A Breathless Review of the 2003 Monterey Jazz Festival

A Breathless Review of the 2003 Monterey Jazz Festival

by Scott Yanow

copyright © 2003 Scott Yanow

A major event ever since it was first founded by Jimmy Lyons and Ralph Gleason in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival has been held at the same location (the Monterey Fairgrounds) for 46 years, longer than any other American festival. Although the festival hit a creative slump during the late 1980s, it has been back in its prime during the past decade thanks in large part to the creative booking of its general manager, Tim Jackson. One can go to the Monterey festival for a weekend and come away with a pretty good idea what today's jazz scene is like.

The Monterey Jazz Festival in its early golden years presented music on just one stage. It added a second smaller garden stage in the 1970s but has now grown to five venues with the addition of three indoor nightclubs on the fairgrounds. When the fifth stage was added a few years ago, Tim Jackson stated that it was finally impossible for anyone to see every single group. It has since been my goal to prove him wrong every year.

While most in the audience see one or two groups during the 60-75 minute sets, by running from place to place, I was able to catch a bit of all 62 bands during the three-day weekend this year, everything except the high school and college groups that traditionally play on Sunday afternoon and that I usually skip. To accomplish this feat, it is important to have a bit of strategy and follow a few rules: Only eat food that can be consumed by walking fast, wear durable tennis shoes, leave after a particularly exciting highpoint to the music (since a ballad invariably follows) and usually limit oneself to no more than a half-hour at any one place and sometimes quite a bit less. During the weekend I only saw one complete set (the Gary Burton-Makoto Ozone duets) and planned that in advance by viewing three other groups in the preceding 15 minutes. If you get the timing right, it is possible to see one exciting highpoint after another. But linger too long at one venue and one may get stuck seeing three straight drum solos!

Friday Night

Friday at 6 p.m. the Brass Monkey Brass Band greeted the audience as they entered the fairgrounds, performing New Orleans r&b a la the Dirty Dozen Brass Band plus some trad jazz. This spirited ensemble appeared several times during the weekend, always adding a party atmosphere to the proceedings.

The festival officially began with a straightahead quintet at a small stage. Along Came Betty, which featured trumpeter Brian Stock and tenor-saxophonist Stu Reynolds, performed hard bop originals (mostly by their pianist Biff Smith) including one titled "Brad Mehldau's Monogrammed Guest Towels," but surprisingly no standards. Otherwise not much was occurring until 8 p.m. so I viewed an exhibit of photos from past Monterey festivals taken by the late photographer Ray Avery.

At 8 it was off to the races. The main stage show actually began a half-hour later with pianist Michel Camilo's trio which also included bassist Charles Flores and drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. Camilo was outstanding, displaying his classical background, his Caribbean heritage and an occasional Oscar Peterson influence. He took "Tequila" in 7/8 time (which made it sound a bit like a drunken strut) and, without saying a word to the audience, left a space open each chorus for the crowd to spontaneously yell out "Tequila!" This occurred about 20 times, becoming more and more hilarious each chorus.

Remember Shakti followed, showcasing the still-remarkable guitarist John McLaughlin interacting with Zakir Hussain on tabla, mandolist U. Shrinivas and V. Selvaganesh on a variety of exotic Indian instruments. The wordless vocalizing of Shankar Mahadevan got to be a bit much after awhile but the playful interplay and virtuosity of the instrumentalists was not to be denied. Singer Issac Delgado's orchestra with pianist Eddie Palmieri mostly performed salsa and some Latin jazz with occasional solos from flutist German Velazco and the two trombonists.

There was so much else to see. While the main stage was featuring what could be roughly called "world jazz," other venues ranged from funk to hard bop. The Berkelee-Monterey Quartet 2003 showed that the caliber of today's young musicians is extremely high. Trumpeter Christian Scott, pianist Rafael Alcala, bassist Damian Cabaud and drummer Jordan Perlson made polyrhythms and polytonality seem so easy to play, and their modernization of "All Blues" was inspired. The Global Funk Council performed funky fusion that sounded a little bit like John Scofield's current work. Josh Suhrheinrich's rockish guitar and the forceful drummer Tom Arey were dominant forces. Metalwood from Canada generally performed simplistic groove material that was not worthy of the musicians, which included trumpeter Brad Turner and Mike Murley on saxophones. The solos were much stronger than the tunes and the structures. Soulive played jam band music, avant-funk with organist Neal Evans alternating repetition with sound explorations. Some people danced, others quickly took flight.

33 years after its birth, Oregon finally made its debut at Monterey, starting off the set with "Joyful Departure" and Ralph Towner's 12-string guitar feature "Castle Walk." Pioneers in developing "folk jazz" and fusing World Music with advanced jazz, Oregon has retained both its enthusiasm and constant creativity. And fortunately Towner, who was an artist-in-residence at Monterey this year, would be featured in two other settings.

Mary Stallings, who was joined by the Larry Vuckovich trio, sings in an older style (at times reminiscent of Ernestine Anderson and Carmen McRae) but always sounds fresh and swinging as she showed on a soulful version of "That Old Devil Moon" and a rendition of "Street Of Dreams" which was taken in 3/4 time. Michel Camilo had a well-received encore set with his trio at one of the indoor nightclubs. Some of the finest music of the night was provided by Jason Moran & The Bandwagon (his trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) which had the opportunity to play three sets at the Coffee House Gallery, mostly new postbop originals plus a sensitive solo version of Duke Ellington's "I Love The Sunrise." The trio was tight, adventurous and versatile.

Saturday Afternoon

Usually Saturday afternoons at Monterey are dominated by the blues with some of the indoor venues being used for discussions and a few lesser-known jazz groups. This year was particularly diverse. The main stage was dubbed "New Orleans In Monterey," starting off with the Brass Monkey Brass Band jamming "The Saints" while marching up and down the aisles. Buckwheat Zydeco had Stanley Dural Jr. playing some stirring accordion and grooving with his sextet (which included Sir Reginald M. Dural on rubboard and trumpeter Curtis Watson) although there was an excess of yelling from the leader, who succeeded in getting the audience riled up. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has been around since the 1960s, has improved during the past decade due to a lot of turnover. Although its repertoire of "good old good ones" offered no surprises ("Bourbon Street Parade," "The Saints," "Shake That Thing," "Eh Le Bas," "Just A Little While To Stay Here" etc.) it is nevertheless quite fun to hear. Trumpeter John Brunious, trombonist Frank Demond and clarinetist Ralph Johnson make for a spirited frontline. The Neville Brothers closed off the main stage show and, although much of their set was r&b, I managed to catch their jazz segment which found tenor-saxophonist Charles Neville sounding a bit like Dexter Gordon on "Besame Mucho" and Aaron Neville singing a soul jazz version of "Summertime." Buckwheat Zydeco and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band also performed sets at a smaller stage as did Red Beans & Rice, a solid blues band with Terence Kelly on vocals and harmonica. Nothing innovative occurred with the latter group but the music was enjoyable and alternated blues with ballads quite effectively. Keyboardist Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen explored funky r&b that had blues influences.

There was also some Saturday afternoon jazz to hear. The piano-guitar duo of Sanokan and Tanida from Japan performed original and impressionistic music that featured close interplay and picturesque melodies. The Avondale College Jazz Band from New Zealand had a good guitarist in Hayden Booth but otherwise sounded like teenagers, which they are. The Navy Band Southwest Fleet Jazz Ensemble was pretty exciting on swinging versions of "It's Alright With Me" and "I Just Found Out About Love" that sandwiched the suite "Celebration For King (Martin Luther) which had both somber and celebratory sections. Canada's "iks" was quite a bit different, emphasizing explorations of electronic sounds along with some more conventional funk. Their catchy yet eccentric music was consistently intriguing. There was an additional set by the Berklee/Monterey Quartet 2003 but of greatest interest was getting to hear cornetist Bobby Bradford's Mo'tet. With Chuck Manning on tenor, guitarist Ken Rosser, the remarkable bassist Roberto Miranda and drummer William Jeffrey, Bradford mostly played fairly conventional music, including a 20-minute medium-tempo blues, but often hinted at the avant-garde and infused the set with subtle surprises.

In addition, Down Beat Magazine sponsored a "Blindfold Test" hosted by Dan Ouellette with the members of Four Brothers: singers Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany. Each of the vocalists cracked jokes as they were played records by other singers. Murphy said of Bobby McFerrin: "When I first heard Bobby, I thought seriously of getting a job at the post office." Elling added "He is astonishing. I should apply for a grant so I can take lessons from him." Hendricks summed up the plight of the jazz singer thus "As a jazz artist I believe in art for art's sake, and money for Christ's sake!" George Wein was scheduled to be interviewed in front of the audience by Philip Elwood but was unable to make the festival so Hendricks took his place. Although he had recently turned 82, the genius of vocalese is still quite sharp as he reminisced in humorous fashion about Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and said of record company executives: "If you want their opinion, you have to give it to them!"

Saturday Night

While it was not that hard to see everything that took place Saturday afternoon, there were so many simultaneous events taking place that night that there were some very difficult moments. At the main stage Ralph Towner was scheduled to debut his commissioned work "Monterey Suite" with the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra, members of Oregon and vibraphonist Gary Burton. His set began with a few guitar-vibes duets with Burton including a heated "Solar" and an exquisite version of "Yesterdays." I reluctantly departed to see six other groups with the intent of returning for the end of the suite, but at 40 minutes it was shorter than expected and when I arrived back, it was in time for the closing standing ovation.

I had better luck seeing Four Brothers. Elling (who had concocted the idea for this all-star vocal ensemble), Hendricks, Mahogany and Murphy were all featured at their best. When they jammed a medium-tempo blues together and traded off, Murphy stole the show with his pure craziness, alternating quickly between falsetto and bass notes. "I Believe She Was Talking About Me" was a humorous duet by Mahogany and Elling. Murphy paid tribute to Hendricks by singing the older singer's words on "Bijou" and "L'il Darlin'," Elling sang "Home Cookin'" the dated lyrics of which he described as "some of the worst romantic advice I've ever come across" and Hendricks performed his vocalese to Shorty Baker's recorded trumpet solo on "Mood Indigo." Hopefully Four Brothers will record in the near future. On the following set after some swinging instrumentals by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Mahogany sat in with the big band, faring quite well on "See See Rider" and "You Are So Beautiful."

19-year old Peter Cincotti delighted audiences during his two sets with his fluent and melodic piano playing and his charming singing. The other jazz critics in attendance only gave him mixed reviews (most likely as a backlash to the hype that he has received) but in reality Cincotti (leading a quartet that includes Scott Kreitzer on tenor) puts on a good show. He played an uptempo "If I Were A Bell," stretched out on "There'll Never Be Another You," sang a few of his originals and showed that he could stride quite well on Fats Waller's "Handful Of Keys." However there were no shortage of great pianists that night at Monterey. Omar Sosa, a major Afro-Cuban jazz pianist who sometimes utilizes rap in his music, left the hip hop at home this time and played abstract yet highly rhythmic versions of standards including "What Is This Thing Called Love." He also featured some vocals from the enthusiastic Martha Galarraga. Pianist-vocalist Dena DeRose was particularly impressive, displaying a warm voice, the ability to accompany herself and some strong piano chops. Her trio (with bassist Michael Zisman and drummer Matt Wilson) followed her closely; I was lucky to catch them on memorable versions of "Gone With The Wind," "I'm Old Fashioned," "I've Never Been In Love Before," "Beautiful Love and "Marian's Mood" (DeRose's tribute to Marian McPartland). On "The Good Life," she turned a potentially corny song into a soulful and sensuous statement. Carla Cook did not play piano but attracted a standing room only crowd, sounding at her best scatting through some uptempo tunes.

San Francisco Bay area guitarists were saluted in one venue. Eddie Duran and his wife altoist Mad Duran showed why they are considered so underrated on a hard-swinging "My Heart Stood Still." Calvin Keys played unaccompanied guitar on "I Remember Clifford" (which concluded with a quote from "Parisian Thoroughfare") and cooked with his trio on "Invitation." The always boppish and creative Bruce Forman welcomed altoist Sherman Irby to his quartet and dug into "Dedication" (a tribute to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) and his ballad "Sea Suite." When some in the audience departed to go to other venues, Forman commented "Ahh, a standing ovation." A big ovation did occur at the end of the night when Duran, Keys and Forman all jammed a blues together.

Saturday concluded with a late night set from Kurt Elling, who is arguably the top male jazz singer around today. With accompaniment by his long-time pianist Laurence Hobgood and his trio, Elling performed "The Man In The Air," Grover Washington Jr.'s "Winelight," his vocalese to Dexter Gordon's long solo on "Tanya," a reading from Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," an expressive "All The Way," and finally John Coltrane's intense solo on "Resolution" from A Love Supreme.

Sunday Afternoon

Because Sunday afternoon features high school bands at two of the venues, things are more relaxed during this period, giving one an opportunity to explore the 100 or so vendors who sell all types of merchandise and food. Although some fans and critics explore the picturesque city and countryside instead, true fanatics rush back to the fairgrounds to soak up the atmosphere and the bits of jazz that do occur during this afternoon.

The reunited Crusaders had just two of their original members (keyboardist Joe Sample and tenor-saxophonist Wilton Felder) but trombonist Stephen Baxter filled the role of Wayne Henderson well, Ray Parker was on guitar for Larry Carlton and Randy Crawford made a guest appearance on her hit with the band "Street Life." The band also played "Viva de Funk," "A Ballad For Joe" and the bluesy "Creepin'."

Solcircle was rather lightweight, performing commercial originals that had Gary Regina on soprano and EWI rarely getting beyond the melody. Despite some wa-wa sounds from guitarist Bob Von Elgg, the band essentially played mood music. Much more stimulating was a group sponsored by the International Association for Jazz Education called the 2003 Clifford Brown-Stan Getz Fellows. The young musicians (trumpeter Phillip Dizack, altoist Joris Roeiofs, pianist Mahesh Balasooriya, bassist Marcos Varela and drummer Zachary Harmon) appeared twice and all sounded like pros, improvising on advanced hard bop. Roeiofs in particular potentially has a great future ahead of him. John Stetch performed solo piano during two sets, one of them dominated by a lengthy and at times wandering original and the second hour featuring standards. Very much a two-handed pianist, Stetch has an original style and the virtuosity to play the ideas he creates in his mind. Tenor-saxophonist Dave Ellis, who is best-known for his earlier association with guitarist Charlie Hunter, played some sheets of sound on "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" and led a high-quality postbop sextet

A panel on Jazz Around The World gave John Stetch, Omar Sosa, Makoto Ozone, Jacky Terrasson, Ralph Towner and author Bill Minor opportunities to talk about how jazz has grown and become significant in Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America. Gary Burton was interviewed onstage by Andrew Gilbert and told fascinating stories about Astor Piazzolla, how he started using four mallets on vibes, his period in Nashville, Hank Garland, George Shearing, Stan Getz and his quartet with Larry Coryell. Burton should definitely write his memoirs.

Almost unnoticed initially since he was scheduled at 3:30 p.m. at the smaller garden stage was veteran pianist Jay McShann, who at 87 still plays piano and sings quite well. He was joined by guitarist Duke Robillard and his fine quintet which co-starred baritonist Doug James. With Robillard playing in a 1940s style reminiscent of Tiny Grimes and McShann jamming happily on "Jumpin' The Blues," "When The Lights Go Out" and other vintage jump tunes, it was impossible not to enjoy this bit of history.

After the debut airing of "Piano Blues" (the Clint Eastwood-directed episode in Martin Scorsese's highly rated The Blues series) at the festival, McShann, Eastwood and producer Richard Hutton discussed the worthy project before a large audience. Then it was on to the final act.

Sunday Night

After all of the music and events that had taken place, at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday there were still ten groups left to see. Trumpeter Dave Douglas' quintet (which included Chris Potter on tenor, electric keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn) was heard at two venues, doing their take on 1969 Miles Davis, playing original fusion pieces that recalled the early era when the new style had so much potential. Nnenna Freelon began her first of two sets by saying of her Monterey debut "I waited for this for ten years." She was in prime voice on "Better Than Anything," her original "Circle Song," some jazz versions of r&b songs and a swinging "Close Your Eyes." Herbie Hancock and his trio (with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) were joined successfully by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson on a reharmonized "I Love You" and an abstract rendition of "Dolphin Dance."

A tribute to the late cornetist Bill Berry, who had been an important force in the Monterey Jazz Festival's education system (not to mention an alumni of Duke Ellington's orchestra), started late and was quite loose but added some swing and bebop to the festival. Trumpeter Allen Smith, tenor-saxophonist Paul Contos, Bruce Forman, pianist Ross Tompkins, bassist Scott Steed and drummer Vince Laetano jammed on "Take The 'A' Train," "In A Mellotone" and other Ellington and Strayhorn pieces. Drummer Steve Smith and soprano-saxophonist Mike Zilber co-led an adventurous quintet that also featured Dave Liebman on tenor. Their music was generally high energy, often outside and sometimes downright weird as during a particularly eccentric version of "Manteca." Violinist Billy Bang formed an intriguing frontline with the brittle-sounding trumpet of Ted Daniels, playing music on the edge while accompanied and stimulated by pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Michael Carvin. Their performance really caught fire at one point as Bang danced around on stage while mixing together the styles of Stuff Smith and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Ralph Towner made his last appearance of the weekend playing solo guitar pieces including imaginative interpretations of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and "Nardis." Pianist Jacky Terasson in a trio with bassist Sean Smith and drummer Gerald Cleaver really dug into "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," playing inside his piano, getting his group to sound like the Ahmad Jamal Trio, jamming on a one-chord vamp and then having the music evolve into a thunderous version of "My Favorite Things." The weekend ended with the Clayton Brothers Quintet, a Los Angeles-based group that was really inspired. Trumpeter Terell Stafford, altoist Jeff Clayton, pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton all cut loose on a variety of soulful, boppish and often uptempo pieces. The audience loved them and went home with a smile.

I left the best for last, the one set that I saw from start to finish. At the International Association Of Jazz Education convention in 2002, vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Makoto Ozone performed an outstanding and sometimes astounding set of duets. At Monterey I had the rare opportunity to see a repeat of the set (which really deserves to be filmed) and there were standing ovations at the end of nearly every piece. It started out with a set of tributes to various vibraphonists including Milt Jackson ("Bags' Groove"), Red Norvo ("A Hole In The Wall") and Lionel Hampton. The latter was a version of the obscure "Opus 1/2" that swung remarkably hard with Ozone showing off his unexpected mastery of stride piano. At that point the repertoire switched to adaptations of classical pieces that left plenty of room for improvising. Burton and Ozone played Scarlatti's "Sonata #20," a vintage tango, some Ravel and a very memorable rendition of Gershwin's "Concert In F" of which Burton said, "Makoto plays the piano part and I fill in for the orchestra." The speedy lines, rapid ideas and explosive ensembles resulted in the audience demanding an encore; Ozone's "Times Like These" fit the bill. Billy Bang, Steve Smith, Jacky Terrasson and Herbie Hancock may have been performing at the same moment but I knew that I was in the right place.

A few years ago at the fairgrounds, Branford Marsalis said that he considered Monterey to be the greatest annual American jazz festival. He does not get any argument from me!

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