by Bill Minorcopyright © 1999 Bill Minor
The 1999 Monterey Jazz Festival has come and gone, and an "alliance" between this venerable institution and the Jazz Journalists Association formed five years ago has settled, it seems, into tradition. The JJA was well represented at the event this year: Scott Yanow -- decked out in his customary quirky fedora, could be seen racing from venue to venue with customary comprehensive alacrity; Dan Ouellette showed up in his cracked leather jacket; Willard Jenkins in handsome neck-to-ankle African threads; Stu Brinnin in photographer's safari garb, and Yoshi Kato in his yukata ("sumimasen," just kidding). Phil Elwood was seen strolling the grounds with his wife; and Herb Wong, Paul de Barros, and Wayne Saroyan were on hand throughout the long, rich musical weekend, showing up for our Sunday brunch, an event that's entered its fourth year and seems well on its way to becoming a tradition also.
MJF General Manager Tim Jackson continues to provide a varied musical menu that offers something for everyone (from trad jazz staples such as "Panama," performed by Clint Baker's Band, to Uri Caine's "left-of-center improvising" -- as Scott put it -- and the "out" sounds of Vinny Golia, and unique instrumentation -- violin, banjo, mandolin, dobro, accordion, pump organ -- of the Tin Hat Trio. The festival now offers a complete range of genres that no specific taste can complain of being shut out of, from which no one can walk away feeling mad or sad, or deprived.
On opening night, Friday, Buena Vista Social Club fever took hold, sparked by two groups from Cuba: the ferocious Chucho Valdes Quintet, the joyous Los Van Van (with their trademark "songo" rhythms) on the Jimmy Lyons Stage; the reliably raucous Poncho Sanchez Latin-Jazz Band there also, and in the Night Club, funky unpredictable Los Mocosos. The latter group had people up out of their seats and dancing, a rite ordinarily reserved for Saturday afternoon's blues fete (which has grown somewhat complacent if not overly polite or even staid in recent years), Latin fever giving the lie to the cautious nature of our perilous era at the century's decline -- because at the close of Friday night there was a whole lot of totally uninhibited sight for sore (fin-de-siecle) eyes shakin' goin' on.
And also lots of skillful solid sound. Guitarist Russell Malone, on his own without Princess Di (Krall, who along with Regina Carter, seemed this year's most "popular" attraction), exercised the freedom of his own chops, with some African-based tones that still have me trying to figure out just what rare and enticing intervals he and pianist Anthony Wonsey had settled on. Performing in Dizzy's Den, just after Malone, pianist Kenny Barron and former hometown bassist Ray Drummond, with Ben Riley on drums, showed why they retain the respect they do: the trio providing a blazing uptempo "Solar," breathless fingers and loop upon loop of genuine invention; plus a homage to singer Billy Eckstine by way of a soulful, spare, gracious "The Very Thought of You."
Out on the grounds, the Garden Stage offered the handsome homegrown bop inventions of a group called Along Came Betty, sparked by local pianist/ composer/educator Biff Smith; and, on Saturday afternoon, the classy sass of the Johnny Nocturne Band featuring Rubensesque Kim Nalley, Saran-wrapped in a green knit gown, singing "Why is it when you find a woman with a good sweet can/You take her home/Take off her dress/And find that she's a man?" while over on the main stage, excellent drummer Akira Tana was providing press rolls behind Ruth Brown's "Train Don't Stop Here No More," Brown ribbing her very young trumpet player, "Is your mama here? I don't want to be accused of robbin' the cradle, but baby, I got a few lullabies I could sing to you!"
On Saturday afternoon, I participated in a panel moderated by the JJA's Dan Ouellette, on "The International Language of Jazz," which featured fellow JJAers Willard Jenkins, Scott Yanow, and two O-honest-to-God Doctors: the IAJE's Dr. Willie Hill, and Dr. Anthony Brown, drummer and leader of the Asian American Jazz Orchestra. Once we had extracted ourselves from the relentless semantic quagmire of just what "jazz" is, there seemed to be wholesale agreement on at least one of its most distinctive properties: freedom (I recalled Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov's teenage love of the music "for its refusal to be pinned down," defining his attachment as "a Platonic rendezous with freedom"); and Anthony Brown waxed truly inspirational on this aspect, drawing a hand from those in the audience. There was plenty of firsthand experience of jazz life abroad present: Dan Ouellette having traveled to China for the 5th Annual International Jazz Festival there, and then to Turkey for another; Dr. Willie Hill's trip to Spain, where he was impressed by students who, although they didn't speak English, did speak fluent Jazz (or played it); Willard Jenkins' journey to Cuba, one that "changed [his] life," he said. I got a book out of a trip to the former USSR (Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union) and am finishing another based on two trips to Japan (The Heart Within: Jazz Journeys to Japan). Anthony Brown spoke of the host of ethnicities represented in his orchestra (Anthony's father was African American/Choctaw; his mother Japanese). Scott spoke of his travels throughout Burbank (where he lives) and, admitting he has never "been abroad," made use of his extensive knowledge of jazz (which more than likely puts that of us world travelers to shame), citing such major contributors to the art form as Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri.
We all danced around the question, "Is the infusion of World Music the wave of the future?" My own take on this is: in an era dominated by so much "repertory" work and so many neoisms, the music can only be enhanced and revitalized by "alien" input, its vocabulary expanded, fresh structural possibilities introduced; that such importation (if that's what it still is, although I think we were pretty much agreed that jazz is now a genuinely "commonplace" or universal language) provides a good direction; that the music truly needs it! I think our final consensus was that jazz can only profit by such potential, such possibilities, and that the essence of the idiom (whatever that is) will be enhanced rather than threatened; that such open dialogue (what Anthony called "conversation") is basically quite healthy.
Following this panel session -- and as if to prove or bear out what we had discussed there -- I heard what I felt was one of the festival's major musical events: the performance by Anthony Brown's Asian American Jazz Orchestra of Duke Ellington's "Far East Suite." It was remarkable; the music expanded, enhanced -- dramatically altered at times yet treated throughout with respect -- by the presence of such unfamiliar "jazz" instruments as the "ney," "dizi," "suona," "karna" (double reed instruments, Chinese mouth organ, reed trumpet, bamboo flutes, Persian end-blown flute, etc.), producing unfamiliar tones and colors that gave the piece a whole new life of its own. The contrast, on the opening section, "Tourist Point of View," between Ellington's strong bass patterns and Paul Gonsalves' warm fuzzy sax tone (setting out on an exotic voyage, but one still grounded in American urban sophistication, uptown) and Hafez Modirzadeh's morning call to prayer was exciting; as was the fresh life imparted by Brown's classic Asian cymbal splashes; Qi Chao Liu's slightly ominous "dizi" flavor (as opposed to Jimmy Hamilton's chirpy clarinet) on "Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah);" Jon Jang's unique, subtle take on "Mount Harissa" (contrasted to Ellington's own catchy vamp and more pronounced, assertive style); Liu's sweetly dissonant slightly bizarre (because unaccustomed) "suona" tone on "Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues)." This last tune offered the most extreme (and enticing) departure from the original "text," Ellington's knock ‘em dead shuffle swing converted to a nearly slow motion (stretched to the point of threatening to snap like a rubberband) presentation of the theme. On the final section, "Ad Lib on Nippon," Mark Izu's bowed bass and Jang's nuance-filled piano (following an esthetic principle the Japanese call "yugen," suggestion in place of statement) were handsomely combined. Homage was paid to Ellington stalwarts such as Paul Gonsalves (on "Tourist Point of View"), Johnny Hodges (on "Isfahan"), Harry Carney ("Agra"), Lawrence Brown ("Amad") and even Cat Anderson's screeching trumpet. But the Asian American Jazz Orchestra wisely declined to strictly replicate or compete with them (you can't out-Hodges Johnny Hodges!); artists such as Francis Wong, Melecio Magdaluyo and Dave Martell supplied for the most part, their own interpretations -- just as trumpeter Tiger Okoshi did when he made his own fine recorded tribute to Louis Armstrong, "Echoes of a Note."
I've commented on this performance at some length because I think it proved just how fruitful musical/journalistic "collaboration" (and this juxtaposition was unintended, unplanned; the orchestra's performance just happened to follow the JJA panel) might prove to be. Anthony Brown's arrangements served as living proof of what we had just previously discussed: the excitement an innovative use of "foreign" vocabulary, tones, colors can bring to an established work in jazz. Brown is a remarkable musician, and person. He not only explicated the charts for the sizable audience (in accessible yet "academically responsible" terms), he conducted the group and functioned within it -- with considerable panache! -- as percussionist.
There seemed to be an infinite store of riches to hear and see over the festival's three days and nights -- the full range of musical offerings already covered in Scott Yanow's Jazzhouse account; so I won't go over any more of that in detail. I did have my own favorite offerings: the amazing collaboration of Russell Malone and Regina Carter, fully spontaneous (it seemed) during the "Eastwood at Monterey" set (a host of performers playing tunes from his films, the "show" comported with dignity and skill); the squaring off of tenor titans (Jimmy Heath, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Lew Tabackin) on "Lester Leaps In" at that event; the excellence of Terence Blanchard throughout the weekend; Regina Carter's set with her own quintet in Dizzy's Den (playing to a full, no, crammed, house); Clark Terry's sprightly, personable recollections shared with another capacity crowd, and Orrin Keepnews; and Toshiko Akiyoshi reminiscing on her rich life in jazz on Sunday afternoon (in a "conversation" with Anthony Brown), followed that evening by her commissioned piece, a homage to Duke Ellington, and her big band performance in Dizzy's Den to close out the night (her haunting "Desert Lady-Fantasy," based on Kobo Abe's novel "Suna no onna": "The Woman in the Dunes").
On Sunday afternoon, jointly sponsored by Down Beat magazine and the JJA, Dan Ouellette led his (for the fourth year) "Blindfold Test," what has grown to be a very popular MJF item, this year's enhanced by the relaxed, vital, articulate, down-to-earth presence of Josh Redman (who apologized profusely for not identifying David Sanborn's style on one tune; "David, I'll take you out to lunch!"). He did nail just about everybody else, including his father ("It's in the genes;" "He always told me, ‘Practice your long tones, practice your long tones,' but I never listened to him").
That Sunday morning, Jazz Journalists Association members had taken ourselves out to -- well, brunch. This is a tradition that, as I mentioned before, has now reached its fourth year, and it's a good one. Aside from the JJA members I mentioned at the start, we had some guests: Beth Peerless, writer/photographer for the Monterey Herald; Charles Levin, fresh from his three-part Down Beat series of articles on "The State of Jazz Radio;" Ed Enright, then Editor of Down Beat; and the stunning, personable Sharony Andrews Green, author of the book Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar. Yoshi Kato passed a card around for all of us to sign, a card saying farewell and conveying best wishes to Dan Ouellette, who has abandoned California for New York City (no offense to the East, but how can anyone do that? My 91-year-old Detroit mother, having decided on her own to live in a retirement community, actually chose Connecticut over California, mostly because of the abundance of relatives close by, but also because she still believes that if she tries to cross the Sierras -- even in a plane -- she'll be invited to dinner at the Donners, and she's opposed -- on some outmoded moral principle, I suppose -- to cannabalism). Joking aside, Dan will be missed -- although he promises to forsake his Upper West Side pad in the third weekend in September each year, and return to the Monterey Jazz Festival. At the Sunday brunch, Yoshi Kato intimated that he'd be willing to step in as JJA chapter chairperson for the Bay Area, a decision he's made good on, the Northern California group having recently convened at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. So we're still alive and well. In the last piece I did on the MJF/JJA alliance, I said that we seemed to be getting "thick as friends" out here, and I think it's true. On Sunday night, at the close of the Monterey Jazz Festival, a gang of journalists ends up at the Turf Club, swapping appraisals of the music,gossiping, joking, chatting -- this year with saxophonist John Handy present, the hero of the 1965 MJF with his rendering of "Spanish Lady" -- and, as Dan Ouellette would say, "It's a great hang." I hope we don't become so much a part of the MJF tradition that we get lost in it, that we start getting taken for granted, but it's nice to know that the coterie and alliance that Dan helped start now seems to be a fairly integral part of this annual event, making both worthwhile professional and personal contributions.
Bill Minor is the author of Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, and was scriptwriter for the Warner Bros. film documentary (now out in video and DVD) by the same name. He recently won first place for his novel Trek in a fiction writing contest open to all Northern California writers, sponsored by the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library and 1999 Focus on Writers Conference