed plenty of energy and a playful attitude. The soul-tinged jam “Why You Got to Be Like That” got things underway. Springs spotlighted her lush alto on the bossa ballad “Don’t Be Afraid,” featuring Wilkins (once again) helping out. She also duetted with Bryant, who’s actually a stronger singer, for “Angel Eyes” as a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. Diana Krall was honored through “Devil May Care,” with bass and drums soloing.

For a change of pace, Springs ventured into Chopin and Beethoven before singing Jobim’s timeless “How Insensitive,” adorned with bowing bass and alto sax. Roberta Flack, also an influence on Springs, was recognized via the dreamy ballads “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly.” The singer/keyboardist closed out her section of MJF64 with a crowd-pleasing melding of the “Moonlight” Sonata and Nina Simone for the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You,” lightly supported by the trio and sax.   

Wilkins, the 2021 recipient of the North America LetterOne “Rising Stars” Jazz Award, seemed to be in constant motion at Monterey, between multiple guest appearances and doing four sets with his own quartet at the Yamaha Courtyard Stage on the final day. There the alto saxophonist, joined by Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums, highlighted selections from his 2020 recording Omega, produced by Jason Moran. In performance, they generated unrelenting torrents at times akin to Coltrane and bordering on avant-garde.

MJF64 came to a close with another jazz elder, guitarist/vocalist George Benson, accompanied by guitarist/vocalist Michael O’Neill, musical director/keyboardist Randy Wald, keyboardist Thom Hall, bassist Chris Walker, drummer Mark Simmons, and percussionist/vocalist Lilliana de los Reyes. The multi-Grammy-winning artist started off singing pop/R&B hits “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Feel Like Making Love,” “We Got the Love,” and “Love X Love.” Bebop classic “Moody’s Mood for Love,” done as a duet with de los Reyes, gave Benson some jazz cred, and the Brazilian-tinged “At the Mambo Inn” displayed strong band interactions as well, with riveting soloing and infectious scatting.

Following that juncture, a cavalcade of contemporary-jazz and R&B hits ensued, highlighted by “Turn Your Love Around,” “Shiver,” and “Give Me the Night.” As expected, Benson landmarks “This Masquerade” and “Breezin’” ramped up the excitement even more as attendees danced in front of the stage to turn the set into a bust-out party.

Benson, 78, remembered his first time at MJF in 1975, when he was called by the Modern Jazz Quartet to sub for guitarist Laurindo Almeida, whose name he couldn’t remember initially. He claimed that back then he didn’t even know where Monterey was. Now, many years later, he definitely doesn’t need a map to find the place, and he relishes playing there.      

MJF64 was sadly devoid of the usual Monterey Jazz Festival ancillary events, such as film screenings, interviews, and panels. However, during pre-concert hours, Sands—by way of his Welcome to the Sands Box web video series—had interview/conversations with Clayton, Thiroux, and Springs. Additionally, MJF After Hours partnered with offsite venues for those wanting music after sundown.

MJF PR and Marketing Associate Timothy Orr commented that for this year’s festival, “[w]e didn’t have the rest of the grounds [Monterey County Fairgrounds] and there’s usually a three-hour gap between the afternoon and evening shows, so we just compressed those arena shows and it’s the same amount of music. We’re hoping to go back to normal next year, but there’s so much uncertainty. This is sort of an experiment and we’ve never done this before; there may be elements of this we might want to keep. Overall, we condensed a year’s worth of work into three months to make this happen.”

Unquestionably, both festivalgoers and musicians were relieved that they did.

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.