By Scott Yanow
Held since 1958 at the Monterey Fairgrounds, the Monterey Jazz Festival has so much rewarding music that it is usually difficult to come up with a specific theme. However this year, the 61st annual festival went out of its way to feature female performers (particularly instrumentalists). Unlike, say in the 1930s where an all-female band might be thought of as a novelty, the women who performed at Monterey are world class musicians, many of whom are on their way to becoming household names, at least in jazz households. Most are so talented that the fact that they are females has become mostly irrelevant. All that matters is that they are masterful in what they perform.
The Monterey Jazz Festival is a utopia for lovers of the current modern jazz scene. Isolated from the city and a world unto itself, the Fairgrounds are quite attractive, there are many vendors, and it is easy to walk from one venue to another. The latter is fortunate for there are five major stages; two outside (the large Jimmy Lyons Stage and the smaller Garden Stage) and three indoors (Dizzy’s Den, the Night Club and the Pacific Jazz Café). On the West Lawn, a new outdoor stage hosts a continuous college jazz festival and, at the front entrance, a solo pianist welcomes arrivals.
There is so much to see at the same time that one essentially invents their own festival with its own highlights. On Friday night 15 groups performed within a 5 ½ hour period. I made it my goal to see every one, and I succeeded during an evening that quickly became a exhilarating whirlwind.
Pianist Addison Frei, who performed swinging modern mainstream piano near the main gate throughout the weekend, greeted the first attendees with “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Hristo Vitchev, a very individual post-bop guitarist led a quartet that included pianist Jasnam Daya Singh. Vitchev swung hard, particularly on an extended minor blues that found him hinting at both Django Reinhardt and George Benson while Singh played a little bit of stride piano. Guitarist Adam Rogers and his pianoless trio Dice were rockish and funky while also playing a country/jazz piece worthy of Bill Frisell.
On the main stage, a well-conceived tribute to the late pianist Geri Allen effectively used film clips and photos of Allen while an all-star group consisting of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, altoist Tia Fuller (whose passionate playing and interval jumps sometimes recalled Eric Dolphy), both Kris Davis and Shamie Royston on keyboards, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, a turntablist and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut performed an emotional set full of powerful music. While bassist Lisa Mezzacappa with her avantNOIR group (which included vibraphonist Mark Clifford and a liberal use of samples and electronics) played adventurous music in one room, soprano and flutist great Jane Bunnett led her all-female Cuban group Maqueque in another venue, performing a blend of Afro-Cuban jazz and Cuban folk music with Melvis Santa featured on vocals. Veteran pianist-singer Tammy L. Hall led a swinging quintet that really excited the audience when singer Kim Nalley came out. Nalley belted out a storm in classic style and the closing number, which was filled with the intensity of gospel music but also had some hot scatting, drove the crowd to a frenzy.
There was much more to Friday evening. The most unusual group, Knower, is a quintet with singer Genevieve Artadi that had some in the audience wondering if they were they amateurish, innovative, or both? Their avant-funk playing was often-thunderous, sometimes humorous, a bit out-of-tune, and certainly filled with spirit. In contrast, there was no question about the quality of Dianne Reeves’ performance. She displayed beautiful long tones on “That’s How Much I Need You,” and then wordlessly sang a Pat Metheny song with support from guitarist Romero Lubambo. As has long been true, whenever Ms. Reeves sings jazz, she is at the top of her field. Soprano master Jane Ira Bloom performed music with her quartet that was complex, atmospheric and thoughtful including a suite that included some spoken word and pieces that recalled Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. Organist Anastassiya Petrova led a forward-looking quintet from Berklee that showed that the organ has progressed far beyond Jimmy Smith. The trio of bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green and drummer Gregory Hutchinson performed the first of two tributes to the great bassist Ray Brown. A slow and very restrained “Tenderly” and a heated “Milestones” (using an arrangement from the Ray Brown Trio) found Green in typically brilliant form. Another fine pianist, Cameron Graves, played fairly free piano over thumping bass and the assertive drumming of Mike Mitchell in exciting fashion. I just caught a glimpse of the increasingly influential avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Thumbscrew, a trio that took her themes into unexpected directions.
Friday night ended with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra performing Spaces, his ballet suite that was dedicated to the characteristics of animals and insects. With three expressive tap dancers (Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts) often imitating animals in pantomime and dance, Marsalis preceding each section with humorous narrations, and the big band playing some of the leader’s most inventive arrangements, one got to experience their impressions of chickens, birds, snakes, lions, bees and even a nightingale.
Having seen everything on Friday, I was slightly more selective on Saturday and Sunday but it was still a collage of nonstop music. Saturday afternoon at Monterey used to be dominated by the blues but the only blues performer this time around was an outstanding singer from Detroit, Thornetta Davis. Her two sets were full of sassy, humorous and stirring blues including “Wild Women Never Get The Blues,” “Muddy Water,” “You Ain’t Going To Please Me” and a song that she dedicated to “all of you lowdown dirty dogs” called “I’d Rather Be Alone Then Be Lonely With You.” She is a talent well worth discovering.
After playing a conventional set of salsa music, Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra welcomed Hubert Laws who was featured on Hernandez’s commissioned piece “Monterey Encounter.” The piece featured a lengthy tradeoff by Laws with fellow flutist Jeremy Bosch. It was fascinating to watch Laws’ reaction to Bosch’s hyper solo, with the veteran at first playing with calmness and then deciding to challenge Bosch with his own speedy string of notes. Both flutists fared quite well. Also on Saturday, there were conversations with Dave Grusin (who later played a solo piano set) and Dianne Reeves, an excellent performance by saxophonist Kirsten Strom’s septet, an interesting set by the Navy’s 32nd Street Brass Band (most notable for their high note trumpeter), and a disappointing outing by percussionist John Santos’ group. Although billed as playing “Unusual Standards,” half of the songs that I saw were actually originals which defeated the point of the group. Singer Kenny Washington was not featured much (he was fine on “Invitation”) and, although the percussionists were colorful, the music did not live up to expectations. In contrast, flutist Jamie Baum’s octet played thought-provoking music that blended together flute, trumpet, bass clarinet (or alto) and French horn with a rhythm section that included guitarist Brad Shepik and a tabla player.
Saturday night included plenty of highlights including three sets by pianist Fred Hersch who was heard on unaccompanied solos, duets with Jane Ira Bloom, and an hour with his own trio. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (whose playing sometimes recalls Kenny Wheeler, particularly in her use of high notes as a logical part of her solos) and her sister altoist-arranger Christine Jensen played a superior set of modern originals with a quintet. Pianist Harold Lopez Nussa showed during his hour of rich Cuban melodies and creative jazz solos that he is a force to be reckoned with. The second Ray Brown tribute was highlighted by a few songs from a delightful three-bass trio consisting of Christine McBride, John Clayton and John Patitucci; none of the bassists could quit smiling during “Evidence.” Dianne Reeves also guested during that set, singing a classic version of “The Nearness Of You.”
But the highpoint of Saturday night was an all-star group billed as “Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour.” With pianist Christian Sands as the musical director, the band included trumpeter Bria Skonberg, tenor-saxophonist Melissa Aldana, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Jamison Ross. It was fascinating hearing Ms. Skonberg in this post-bop setting since she is normally a swing trumpeter but she did her homework and sometimes sounding a little like Woody Shaw. The group played a boogaloo and an advanced modal piece with the horn players really excelling. The great Ms. Salvant sang three songs including an a capella piece, “That Spoonful” (a murder ballad that was actually lighthearted and became a singalong) and “I Can’t Help It” (which was recorded by Betty Carter in hear early days). Ross sang an r&bish piece and then Skonberg briefly stole the show as she was showcased during Valaida Snow’s “I Have A High-Hat, Trumpet And Rhythm,” switching between the lyrics, scatting and her swinging trumpet.
Sunday afternoon began with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra (comprised of some of the top college players) welcoming Ingrid Jensen and Tia Fuller for two numbers, a hard-blowing original and a picturesque piece by Jensen that depicted an exotic island. Tenor-saxophonist Gary Meek, who played an excellent bop-oriented set of originals with a quintet that included trumpeter Akili Bradley, said “It’s safe to say that I am living my dream right now.” His swinging originals included one called “What Happened To My Good Shoes?” There was a heartwarming discussion by Randy Brecker, Donny McCaslin, Gil Goldstein, John Patitucci, Antonio Sanchez and Susan Brecker about the greatness and kindness of Michael Brecker, and a Downbeat Blindfold test with John Clayton. Charles Lloyd’s Marvels, which included guitarist Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on steel guitar, started out strong with Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” and a blues that featured Lloyd on flute before it eventually got a little bogged down in lazier country-oriented pieces. Los Angeles’ own bassist-singer Katie Thiroux was outstanding during a trio set that included “Let’s Get Lost,” “There’s A Small Hotel” and a version of “Willow Weep For Me” in which she was solely accompanied by her own bass. Also making a strong impression is the up-and-coming singer Veronica Swift who performed such numbers as “Dat Dere,” “But Not For Me” (during which she scatted up a storm) and “September In The Rain” before an enthusiastic audience, causing many to remember Anita O’Day at the peak of her powers. Ms. Swift clearly has a great future ahead of her.
On Sunday night, trumpet Wadada Leo Smith and his quintet with pianist Anthony Davis performed his “America’s National Parks” suite. While there were photos on a screen of park scenes and the music was well-played, it was difficult to find a connection between the sounds and the sights. Altoist Will Vinson played a set with his quartet that was a bit reminiscent of the Keith Jarrett-Dewey Redman group of the 1970s, music that was both inside and outside. A tribute to Michael Brecker by the same musicians who were on the earlier panel was mostly quite passionate with Randy Brecker and Donny McCaslin playing intense and explosive solos while John Patitucci showed that he has few peers on bass. The Night Club was utilized for separate sets by organists Bobby Floyd, Devlon Lamarr and Joey DeFrancesco. While the former two were excellent, no one is on DeFrancesco’s level these days. After all of the uptempo pieces, the most memorable performance was DeFrancesco’s relaxed version of “Around The World.” He surprised the audience by singing then then picked up a trumpet and took a muted solo that sounded a bit like Dizzy Gillespie. After another vocal with a little bit of cool scatting, he played an open solo that was closer to Miles Davis, all while playing the basslines on the organ with his feet!
But it was up to clarinetist Anat Cohen with her Tentet to take honors during Monterey’s closing night. She performed all of the music from her recent Happy Song CD including the beautiful melody of “Valsa Para Alice,” a very credible and swinging version of “Oh Baby” (using the arrangement recorded by Benny Goodman in the mid-1940s), a Klezmer funeral and party song, some Balkan music, and a bluesy piece featuring guitarist Sheryl Bailey. Anat Cohen gave one the impression that she could play anything.
It was quite a festival, leaving one with the feeling that not only are there an unlimited number of talented female jazz artists but that the artistic state of the current jazz scene is very healthy.