by Scott Yanow

66th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival Friday September 22nd-Sunday September  24th 2023 - KPFK 90.7 FM


It was billed as the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival; never mind that there was no festival in 2020. Jimmy Lyons was Monterey’s founder and artistic director for 34 years (1958-91), sharing the leadership during his final festival. Tim Jackson, Lyons’ successor, served for 33 years (1991-2023) and this would be his last one at the helm. As was true in every one of the festivals that he headed, Jackson pulled out all the stops and booked a large sampling of the who’s who of modern jazz for a very crowded weekend at the Monterey Fairgrounds.

Monterey, which originally had one stage and was up to three by 1991, grew to seven simultaneously operating venues of music by 2019. After COVID hit and 2020 was cancelled, it has come back from two stages in 2021 and four in 2022 to five this year. Only one venue was inside and the festival hours are earlier than they used to be, concluding between 9-10 p.m. The days of 1 a.m. jam sessions seem long gone. However the quality has remained high and more than 95% of the performances this year were jazz, as opposed to the less than 40% at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.

Since five different groups were often performing at the same time, attending Monterey takes a bit of planning as one essentially forms their own personal festival. This year I skipped some of the major acts who I have seen numerous times (including Herbie Hancock, Samara Joy, Terri Lyne Carrington and Snarky Puppy) in favor of searching out newcomers and those artists who rarely come to Los Angeles. There was certainly no shortage of highpoints. Here is much of what I was fortunate enough to see, mostly in chronological order.

Zach Westfall Quartet at 2023 Monterey Jazz Festival: Set 3 - YouTube

Friday night began with bassist Zach Westfall’s quartet, a bop-oriented group featuring altoist Ben Herod, guitarist Adam Astrup, and drummer Mike Shannon that greeted attendees as they entered the Monterey Fairgrounds. On such songs as “I Love You” and “Out Of Nowhere,” they swung well with Herod sometimes recalling Richie Cole a little. Keyboardist Kait Duncan performed funky jazz a la Les McCann with her quartet including “3 Day Weekend” and “Studio 3”; Andrew Synowiec added some bluesy rock guitar. The Latin Jazz Collective (a four-horn octet with two spirited trombonists) delighted the audience including Latinizing a Tadd Dameron song. The duo of singer Gretchen Parlato and guitarist-singer Lionel Loueke performed quietly creative duets (including on Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”), holding onto the audience’s attention. In a departure, Tony Lindsay and the Soul Soldiers performed high-quality 1960s/70s r&b songs including “Lean On Me.” Maxie Reid distinguished herself on keyboards.

California musical greatness: Capturing the 2023 Monterey Jazz Festival in  words and pictures • Sacramento News & Review

On the main stage, trumpeter Terence Blanchard performed a partial retrospective of his career. The set could have used a narrator and been a bit more comprehensive since only a few aspects of Blanchard’s wide-ranging musical life were covered. But it did give one an opportunity to hear the always-fiery altoist Lakecia Benjamin, tenor-saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Benny Green, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Kendrick Scott, the Turtle Island String Quartet, and (on the last few songs) Dianne Reeves. Some Jazz Messengers material (including “Moanin’,”), “Levees” (from When The Levees Break), “Flow” and more recent Blanchard pieces were played with spirit.

Violinist-singer Lucie Micarelli, guitarist Leo Amuedo and percussionist Danilo Amuedo performed Americana and East European music that often fell between jazz, folk and classical music. Highlights were a heartfelt version of “Nature Boy,” a rapid “Tico Tico,” and a beautiful classical melody that was played with plenty of feeling before surprisingly doubling its tempo. The trio had opportunities to perform several times throughout the weekend with the violinist taking a fetching vocal on “Embraceable You,” caressing the melody of “Desafinado,” and rollicking on Jobim’s “O Pato.” Guitarist John Scofield, who would also appear several times during the festival, clearly enjoyed playing with keyboardist Larry Goldings in a rollicking set with a rockish and funky quintet called Scary Goldings. Keyboardist Taylor Eigsti was at the head of an electric ensemble that included some heated playing by Ben Wendel on tenor, performing what could be called avant-funk. But the highpoint of Friday’s later hours was a set of solo piano by the masterful Benny Green. Many of his selections were played as tributes to other pianists including “If You Could See Me Now” (Tadd Dameron), “Come On Home” (Horace Silver), “New York Attitude” (Kenny Barron) and “The Soulful Mr. Timmons” (James Williams). Green’s light stride, sophisticated chord voicings, use of space, and melodic improvising were a joy to hear.

Saturday began with John Scofield, this time leading a quartet called Yankee Go Home that included keyboardist Joe Cowherd. Sco performed several country-flavored tunes that he turned into creative jazz including “Wichita Lineman” which ended up becoming “The Creator Has A Master Plan” with some guitar trills that hinted tonewise at Leon Thomas’ yodeling. Ray Obiedo’s Latin Jazz Project featured trombonist Jeff Cressman and steel drummer Phil Hawkins. Organist Delvon Lamarr kept the legacy of soul jazz trios alive in a grooving set with guitarist Josh Perdue and drummer Sam Groveman.

Chris Cain Band - Monterey Jazz Festival

Saturday afternoon at Monterey used to be dominated by the blues but this year the only representative was Chris Cain, a personable singer and a hot guitarist; his organist Greg Rahn was also excellent. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes teamed up with guitarist Lionel Loueke in a quintet to play folk music influenced by the African diaspora. The flutist was at her best on “The Road Traveled.” Tenor-saxophonist Ben Flocks, in a sparse trio with bassist Corbin Jones and drummer Evan Hughes, stretched out on a variety of standards including Wayne Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple,” “My Ideal,” Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” and “Moonlight In Vermont.” Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire wrote a commissioned piece, “Isakoso Ara” (which means “Pulse” in English), that featured Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, three horns and an expanded rhythm section. Some listeners loved it but I thought that the modern groove music did not feature enough of the trumpeter and was a bit tedious after awhile.

Connie Han Trio - Monterey Jazz Festival

The highpoints of Saturday were provided by the outstanding pianist Connie Han. Joined by bassist Ryan Berg and drummer Bill Wysake, she played inventive and powerful solos whether tearing into “Yesterdays” with dense chords and an unrelenting swing, playing Wysake’s complex “Boy Toy,” a piece influenced and inspired by McCoy Tyner (“For The OG”), an abstraction on Stephen Sondheim’s “City Woman,” or a medley of three songs from her recent recording Secrets Of Inanna. The consistently energetic pianist often played solos full of coherent violence that always ended up being logical. She expertly built up her intense and colorful improvisations, creating plenty of excitement.

John Santos Sextet - Monterey Jazz Festival

The John Santos Sextet (with John Calloway on flute) brought back 1950s-style Latin jazz with enthusiasm and spirit. Dianne Reeves’ set included “What’s New,” a reharmonized “Someone To Watch Over Me,” and her lyrics to Horace Silver’s “Peace.” Tenor-saxophonist Donny McCaslin with Jason Lindner on keyboards emphasized electronics, fairly simple vamps, and fiery playing while pianist/keyboardist James Francies’ trio put the focus on rapid lines (particularly during “Invitation”) and fairly free high-energy improvisations . The night ended for me with bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn, a pianoless quartet with trumpeter Josh Evans, Marcus Strickland on tenor and bass clarinet (hinting at various times at both Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin), and drummer Nasheet Waits. Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman were influences on the group’s interplay but New Jawn’s continually intriguing music also displayed a personality of its own.


Sunday contained many of the Monterey festival’s most memorable moments. It all began with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, an all-star group of college players which was directed this year by Gerald Clayton. Unlike what is heard by more typical stage bands, Clayton had Next Generation sounding a bit like the Mingus Big Band with lots of wailing and several musicians (sometimes the entire ensemble) at times soloing together. On “Thelonious,” violinist Jacqueline Lee and guitarist Mason Bryant were inventive and very much ready for prime time. After Ava Preston took a fine vocal on “The End Of A Beautiful Friendship” and guest altoist Lakecia Benjamin blew the roof off during an uptempo blues, it was time for 90-year old altoist John Handy. The star of the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival 58 years ago, Handy was led onto the stage and one held their breath to see how he would sound. Backed by the big band on “The Nearness Of You,” Handy showed that not only did he still have his distinctive tone but a few times hit some of his trademark stratospheric high notes. Receiving a standing ovation, he walked offstage without any assistance, waving happily to the crowd and showing that jazz does keep one young.

Sullivan Fortner Trio - Monterey Jazz Festival

Then came the highpoint of the entire festival. Sullivan Fortner is perhaps best known for his work as the pianist with Cécile McLorin Salvant but, as he showed during his set at one of the smaller stages, he is best heard as a leader. Joined by bassist Tyrone Allen (whose solos were always a joy) and drummer Kayvon Gordon, Fortner began by playing his theme song (more groups should have one) on both piano and organ. “9 Bar Tune” had Fortner hinting a bit at Thelonious Monk but with denser chords and much more virtuosity. “Davidson County Blues” (by Deford Bailey) was particularly remarkable with Fortner sounding like 1920s bluesman Cow Cow Davenport and displaying a mastery of early styles (including boogie-woogie and stride piano) in futuristic ways while swinging very hard. Fortner featured his dazzling technique on a classical theme, turning it into Latin jazz while rarely looking at the piano keyboard, even when playing a complex melody with his left hand. Next, Fortner performed what he called a deranged version of a Fauré theme, following it up with a very slow version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” which for a time was a musical conversation between his two hands. He displayed a joyfully boppish style on organ during Gary Bartz’s “Libra” and performed what must be the most rapid version ever of “East Of The Sun” (an unaccompanied section featured Fortner playing blazing octaves) before the set concluded with a reprise of his theme song. Throughout the hour, Sullivan Fortner kept the audience spellbound and virtually no one left despite the heavy competition from other stages. He is a true master of the piano. I hope that this classic set was filmed!

Chris Potter - ECM Records

Fortunately the remainder of the festival was not exactly anti-climatic. Tenor-saxophonist Chris Potter during a trio set led by drummer Kendrick Scott that also included bassist Reuben Rogers, was in passionate form, never letting up. The great veteran tenor-saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin joined forces with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lewis Nash. It was quite enjoyable seeing the four masters dig into the original “B Flat, We’re Flat,” the atmospheric “Desert Lady,” “Black And Tan Fantasy,” and “Body And Soul.” Flutist Ali Ryerson and guitarist Ricardo Peixoto (they had just met a few days earlier) performed high-quality Brazilian jazz including Jobim’s “Useless Landscape.”

One of the few faults of the programming at the Monterey Jazz Festival is the almost complete lack of pre-bop jazz. However the booking of the always-delightful swing singer Catherine Russell was a very good move. With a strong rhythm section comprised of guitarist Matt Munisteri, pianist Sean Mason, bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean, Ms. Russell brought back the joy of 1920s blues and 1930s swing. She performed such numbers as “Jubilee,” the humorous double-entendre Bessie Smith piece “Kitchen Man,” “You Turned The Tables On Me,” a cooking ‘I Cried For You,” an uptempo “I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm,” the saucy “Aged But Mellow,” and “Doctor Jazz.” The audience rightfully loved her.

I snuck away during part of Catherine Russell’s set to see Charles Lloyd on the main stage. With pianist Gerald Clayton, Reuben Rogers and Kendrick Scott, Lloyd was greeted warmly. Many knew that he had been the star of the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival (a year after John Handy) which resulted in a recorded performance that climaxed with “Forest Flower.” Still very much in his playing prime, Lloyd played quiet but consistently passionate solos on tenor and flute on a variety of folkish originals And 57 years after his earlier triumph, he finished his performance with “Forest Flower” to a very loud ovation.

Pianist-composer Billy Childs performed inventive originals with a quartet that included trumpeter Sean Jones. Pianist Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons is a trio with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Trevor Dunn that is augmented by Val Jeanty on turntables. The electronic avant-garde music had enough grooves and patterns to hold onto one’s interest. John Scofield performed a set of almost-solo guitar, interpreting such numbers as “There Will Never Be Another You,” and a wistful “Here’s That Rainy Day” while utilizing some overdubbed tracks as accompaniment and a pedal that plays chords. The Azar Lawrence Experience, a septet with the leader on tenor, trumpeter Chris Lowery (in excellent form), keyboardist Robert Turner, and singer Lynne Fiddmont played a set of new groove music and spiritual jazz during a set that was much more inspired than their appearance at the Hollywood Jazz Festival; Monterey does that to musicians. Very much miscast although enjoyed by some audience members was the thunderous rock set played by bassist-singer Thundercat.

Jamie Cullum - Monterey Jazz Festival

Ending this article on a high note, British singer-pianist Jamie Cullum put on a well-rounded and very entertaining show. Leading a sextet along with two background singers, Cullum mostly played jazz including his nostalgic “These Are The Days,” a combination of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “Groovin’ High,” his classic “Twentysomething” which he recently brought out of retirement, an unaccompanied piano/vocal performance of “What A Difference a Day Makes,” and such crowd pleasers as the gospellish “I Won’t Ride Up” and the very infectious “You And Me Are Gone” (which featured Nick Ellman on clarinet). The last few numbers inspired some wild dancing. Cullum, who even stood on and jumped off the piano at one point, succeeded at driving the crowd to a frenzy without watering down his music.

It was quite a weekend, a memorable last hurrah for Tim Jackson. His successor, Darin Atwater, has some mighty huge shoes to fill.

I have a new book that is available from Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist. It is subtitled My Jazz Memoirs and is my 12th book and first in a few years. I discuss in an often-humorous fashion my early days and discovery of jazz, my period as the jazz editor of Record Review, the story behind my involvement with the All Music Guide, and I reminisce about some of my adventures as an amateur musician. Included are vintage interviews with Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, and Maynard Ferguson, encounters with Clint Eastwood, summaries of the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals (including a full-length review of the 1985 Playboy Festival), memories of other events (such as the IAJE Conventions), and brief snapshots of many memorable club and concert performances. There is also background information about my other books, evaluations of the jazz critics who inspired me early on, and my thoughts on jazz criticism which includes advice to up-and-coming jazz journalists. Rounding out the book is a chapter on how the jazz writing business has changed over the past 50 years, and appendixes that include the jazz greats of the past, 86 jazz giants of today, 21 young performers to look for in the future, jazz books and DVDs that everyone should own, and a dozen enjoyable Hollywood jazz films.
Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist, a paperback book, sells for $26 through Signed copies (which will take 2-3 weeks) are also available for $30 (which includes free postage) by sending the money via Pay Pal to and by sending your mailing address to that E-mail.

Every jazz musician needs a well-written press biography, every CD deserves informative liner notes, and important events benefit from press releases. I write all of these and more at reasonable rates. Contact me ( at 661-678-3542 or for further information about my services.  .

My latest book, Jazz Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist (My Jazz Memoirs) is available at