The 1998 Monterey Jazz Festival

The 1998 Monterey Jazz Festival

by Scott Yanow
Copyright © 1998, Scott Yanow

For jazz fans, the Monterey Jazz Festival is a utopia. Its two days feature five venues operating simultaneously at the Monterey Fairgrounds with music ranging from modern swing to the avant-garde. The performances take place at a large outdoor stadium (which has very good sound), a smaller garden stage and three indoor "nightclubs"; it is quite easy to go from one concert to another. The 41st annual edition, for the first time, offered audiences the option of watching the music from the main stage in a movie theater rather than in the chilly night air; the camerawork was excellent!

Because there was so much interesting music going on during that weekend, there were two basic ways to enjoy the festival. One could mostly hang around the main stage, watching entire performances, with occasional side trips to the other venues. I chose the opposite approach and considered it a goal once again to catch at least a glimpse of all 52 groups (other than the high school and college bands that appear Sunday afternoon). Since (unlike the Sweet & Hot Festival) only a few ensembles played more than one set (except in the Coffee House Gallery, where specific groups were featured on two or three performances apiece), this was a rather tricky strategy. Sometimes it was painful to leave a heated set, but worth it because occasionally the lesser- known names contributed the most rewarding music. Of course, no matter where one stood one missed parts of four performances, but I could at least have the illusion of seeing everything!

Friday night had a strong dose of Charles Mingus' music and Saturday afternoon emphasized the blues, but there was no central theme linking together all the concerts. It ended up being quite a jazz smorgasbord and left one feeling delirious after a while!

It all began with the Martin Headman Quartet, a band featuring pianist Headman and Dale Mills on reeds including his Buddy DeFranco-inspired clarinet. The music ranged from lazy to "Bebop And You," an original based on a riff from Charlie Christian's "7 Come 11." The Joel Harrison Octet, a group with three horns in the frontline (including Paul Hanson on bassoon), performed originals by the leader-guitarist which used advanced harmonies, were eccentric and episodic, and ended up being strangely accessible. The music was often dangerous yet was consistently successful and certainly stimulating.

That description also fits "Mingus Amungus," an ensemble led by bassist Miles Perkins that included three horns, extra percussionists and four talented dancers. The soloists had a real feel for the music, a couple of the dancers were seductive on "Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk" (wearing costumes that fit the songtitle) and, even though a couple of hip-hop songs (with rap) were quite erratic, one admired the band's ability to use Mingus' music as a point of departure.

On Friday night one of the nightclubs dedicated their night to organist Shirley Scott. Listeners were able to enjoy the similar organ styles of Spencer Allen (featured in GTM, a quartet also including Dawan Muhammad's tenor and guitarist Calvin Keys), Wes Montgomery's former organist Mel Rhyne (in a trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Mickey Roker) and such complementary organists as Gloria Coleman and Trudy Pitts. Everyone played well, but Rhyne overall stole the show.

Pianist Brad Mehldau (showcased with bassist Darek Oles and drummer Jorge Rossy) impressed many with his exquisite sets at the Coffee House, showing that he has moved far beyond both Bill Evans and his own records. Another superior pianist who interacted closely with his rhythm section (bassist Derek Jones and drummer Celso Alberti) was Weber Iago, a lyrical modern mainstream player who clearly has a strong future ahead of him. Guitarist Joyce Cooling, who has a light sound that is influenced by Wes Montgomery and George Benson, led a group that had keyboardist Jay Wagner as the key sideman. Although her recent recording is in the lightweight "smooth jazz" genre, Cooling's live playing is on a higher level.

Paquito D'Rivera's United Nation Orchestra led off the main stage show. Although there are few "names" in his 13-piece band (best-known of his sidemen are baritonist Scott Robinson and guitarist Fareed Haque), the orchestra has been developing a sound of its own, apart from its original Dizzy Gillespie influence. D'Rivera, who took many alto solos, was also quite delightful on clarinet during a classical-oriented piece; "The Breeze And I" was updated colorfully and "A Night In Tunisia" was used for a rousing closer. Zawinul Syndicate, featuring the innovative keyboards of Joe Zawinul, still sometimes comes across as Weather Report minus Wayne Shorter although the strong World Music influences and the catchy rhythmic pieces generally compensate for too many Zawinul vocoder vocals.

Highpoint of the night was the Mingus Big Band. Just the sound of 11 horns all improvising together with extroverted emotions and humor would make this a memorable band. On such pieces as "Meditations On Integration," "Moanin'" (featuring Ronnie Cuber's baritone), "Sweet Sucker Dance," "Pussy Cat Dues" (a demented "After Hours") and the riotous "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," the remarkable band (which includes trumpeter Randy Brecker, trombonists Jamal Haynes and Britt Woodman, altoists Steve Slagle and Vincent Herring, and tenors Mark Shim and John Stubblefield) was full of unbridled spirit. An exciting climax to a very full night.

But that was only the beginning of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Saturday afternoon featured blues and r&b at the two outdoor stages. Guitarist-singer Alvin Youngblood Hart performed unaccompanied, playing country blues (with an irregular number of bars per chorus) that harked back to the 1920s and 30s but sounded quite contemporary. Gary Smith played some hard-driving harmonica during a quartet set that pleased the audience. Sista Monica left no cliché unsaid during her talks to the audience about having a "blues party," but she proved to be a powerful and shouting singer who easily got the crowd riled up. Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson have each had successful solo careers and they clearly enjoy teaming up to perform blues-oriented r&b. "I Want To Be Your Home Maker" and "You Don't Know Nothing" (during which Thomas and Nelson drove the crowd to a frenzy) were memorable. Tower Of Power, celebrating its 30th year, played r&b but featured some fine soloists including Norbert Stachel on tenor and trumpeter Jesse McGuire.

Jazz was not exactly overlooked by Monterey during the Saturday afternoon portion. Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker deconstructed "Autumn Leaves" in humorous fashion. Parker gets a lot of eerie sounds out of his bowing, while Shipp's virtuosic and thunderous explosions contrast with an expert use of space. Their avant-garde explorations were fascinating to watch evolve.

One venue that afternoon focused on big bands. From Australia was the Contemporary Music Studies Ensemble, which is comprised of nine flutes (!), a flutist-keyboardist, four saxophones, electric bass and drums; definitely an unusual sound. Japan's Global Jazz Orchestra is a powerful group and played excellent bop, at least until a female singer with an out-of-control vibrato attempted "Fly Me To The Moon"! Best was the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra which featured professionals from the Bay Area including altoist Harvey Wainapel (who tore it apart on "Invitation"), pianist Marc Levine and Duane Lawrence, a skillful scat singer. Meanwhile, famed producer Orrin Keepnews had a live discussion with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and veteran writer Herb Wong asked questions of Dave Brubeck. Both Hutcherson and Brubeck were full of humorous stories about their careers. Dee Dee Bridgewater, one of the finest jazz singers of her generation (she is now 48) performed at both the large stage (with a big band directed by Bill Berry) and at the nightclub (with her trio) on Saturday night. A very expressive performer, Dee Dee gives each selection everything she has, yet emerges with plenty of energy left for the next song, and the one after that. She paid tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with "A Tisket, A Tasket," "Lady Be Good" (taken as a medium-tempo waltz) and "Undecided" but also dug into Horace Silver tunes ("Doodlin'," "Filthy McNasty" and "Sister Sadie") and really tore into the blues. On "Dr. Feelgood" she showed that she could easily be a fulltime blues singer if she wanted to limit herself. One would think that after decades of constant success, Dave Brubeck would be ready to coast, but it never happens. Still indulging in counterpoint (with altoist Bobby Militello), polyrhythms and complex variations, Brubeck showed that there were still fresh ideas to be played on "Yesterdays" (which featured some of his crazy striding), "Take Five" and "Take The 'A' Train." Just to see his beaming face when his son Dan Brubeck took an inventive drum solo on "Take Five" was worth the trip to Monterey.

Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (doubling on marimba) seemed quite happy and inspired performing with a quartet, a 12-piece group (arranged by pianist Billy Childs) and on duets with pianist McCoy Tyner. Pianist-singer Rebecca Mauleon led her Round Trip ensemble through some stirring Latin jazz; Alex Murzyn's long tenor solo on one piece had the place buzzing. Omar Sosa's quartet set (with Ron Stallings distinguishing himself on soprano) showed that advanced post-bop music can be danced to, and it was intriguing to see Sosa getting odd sounds from the inside of the piano by hitting it with mallets during the drum solo!

Guitarist Will Bernard's 4tet (with keyboardist Michael Bluestein) performed creative funk which used catchy but unpredictable rhythms. The Lounge Art Ensemble (comprised of tenor-saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Peter Erskine) was impressive (Sheppard took an excellent and lengthy cadenza on "Easy Living") as was Anthony's Wilson Nonet (which co- starred trumpeter Carl Saunders and both Pete Christlieb and Louis Taylor on tenors in addition to the leader-guitarist-arranger). Bassist Christian McBride mostly played funk during his showcase in one room but there were some explosive tenor solos by Tim Warfield. And not to be overlooked was Jessica Williams, one of the great pianists around today. Blessed with a technique and an imagination that seemingly makes it possible for her to play anything she thinks of, Williams made standards sound fresh ("I Want To Be Happy" was turned into a kind of demented and dissonant piece) and was ably assisted by bassist Dave Capstein and drummer Mel Brown. Exquisite and often-witty music.

While Sunday afternoon had high school bands on two stages (including Bobby Rodriguez enthusiastically conducting the Los Angeles County School for the Arts Big Band), and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir was certainly out-of- place, there were other major performances to see. Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers is one of the best of the current swing groups around today. All four horns in the octet are superior soloists, particularly tenorman Jules Broussard who did some close impressions of Illinois Jacquet. Singer Smith has a strong and versatile voice as she showed on such songs as "Blue Skies," "I Want A Little Boy" and an original medium-tempo blues, and she gave her sidemen plenty of chances to solo. The place was rocking! Al Jarreau performed a much more jazz-oriented set than he had at Playboy earlier in the year, singing a 20-minute medley that concluded with "So What" and displaying his increasingly eccentric scatting style; why aren't his records this good? Roger Eddy's light funk tenor (which mixed together the influences of Stanley Turrentine and Grover Washington, Jr.) was fine during his melodic performance, but paled in comparison to the duo of altoist Tim Berne and bassist Michael Formanek - they were interacting at the same time in a different room. Berne (doubling on baritone) and Formanek (who tapped on his bass now and then) played very freely and passionately with lots of shrieking but perfectly coherent improvising, at least for listeners with very open ears. The Berklee-Monterey Quartet '98 was a happy surprise, performing post-bop music that ranged from modal to funky. Altoist Jaleel Shaw and cellist Cy Emerson (featured on ''Chelsea Bridge") in particular distinguished themselves.

An adventurous pianoless quintet called Lan Xang (featuring Dave Binney and Donny McCaslin on reeds) bridged the gap between Sunday afternoon and night. Now it was time to really wear out one's shoes, because the choices the rest of the way would be quite daunting.

The highly influential guitarist Pat Metheny performed with his new trio (which included bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade) including "Bright Size Life," a sensitive "Change Of Heart" and an uptempo "All The Things You Are." At the same time the innovative acapella saxophone quartet Rova interpreted avant-garde originals that perfectly balanced free form- improvising with complex written ensembles. Just across the lawn, a tribute to Stephane Grappelli was taking place featuring violinists Darol Anger (showcased on "Nature Boy" and "Takin' A Chance On Love") and 81-year old Johnny Frigo, who played quite beautifully on "The Song Is You" and particularly "Street Of Dreams."

Too many choices. Bobby Hutcherson headed a quartet with Billy Childs. Singer Ledisi on her set was r&bish in style and showed off a wide range but tended to put too much emotion into each phrase; "Lover Man" was really overloaded with unnecessary intensity. Organist Brian Auger & Oblivion Express brought back the sound of early 1970's jazz/rock, loud and spirited, eccentric and chancetaking but danceable.

In past years, Billy Childs, Maria Schneider and Gerald Wilson had been commissioned to write special suites for Monterey. This time it was bassist Ray Drummond's turn. He utilized an all-star group that included both David Sanchez and Craig Handy on tenors and pianist Mulgrew Miller, but the music was quite conventional: five boppish pieces with short free interludes placed between them so the performance was continuous. Everyone played well but the overall results were not up to the level of the previous commissions. Altoist Virginia Mayhew (tripling on soprano and tenor) and her quintet (featuring the fiery trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, veteran pianist Mark Levine, bassist Harvie Swartz and the up-and-coming drummer Allison Miller) played high-quality and advanced hard-bop. Highlights included Wayne Shorter's "Yes Or No," a somber "Good Morning Heartache" and Kenny Barron's "Voyage." Definitely world-class musicians. Elvin Jones' latest version of his Jazz Machine closed the show on the main stage. Sonny Fortune (sticking to tenor, his strongest ax) blew up a storm, trombonist Robin Eubanks and bassist Cecil McBee were both in top form and pianist Carlos McKinney displayed plenty of potential for the future on such songs as "E.J. Blues," "Japanese Folk Song" and Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys." And Elvin Jones, who plays complex polyrhythms even when using brushes on a ballad, never stopped smiling.

At 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, all that was left was the Kenny Werner Trio (with bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Peter Erskine). The music was swinging but off-center, with plenty of wit and constant invention. "In Your Own Sweet Way" had a long vamp full of song quotes (including "Naima" and "Poinciana"), while the concluding "There Will Never Be Another You" featured a lot of hilarious key changes.

And then it was over - but one was too weary and full of memories to realize that for a few days! Congratulations are certainly due Monterey's general manager Tim Jackson for putting together such a varied and consistently inventive program. With the exception of dixieland (which would fit perfectly in one venue on Sunday afternoon), virtually all styles of jazz were represented. A wondrous weekend.

Originally published in the L.A. Jazz Scene. Chief editor of the All Music Guide to Jazz, Scott Yanow has been writing about jazz since 1976.


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