The 2002 Monterey Jazz Festival: Or How To See 60 Groups In 30 Hours

The 2002 Monterey Jazz Festival
Or How To See 60 Groups In 30 Hours

by Scott Yanow

copyright © 2002 Scott Yanow

Photos from Monterey by Ken Franckling

The Monterey Jazz Festival is one of the top annual jazz festivals held in the United States, possibly the most significant one. On five stages (a large outdoor arena, a smaller garden stage and three indoor nightclubs), all located at the Monterey Fairgrounds, a remarkable amount of high-quality music takes place within a 2 1/2 day period, generally the third weekend of September. Under the direction of Tim Jackson, this festival (unlike so many others) ignores pop/jazz and so-called smooth jazz in favor of showcasing adventurous music, veteran greats and a wide variety of major names and top local talent from the San Francisco Bay area. Going to the Monterey Jazz Festival lets one see a cross section of the very best jazz music around today.

So much music takes place that most fans have to choose between seeing one group or another. For instance, at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday this year, Charlie Haden's American Dreams, Michael Wolff's Impure Thoughts, William Breuker's Kollektief, percussionist Orestes Villato and the Taylor Eigsti Trio were all performing at the same time. Most spectators stick to one or two venues, enjoying a show in its entirety. I, however, have a different strategy, choosing to see every single group.

The reasons are threefold: 1) Several years ago when a fifth stage was added, Tim Jackson said that it was now finally impossible to see every act. It is a fun game to prove him wrong each year. 2) Quite often the most rewarding music and the biggest surprises come from the lesser-known groups rather than the headliners. 3) It is virtually impossible to see everyone, which is a perfect reason tood that is eaten during the prime hours are items that can be held with one hand and consumed while walking fast. It is important to travel light, wear strong tennis shoes, and master the art of dodging pedestrians while moving rapidly from one side of the fairgrounds to the other. It is also necessary to know when the best time is to leave a stage and run to the next one. The key is to see a major high point, usually an uptempo tune filled with passion and excitement, and then depart quickly as the bandleader is announcing the next song (which will invariably be a ballad). If one gets the timing right, it is easy to get delirious seeing one exciting performance after another. However if you get stalled or the stars are not lined up properly, one might get stuck seeing three straight drum solos.

The goal is to see a little bit of every performer, at least a song or two and sometimes as much as a half-hour although 20 minutes is more the norm. Some artists perform several times over the weekend but it is cheating to only see them once; they have to be caught at every single venue in which they appear. It is permissible to skip the high school and college bands that are prevalent on Sunday afternoon, but not the panel discussions and live interviews. All in all, I was able to see all 60 events that took place this year during a 54-hour period (between 6:30 p.m. Friday night and 12:30 a.m. Monday morning). Deducting the time when the festival was closed, all of the music really took place in 30 hours, so it comes out to two events an hour. A dozen groups perform during Friday and Saturday night between 8 p.m. so things get very hectic. If this review sounds a bit breathless, it is quite excusable. Here is what I was lucky enough to see, in chronological order:

It all began on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. with pianist Michael Bluestein's trio. Rather than deal with standards written by dead composers, Bluestein, bassist Jon Evans and drummer Jason Lewis played jazz interpretations of songs by washed-up rock groups. This interesting but odd set included such songs as Cat Stevens' "Wild World,""Led Zeppelin's "Ten Years Gone"and Steely Dan's "Asia." One waited with anticipation for a medley of Chad & Jeremy songs but fortunately that did not happen. The music was often lightly funky and fine in small doses but soon I wandered away to see a photo exhibit from Dave Brubeck's collection including shots of his prior appearances at Monterey. . . .

The Heath Brothers appeared in different settings throughout the weekend. Their first set had tenor-saxophonist Jimmy, bassist Percy and drummer Albert "Tootie"Heath plus pianist Jeb Patton performing joyful hard bop including "Some Sounds For Some Ears"and a cooking uptempo version of "On the Trail." Like James Moody, Jimmy Heath still plays with a great deal of energy and seems ageless. . . .Paula West is a fine San Francisco-based vocalist who has a warm voice and sings in a classic style with great respect for the lyrics of songs she interprets. With fine support from tenor-saxophonist Noel Jewkes and a trio with pianist Bruce Barth, West sang some obscurities and Jobim's "The Waters Of March.". . . .

Along with the Heath Brothers, Dave Brubeck was a constant presence th roughout this year's festival. Performing with his sons (Chris on electric bass and trombone, drummer Dan and cellist Matthew) in a very crowded nightclub (this was a difficult venue to get in), the 81-year old Brubeck played with undiminished energy, creativity and enthusiasm, tearing into "St. Louis Blues" with some heated stride piano. . . .Roy Hargrove's RH Factor surprised some of his longtime fans for the hard bop trumpeter performed funk with an ensemble including two saxophonists, guitar, organ, keyboards, bass and two drummers plus singer Stephanie McKay. On some songs Hargrove used an electronic attachment on his horn, getting an electric wa-wa sound that was a little reminiscent of Miles Davis in the 1970s and making his trumpet sound like a synthesizer. Although one missed his trademark sound, Hargrove played some fiery solos and the mix of jazz with funk largely succeeded. . . .

Roberta Gambarini, a very impressive singer who I had first heard at the previous year's festival, was back and swinging such standards as "This Can't Be Love," Just Squeeze Me"(during which she sounded a lot like Ella), Dave Brubeck's "Summer Song"and her memorable rendition of "On The Sunny Side Of The Street." The latter has her singing (from the 1957 recording) the solos of Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. Hopefully she will record this gem someday. . . .Drummer Sylvia Cuenca led a quartet comprised of the hugely underrated trumpeter Eddie Henderson, tenor-saxophonist Greg Tardy and organist Kyle Koehler. This is a world class group that played advanced hard bop and soul jazz. . . .

Clarinetist Don Byron was on the main stage at the time, performing a specially commisioned suite (titled "Red") in a group with eight horns, a rhythm section, percussionists and singers Abdoulaye Diabate and MIlton Cardona. Some of the music sounded a bit like that of Charles Mingus with the colorful horns often purposely clashing while playing overlapping parts. The African singer Diabate began to dominate at one point so it was time to run again. . . .Pianist Anthony Wonsey celebrated his birthday by performing at Monterey in a trio with bassist Brandon Owens and drummer Donald Edwards, getting a standing ovation for his exploration of "Invitation.". . . .A quartet co-led by altoist Steve Slagle and the spacey-sounding guitarist Dave Stryker played some avant-funk with Slagle getting into an Eddie Harris groove on "Near New York" and performed some high-quality post-bop music. . . .Singer Lizz Wright reminded me of Dianne Reeves on "Afro Blue" and impressed many listeners fortunate enough to catch the second half of her set (her long tones were haunting). . . .

However by then I was watching tenor-saxophonist Joshua Redman in a trio with keyboardist-organist Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade. Fiery solos by each of the players on "Still Pushing That Rock" (a tune based on a repetitive riff) and a spectacular roaring tenor solo over the closing vamp which ended on a screaming high note gained a standing ovation. "Molten Soul" found Redman playing unaccompanied a la Eddie Harris, almost as if he had heard Stryker's set, which was impossible. At nearly the same time, Roy Hargrove had a second set with his funk group, and coincidentally played Eddie Harris' "Listen Here!". . . .

So much for Friday night. Saturday afternoons are traditionally given over to the blues, at least at two of the venues. A band led by guitarist Steve Freund (who records for Delmark) played some conventional but spirited blues including "Up In the Playhouse" and "I'll Be A Mule" before backing Big Time Sarah, who shook her overweight frame, urged the audience on and belted out "Fever.". . . .At the same time Lady Bianca was singing in a similar style although also playing keyboards. Best was when she shifted to an old-time blues style for "Better Call Your Doctor Today," a humorous 1920s-type duet/dialogue with a male singer. . . .A student jazz group from Australia (The Contemporary Music Studies Ensemble) was most notable for featuring eight flute players but the soloists were often painful to hear. One of their singers performed "Accentuate The Positive," which was probably good advice for listening to this band. . . .

Dan Ouellette conducted a public Blindfold Test for Down Beat, with the Heath Brothers and it was quite hilarious hearing Jimmy, Percy and especially Tootie criticizing everything that was played. After talking about how much they disliked a particular record, it was revealed that it was by John Lewis. After a moment of embarrassment at not being able to identify him, they continued telling the audience how much they hated the music. . . .

Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers performed their brand of circa 1944 swing including heated versions of "Symphony In Sid" and "Jet Propulsion." The four horn players were excellent (particularly trumpeter Allen Smith) even if Howard Wiley's tenor solos sometimes sounded too modern. Lavay Smith swung her features in her Dinah Washington-inspired style and pianist Chris Siebert stood out on some boogie-woogie. . . .

The hit of the afternoon for me was blues singer-pianist Marcia Ball who played a set more jazz-oriented than expected, with fine tenor playing from Brad Andrew and good solos from guitarist Pat Boyack. Ball's piano playing is exciting (particularly on uptempo blues), she was expressive in her vocal on the blues ballad "Louisiana, They're Trying To Wash Us Away" and she sang about food in the style of Louis Jordan. . . .Etta James excelled as usual on her single-entendre blues (one never doubts the meanings to her songs), tearing into "I'd Rather Be A Blind Girl" and sounding quite emotional on "At Last.". . . .

The avant-garde jazz group E.S.P. was quite a change as violinist India Cooke played a solo that built up to a frenzy. She interacted well with bassist Kimara, percussionist Kele Nitoto and singer Toni Pope. India Cooke deserves to be much better known. . . .Big Time Sarah performed a second set on a smaller stage that was similar to her well-received main stage performance including "The Thrill Is Gone"and "Hoochie Coochie Woman.". . . .The Air Force Band Of The Golden West sounded surprisingly modern for a military jazz orchestra, featuring electronics (including an electrified trombone solo), strong musicianship, advanced solos and an interesting reworking of "Brazil.". . . .

Dave Brubeck talked at great length to journalist Herb Wong about his musical life and his hopes for the future. At one point he said "This year I'm recording everything I've ever written that has not been recorded. Maybe 10 or 20 years from now it will be released." His voice was a bit frail but Brubeck's mind is as sharp as ever. . . .

The Berklee-Monterey Quartet featured some Coltranish playing by a tenor-saxophonist (probably Walter Smith) that displayed a lot of future potential. . . .Marcia Ball's second performance was the equal of the first, closing the blues portion of the festival with "I Don't Want No Man To Tell Me What To Do" and "Going Down To New Orleans.". . . .

There was no live music from 7 to 8 p.m. but, to avoid withdrawal, I sat in the main theatre and watched a film of the 1964 Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy playing miraculous music. . . .Saturday night got underway with a Percussion Discussion moderated by Chuy Varela of KCSM-FM featuring five top percussionists (including John Santos) who would be showcased in one of the indoor nightclubs that night; the place was surprisingly packed. . . .Cuarteto Caribe, an Afro-Cuban quartet with Santos on congas and pianist Elio Villafranca, started the music with plenty of fire at that venue. . . .Pianist Michael Wolff's Impure Thoughts is an unusual sextet that includes the high-powered altoist Sonny Fortune, bassist John B. Williams and Badal Roy on tabla. The music could be called world fusion, with Fortune keeping the proceedings grounded in jazz. . . .

On the main stage: bassist Charlie Haden's American Dreams is a quartet with the great tenor Michael Brecker, pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Rodney Green, augmented by the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alan Broadbent. The string ensemble was unfortunately only utilized on the ballads but Brecker and Barron in particularly played quite beautifully and some of the quartet pieces hinted strongly at Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. . . .

I felt quite guilty leaving Haden's performance and rushing past a screaming Sonny Fortune alto solo but I could not miss Willem Breuker's Kollektief. The zany avant-garde Dutch institution is a seven-horn tentet that plays complex music that sometimes sounds like it has been taken from a crazy film. While some of the humor was abstract, other moments were more accessible as when Breuker led his group and some audience members through a singalong over Henk de Jonge's freeform piano solo. . . .

The Heath Brothers swung such numbers as "Winter Sleeves" (which Jimmy Heath explained was renamed from "Autumn Leaves" so he could get the royalties) and "A Sassy Samba." Percy Heath looked so happy playing with his younger brothers. . . .The percussion show continued with Ara Meji, a group led by Mi chael Spiro and featuring four percussionists, trombonist Jeff Cressman and flutist John Callaway performing stirring Afro-Cuban jazz. . . .

Rene Marie, a singer who has improved a bit since the last time I saw her, swung "'Deed I Do,""Surrey With The Fringe On Top" and a surprisingly free version of "Nature Boy.". . . .

Mingus Amungus is a particularly intriguing group comprised of three horns, a four-piece rhythm section, two dancers and a pair of rappers. Fortunately I missed the closing rap section but did see the two exotic dancers (Elizabeth and Caroline Lund) who change costumes frequently, and fine solos on Mingus tunes and originals by trumpeter Gavin DiStasi, trombonist Marty Wehner and tenor-saxophonist Joshi Marshall. . . .It seemed only fitting that I left Mingus Amungus to see the Mingus Big Band playing a typically rambunctious and exciting set on the main stage. Sue Mingus introduced the highly-rated ensemble which performed such Mingus songs as "Love's Fury,""Sweet Sucker Dance," "Tonight At Noon," "Boogie Stop Shuffle" (on which Frank Lacy sang the theme from "Spiderman"!) and "Meditations On Integration." Among the many soloists were trombonist Conrad Herwig, tenor-saxophonist Abraham Burton and baritonist Ronnie Cuber (featured on "Love's Fury"). . . .

Pianist Taylor Eigsti was quite impressive with his trio, taking apart bebop tunes and utilizing speedy octaves that were worthy of Bennie Green. . . .John Santos and his nine-piece group Machete were heard Latinizing "Salt Peanuts" including liberally quoting Charlie Parker's solo in a colorful arrangement. . . .Don Byron performed again, this time with his group "Music For Six Musicians," a sextet with trumpeter James Zollar and pianist Edsel Gomez. Zollar showed that he could really emulate late-period Cootie Williams on "Caravan," and the band played all types of spirited originals. . . .

As if that were not enough for one day, I went to the late-night jam session at a local Hyatt Hotel. Roberta Gambarini appeared and reprised her earlier performance (with Duke Ellington's former bassist Jimmy Woode helping out) before Percy Heath played "Out Of Nowhere" and "Bags' Groove" in a trio with pianist Eric Gunisson.

Sunday afternoon is usually the slowest part of the Monterey Jazz Festival. High school and college bands dominate two venues while the others only have music part of the time although there are several interesting discussions. One found Randy Weston and writer Willard Jenkins talking about the legacy of poet Langston Hughes and his relationship with jazz. . . .

Bill Berry directed the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band through some Duke Ellington pieces (including a not-so-hot version of "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blueî) but there was a nice solo from young trumpeter Anja Parks. Jimmy and Percy Heath joined the band for "Big P" and "The Voice Of The Saxophone.". . . .The Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Followers (sponsored by the International Association of Jazz Education) featured a young quintet that included pianist Gerald Clayton playing light bop. . . .

An interesting panel on Charles Mingus and his experiences at Monterey included Sue Mingus, writers Al Young, Phillip Ellwood and Bill Minor, and musicians Boris Kaslov, Miles Perkins (leader of Mingus Amungus) and Earl McIntryre. . . .Ramsey Lewis' trio performed a straightahead set that was highlighted by a remarkable gospel medley that included "Amazing Grace," "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" and a rousing closer that inspired the stadium crowd to stand up and cheer. . . .Nancy Wilson did her best during the following set (her pianist Llew Matthews is also excellent) but it was anti-climatic in comparison even though she wisely emphasized the songs from her classic album with Cannonball Adderley. . . .

Guitarist Carlos Oliveira performed some World Music jazz in a quintet with Harvey Wainapel on woodwinds (including clarinet), featuring mostly Brazilian and South American melodies and rhythms. . . .The Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet is a fine group of younger players with tenor-saxophonist Tommy Morimoto sounding a bit like Hank Mobley. Pianist Fabian Almazon took solo honors until their musical director bassist Christian McBride sat in on "Confirmation. . . .

Next to the medley by Ramsey Lewis, the highpoint of the afternoon was provided by a panel discussion called "My Life As A Heath Brother." Producer Orrin Keepnews asked an opening question and then Jimmy, Percy and Tootie Heath told one hilarious family story after another. It was quite funny to see Jimmy and Percy treating Tootie (who is only 67) as if he were a kid, and making fun of his antics from the 1940s. . . .The Berklee/Monterey Quartet's second performance (highlighted by a slow and warm version of "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face") closed Sunday afternoon's portion of the festival. . . .

Only 11 groups to go but there were still some special moments to experience. Jesse Zubot (on fiddle and mandolin) and guitarist Steve Dawson co-led a quartet influenced by country music and bluegrass that had its moments but seemed out of place. . . .Randy Weston last performed at Monterey in 1966 so the pianist's return set was long overdue. He led a sextet also featuring the intense tenor of Billy Harper, altoist Talib Kibwe and trombonist Benny Powell on a variety of originals pieces including Melba Liston's arrangement of "African Sunrise.". . . .

One of the main benefits of seeing every group at Monterey is experiencing an unexpected highlight. Organist Rhoda Scott has never became that famous but she is still in prime form. She was teamed with drummer Deszon Claiborne and the great Houston Person during a performance that gave the audience plenty of thrills. A lowdown blues showed that Person can play the blues as soulfully as any living tenor-saxophonist. At its conclusion, Person's cadenza caused the capacity crowd to go a bit crazy. Rhoda Scott then launched a joyful rendition of "Mack The Knife," one in which the key was raised after each chorus and had her organ roaring like a big band. When the song ended, she mouthed the words "One more time" and then restarted "Mack The Knife," this time playing the melody very slyly with her feet on the bass pedals, causing Person to beam and the audience to erupt. It was one of the great moments. . . .

Don Byron had his third set of the weekend, this time playing duets with pianist Edsel Gomez including an ambitious reworking of "Donna Lee"that hinted at the past while looking forward. . . .It was cold outside when British altoist Trevor Watts (doubling on soprano) played a free jazz set with bassist Colin McKenzie and drummer Giampaolo Scatozza but the music was quite hot and Watts improvised with such intensity that perhaps he did not notice the sparse crowd. . . .Pianist Weber Iago's group with bassist Brian McConnell and drummer Chazz Mewhort was a well-integrated modern mainstream trio heard in top form on "Speak Low"and Iago's original "The Net."...

The main show of the night on the main stage was Dave Brubeck's 40th anniversary presentation of his musical theater collaboration with his wife "The Real Ambassadors," which was only previously performed back in 1962 at Monterey. But first his quartet with altoist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones stretched out on "St. Louis Blues" (Militello played surprisingly outside in spots and Brubeck's improvisation ranged from very dense chords to a boogie-woogie and a nearly atonal stride) and "Someday My Prince Will Come."...

I took a chance and practically ran across the fairgrounds, happily catching Randy Weston playing a wonderful unaccompanied solo piano version of "Hi-Fly"; another special moment. . . .Organist Reuben Wilson roared through a blues in a trio with guitarist Grant Green Jr. (who is actually the original Green's nephew) and drummer Clyde Stubblefield. . . .

Racing back to the Brubeck set, I saw him tearing into "Yesterdays" (with guest Chris Brubeck on valve trombone) and "I Got Rhythm" with Christian McBride. Clint Eastwood then introduced "The Real Ambassadors," revealing that Dave and Iola Brubeck were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary that month. The Brubeck Quartet was joined by trumpeter-vocalist Byron Stripling (who stood in for Louis Armstrong), singer Lizz Wright (who took Carmen McRae's role), a vocal trio comprised of Lynn Fiddmont-Linsey, Lamont VanHook and Fred White (subbing for Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) plus Roy Hargrove, Chris Brubeck and Christian McBride. A big screen had photos of Louis Armstrong (who was the star of the original production) and the most haunting moment in this partial recreation was on one number when the vocal trio sang a chorus and then Satch (from a recording) sang the next one as if he were actually there! Other memorable moments included Stripling on "Summer Song" (he imitated Armstrong at the end of his vocal) and the jubilant "Go Satchmo." Brubeck looked so happy throughout the show (for which Iola had written the lyrics), which concluded with the entire company playing and singing "Take Five." As the curtains closed, Dave Brubeck could be seen hugging each of the performers. . . .

The Monterey Jazz Festival ended with the 60th set, an encore performance from the Mingus Big Band including rousing versions of "Haitian Fight Song," "Passions Of A Woman Loved," "Devil Woman" (with Frank Lacy's humorous and passionate vocal) and the explosive "Moanin'."

There was nothing left to do at that point but go to my hotel room and collapse. Quite a weekend!

Scott Yanow is the Los Angeles-based author of books on Swing, Bebop, Duke Ellington, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Trumpet Kings, and others, besides being a principal reviewer for the All Music Guides.

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