by Scott Yanowcopyright © 1999 Scott Yanow
This year's Monterey Jazz Festival (the 42nd) was even stronger than usual, and director Tim Jackson deserves congratulations for putting on such a remarkable annual marathon.
The most significant modern jazz festival in California, Monterey is held during the third weekend of September at the Monterey Fairgrounds. The music is featured on up to five venus simultaneously: A large outdoor stage (which has very good sound quality that puts the Hollywood Bowl to shame), a smaller garden stage and three indoor facilities called simply The Nightclub, Dizzy's Den and the Coffee House Gallery. All in all there were 61 different events occurring over the weekend (not counting eight Sunday afternoon high school bands that I skipped) and somehow I was able to see a little bit of each set. So if this review has a breathless quality to it, that is not a coincidence! The music is related in more or less chronological order as I ran from place to place, eager to catch at least a little bit of every single group.
It all began on the Garden Stage with a bop-based quintet called Along Came Betty, or at least it seemed to begin. A few false starts (including a chorus in which Along Came Betty played Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty") made it obvious that they were starting out with a sound check. After a few people applauded, one of the musicians said into the mike "Thank you. See you next year!"
The festival still began five minutes early. Along Came Betty was originally formed to play the music of the Jazz Messengers but the group also plays original tunes in Art Blakey's style. "Opus De Funk" and a variety of songs named after band members (which included trumpeter Brian Stock, tenorman Stu Reynolds and pianist Biff Smith) were heard and the local group was excellent.
Guitarist Russell Malone's quartet set with pianist Anthony Wonsey (who in spots recalled the great Wynton Kelly) was highlighted by some of the leader's torrid guitar playing on "Something's Gotta Give."
Sandy Cressman and Homenagem Brasileira was the first of many Brazilian and Cuban groups that performed on Friday night. Cressman has a nice Flora Purim-inspired voice that perfectly fits the music (which included songs by Milton Nascimento and Dori Caymmi), Marcos Silva was on keyboards and second vocal, and Harvey Wainapel's reeds were a strong asset.
Terence Blanchard was one of the many heroes of the weekend. The great trumpeter grows in power and depth each year. His sextet (with the young altoist Aaron Fletcher, Brice Winston on tenor and pianist Edward Simon) performed an emotional "I Thought About You" and a very fiery uptempo blues. Also near the top of his field is pianist Chucho Valdes whose set (which featured some singing in Spanish and lots of percussion along with Valdes' mastery of polyrhythms) generated a strong standing ovation at the main stage.
Pianist Kenny Barron in a trio with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley (who was very witty in his tradeoffs with Barron), showed that even after 40 years of playing he is still improving with age. He played some classic modern bop, alternating between stunning single-note lines and block chording. Even though the pianist had barely made it to Monterey in time (thanks to the difficulties of catching a plane in New York during Hurricane Floyd), he and his trio sounded very tight on "Solar."
The up-and-coming tenor-saxophonist Anton Schwartz, who gave the impression of being quite relaxed while blowing hard, performed "When Music Calls" and "Typhoon" (maybe Barron should have played the latter song!) with a quartet that included guest percussionist John Santos. L.A. favorite Poncho Sanchez (the hardest-working man in jazz) told the audience "You can't be tired, this is the first night," urging everyone to dance. "Watermelon Man" was a particular crowd pleaser, with solos by trombonist Francisco Torres and altoist Scott Martin.
Los Mocosos is a versatile and often humorous band, a Cuban nonet with three horns. As opposed to Sanchez asking everyone to dance, vocal-percussionist Piero Ornelas told the audience "Everybody scream!" Then in the middle of a Latin dance set, Los Mocosos broke into some Retro Swing which was a bit of a crackup. The place was in an uproar. The group may not have been too subtle but they were certainly quite fun and worked hard to keep the audience excited.
Pianist Jeff Chimenti's trio performed some strong postbop including a version of Kenny Barron's "Voyage," displaying impressive technique and consistently creative ideas; the group also included the very alert bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Joe Brigandi. Harvey Wainapel had an opportunity to sit in with Chimenti, wailing on "Bemsha Swing" on alto where he hinted at Eric Dolphy. Los Van Van, a Cuban show band that really does not belong at a jazz festival, featured lots of singing and choreography but few solos (other than the percussion section) despite having three trombones and two violins. The night ended with encore sets (in different venues) by Chucho Valdes and Poncho Sanchez.
A good warmup! Saturday afternoon is traditionally dominated by the blues (particularly at the two main venues) but it has become much more diverse in recent years, with some jazz (particularly big bands) and panel discussions also taking place. The Johnny Nocturne band, a hard-driving four-horn octet that includes leader John Firmin on his Illinois Jacquet/Arnett Cobb-inspired tenor, roared through "The Driver" and "Jumpin' At Apollo," bringing back the style of late 1940s jump jazz; trumpeter Pete Sembler was also quite impressive. Nocturne's singer Kim Nalley is a potentially major find as she showed on "Comes Love," "I'm Checkin' Out Goombye" (which found the band sounding like a 1930s Duke Ellington small group) and "Million Dollar Secret." The one fault to the group is that their material is pretty conventional, making one wish that some new material in the tradition was mixed in with the warhorses.
Lucky Peterson on the organ played lots of blistering long notes as he explored the r&b side of the blues; he was also heard from on piano and guitar. Although he had a strong riffing horn section, Peterson was mostly the main focus. The very young Auckland Grammar School Big Band from New Zealand tried their best and their pianist showed potential but the horns were, to be kind, rather primitive.
Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late blues guitarist-singer Johnny Copeland, belts out the blues but also includes plenty of humor, putting on an exciting show and singing lyrics like "The way you're spending that kind of dough, I want you to know, you're my kind of guy!" An "Ellington At Monterey" panel discussion moderated by Jazz Journalists Association vp Willard Jenkins included Bill Berry (who talked about the My People show of 1963), David Baker, Clark Terry, Patricia Willard and others.
Ruth Brown, on her famous "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours Of Love," showed that at age 71 she is still in her prime. She also performed a sensitive version of "I Sold My Heart To The Junk Man," "Fine And Mellow" and other specialties. Her band is perfect for her, particularly Bill Easley whose tenor playing in this context recalled Stanley Turrentine. The Sunnyside Jazz Band from Japan was quite strong on a variety of standards (particularly its trumpet section), at least until an American singer who used to sing with the Glenn Miller ghost band began to dominate. When he started singing "New York, New York," it was time to skedaddle out of there!
Vinny Golia provided a very welcome contrast. He was heard on stritch (among other reeds) in a quintet with the fiery trumpeter John Fumo, guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Mike Elizondo and drummer Alex Cline. The music was fairly free but quite coherent with a forward movement and the musicians constantly reacting to each other, always fascinating to hear.
The legendary Bobby "Blue" Bland sang blues and ballads with a band that included four horns and some fine guitar solos by Charlton Johnson. Bland, who punctuates his sweet vocals with some odd grunting sounds, paid tribute to Joe Williams with "Every Day I Have The Blues." In one of the other venues, Toshiko Akiyoshi was interviewed by drummer Anthony Brown (leader of the Asian-American Jazz Orchestra, and she was quite witty and informative in discussing her early days, recalling that she was fired from many clubs in Japan because people complained that they could not dance to her music. "Jazz is not learned by studying as much as it is by playing with better musicians" she wisely stated.
Saturday afternoon concluded with a set by the Carma Big Band which is directed by saxophonist Michael Zilber. The music was quite advanced (one arrangement was Bob Mintzer's reworking of "Dolphin Dance" while another was a musical depiction of wind!) and the soloists were consistently outstanding. There are no big names in this Northern California ensemble (best known is pianist Paul Nagel) but they put on a superior performance.
After a JJA panel that I participated in dealing with jazz as an international language (moderated by Bill Minor), it was time for a very busy Saturday night. The Asian-American Jazz Orchestra performed Duke Ellington's "Far East Suite," an inspired idea. The big band included Francis Wong on tenor, pianist Jon Jang, bassist Mark Izu and drummer Anthony Brown among others with some of the musicians doubling on Asian and Middle Eastern instruments. At times the band closely emulated Duke's sound (particularly the wa-wa brass) but the music overall was played from the Asian perspective and the results (which included "Isfahan" and "Tourist's Point Of View") were quite stimulating.
Also paying tribute to Ellington that night was the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under the direction of David Baker. They worked their way chronologically through some of Ellington's songs including "Jubilee Stomp" (which had some fine guitar from James Chirillo) and the remarkable "Daybreak Express." However once the band hit the 1940s and tunes such as "Jack The Bear" and "Warm Valley" (which had trumpeter Bill Berry sitting in), it sounded like a ghost orchestra, playing the correct notes but lacking any real personality of its own. The orchestra also performed Duke's "Suite Thursday" (which was premiered at the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival) and a new suite dedicated to Ellington.
The Uri Caine Trio (with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ralph Peterson) mostly interpreted standards, but Caine's left-of-center improvising really stretched the boundaries of the music, tossing in occasional tone clusters on ballads and featuring a very exciting Peterson solo on "Green Dolphin Street." Donald Bailey (one of three San Francisco-based drummers honored that night in the Nightclub) hosted a set featuring several young local artists that he enjoyed, inspiring the musicians with his spirited playing. Bassist Kyle Eastwood (Clint's son) led an excellent hard bop quintet that included trumpeter Jim Rotondi (in top form) and tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander on originals mostly based on common chord changes and serving as fine vehicles for spirited solos.
As usual, Diana Krall wowed a large audience with her introverted yet sensual charisma. Her current quartet features the fine guitarist Peter Bernstein. Krall had a remarkably quiet audience and her versions of "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Devil May Care," and "East Of The Sun" went over very well, even while some in the audience were calling out for "Peel Me A Grape!"
Medeski, Martin & Wood played some very diverse music during their appearances, ranging from completely outside (particularly when organist Medeski switched to piano) to danceable funk. Their volume may have been too loud but they certainly got their message across. The Vince Lataeno Trio mostly found drummer Lataeno and bassist John Witala in a supportive role behind the exciting bebop solos of guitarist Bruce Forman. The Astral Project featured some of the top New Orleans modern jazz players (tenorman Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist James Singleton and drummer John Vidacovich) performing hard bop solos on such originals as "The Whole Truth" and "Voodoo Box." And later on drummer Eddie Marshall and his band Holy Mischief (a quintet with trombonist Jeff Cressman and tenor-saxophonist Kenny Brooks) also played modern hard bop with Marshall proving to be quite a powerhouse drummer.
However, the main performance Saturday night was a 90-minute set billed as "Eastwood At Monterey." Clint Eastwood was the organizer and different all-stars were featured on each selection, all songs that were heard in Eastwood's movies. The Kenny Barron Trio started off with "Misty," but "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" was a bit of a misfire, bogged down by an overly complex arrangement that found Terence Blanchard and Clark Terry struggling a bit. "In Your Own Sweet Way" (with trumpeter Blanchard, trombonist Isaac Smith, Lew Tabackin on tenor and baritonist Jack Nimitz) was better as were Terry and Jimmy Heath on "'Round Midnight." Then came a spectacular version of "Lester Leaps In" featuring the tenors of Heath, Lew Tabackin, Joshua Redman and Chris Potter! Every one sounded inventive during the solos (they were each aware of each other's presence) and the tradeoffs. Redman often had the best ideas while Potter successfully copied him and built from his licks. Great fun.
The highpoint of the set and of the entire weekend was violinist Regina Carter on "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me." She threw everything she had into her solo; Russell Malone and Kenny Barron had their spots and then Carter took four remarkable duet choruses with Malone. While the guitarist kept on changing his function (backing the violinist, then dueting with her and challenging her by changing the patterns), she was right with him and the results were quite electrifying, generating a major standing ovation. The night concluded with Diana Krall singing Eastwood's "Why Should I Care" and all of the musicians (seven horns, Carter, Malone and the rhythm section) jamming "Straight No Chaser" with nine players trading fours endlessly.
Sunday afternoon used to be relatively slow at Monterey with lots of high school bands, but now the teenagers only dominate two of the five venues. The music resumed with a strong dose of "the real jazz," New Orleans jazz as played by Clint Baker's band. Baker, who was heard on bass at the Sweet and Hot Jazz Festival (he and Bill Berry were the only two musicians heard at both that event and at Monterey this year) led his group (which included trumpeter Marc Caparone and clarinetist Tom Sharpsteen) on trombone. The ensembles were exciting (particularly on "Panama") and the version of "Exactly Like You" (with Baker taking a good-humored vocal) was a classic. The audience loved the band's spirit, making one happy that Monterey finally had some trad jazz on Sunday afternoons. Although I avoided the high school bands, I did catch Terence Blanchard and Bill Berry playing "Centerpiece" with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band and the young altoist John Ritchie displaying an appealing tone on "Isfahan." The Dennis Murphy group was unusual in that they had up to three keyboardists in the quintet. One of the keyboardists mostly played alto in a David Sanborn style while the funk-oriented band's best soloist was actually bassist Murphy. They romped together on Eddie Harris' "Cold Duck Time."
Joshua Redman was featured in a JJA-sponsored Blindfold Test held by Dan Ouellette for Down Beat. Redman was typically thoughtful and intelligent in his enthusiastic comments about his contemporaries, particularly about Freddie Hubbard and James Carter.
Patty Waters, a legendary singer who recorded two intense albums for the ESP label in the mid-1960's and then largely dropped out of music, has been singing on an occasional basis in the Santa Cruz area for quite some time. Backed by pianist Leonard Thompson and bassist Dan Robbins, she put a great deal of emotion into her renditions of standards including an almost-whispered "Good Morning Heartache," a happy "Old Devil Moon" and a medley of "I'll Be Around," "Easy To Remember" and "You've Changed." The inner intensity was magical and, although Patty Waters' voice is not perfect, her interpretations are quite haunting.
Also quite enjoyable in a different way were the Manhattan Transfer. They mostly performed numbers from their recent Swing album including vocalese versions of "Charleston Alley," "King Porter Stomp" (with Cheryl Bentyne singing Benny Goodman's high notes), "Nuages" and "Rambo."
The Sisters In Jazz is an all-female sextet sponsored by the International Association Of Jazz Educators. They stuck generally to standards including "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "Windows" with altoist Tia Fuller making the strongest impression. Later on they were featured at what was billed as a clinic but was actually a rather dull advertisement for the IAJE; pity that the "Sisters" were not allowed to talk about their struggles in jazz which would have been much more interesting. And Clark Terry, interviewed by producer Orrin Keepnews, discussed everything from Miles Davis and Fate Marable to his recordings for Keepnews' Milestone label with typical humor and class. Sunday afternoon ended with the Berklee/Monterey Quartet, a solid postbop group featuring Bob Reynolds on tenor and pianist Milan Milanovic, playing straightahead tunes.
As busy as the weekend had been up to this point, Sunday night would really be crazy, with 12 significant groups performing in a four-hour period in the five venues. Fortunately, my shoes were still strong! Before the rush really began, singer Bobbe Norris and pianist Larry Dunlap's group (with Harvey Wainapel on tenor, alto and soprano) swung their way through "How Deep Is The Ocean," "The One I Love" and "I'd Rather Be Here" (which found trombonist Jeff Cressman joining the band). Norris' low notes are particularly powerful and she is a sensitive interpreter of lyrics.
Word had spread about Regina Carter's great success of the night before so there was an overflowing house waiting for her at Dizzy's Den. She did not disappoint the crowd, playing quite ferociously (á la Stuff Smith) on "Listen Here." She talked about how the first time she saw jazz live was at a Stephane Grappelli concert. "I went home and told my mother that I wanted to play jazz. She said 'Oh no, you have to have health insurance and a pension.' Needless to say, I won the battle. And, yes, I do have health insurance!" Carter then launched into a ridiculously fast version of "Lady Be Good," taking ten choruses including five as a duet with guitarist Adam Rogers. With the death of Grappelli, Regina Carter is now arguably the top violinist in jazz.
At the main stage at the same time, Terence Blanchard was performing music from films with the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra and his sextet. Highlights of his set included "The Theme From The Pawnbroker," the theme from "Chinatown" and "Anatomy Of A Murder." Clark Terry, who had sounded a bit subpar the night before, was in surprisingly fine form with Swing Fever (a sextet led by trombonist Bryan Gould), playing older swing standards. Particularly impressive was singer Jackie Ryan who has strong potential for the future.
The Tin Hat Trio deserved a much closer listen than I was able to give them. Comprised of violinist Carla Kihlstedt, Mark Orton on guitar, banjo, mandolin and dobro and Rob Burger on accordion and pump organ, the band played complex but colorful music. Highly original, witty and accessible. It was a bit eerie though to watch the talented Kihlstedt solo while Regina Carter could be heard in the background from across the lawn!
It was easy to become a bit punch drunk from all of the choices. Bassist Marcus Shelby's Quartet featured some exciting sheets of sound tenor from Howard Wiley that was inspiring. The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra found Lew Tabackin in peak form, ripping through a blues; Akiyoshi could not stop smiling. The band played a specially commissioned suite, "Tribute To Duke Ellington" that in its three movements captured the spirit of Ellington while retaining the orchestra's own sound. Hopefully it will be recorded; the orchestra and Toshiko rightfully received a big ovation.
Kitty Margolis, who is always a popular attraction at Monterey (and is one of the top jazz singers around today), said, "The next song is a tribute to my favorite singer, Miles Davis." She then sang vocalese to the solos of "So What" and was also quite lyrical on "We Kiss In A Shadow." Flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny, in a quartet with pianist Darrell Grant, played some hotter numbers than usual but then performed a classic rendition of "Stardust." He started unaccompanied on the verse (played very slowly) and, after a piano solo, Matheny resumed playing while standing in the middle of the Nightclub, walking slowly to the stage which he reached shortly before finishing the dramatic rendition. What a beautiful tone!
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris in a quartet with pianist Billy Childs played an emotional ballad of his own, "Faded Beauty." Joshua Redman, during a very well-received performance, showed that he is still growing as an improviser, taking more chances than he used to. Playing alto part of the time, he sounded a bit like Greg Osby, and then performed a ballad on tenor with the passion and spirituality of John Coltrane. Closing off with "Eleanor Rigby," Redman showed that he is still a work in progress and that he has unlimited potential.
Then it was time for a final tour of the venues. Redman closed the main stage. Guitarist Wayne Krantz was certainly out of place, playing avant-rock with a trio that was remarkably loud; his audience was enthusiastic but quite small. The Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra played a second set at a smaller venue and Tabackin had not run out of fire.
It ended with tenor-saxophonist Robert Stewart who headed a quartet that included pianist Ed Kelly. Stewart, a young giant, displayed plenty of ferocity in spots yet was quite tender on "In A Sentimental Mood" while Kelly proved to be a powerful blues pianist. "Freedom Jazz Dance" closed the festival and, even though one's head was completely spinning by then (1 a.m. Monday morning after more than 30 hours of music), it was difficult not to cheer for more.
As I left, a friend suggested that I go to the Hyatt where there might be a jam session. However having seen 61 sets at Monterey, I decided sadly that 62 might have been a touch excessive!