The Monterey Jazz Festival is bursting with youthful energy
The Monterey Jazz Festival was always too much. Too much music, too much food and too much beauty packed into 22 bucolic acres. And I loved it. In the middle of summer, it took an act of willpower not to spend too much time on the festival website mapping out various strategies to see as many sets as possible while mentally ticking off the days until the third week. full end of September.
The overwhelming abundance in the midst of Monterey County Fairgrounds in the shade of oak trees was what made it experience cutting edge West Coast jazz, an unprecedented status bolstered by wise booking decisions and well-nurtured traditions honed over 62 years of existence as the world’s oldest jazz. Festival. But like pretty much every other music festival, Monterey took a hiatus as an in-person event in 2020, and the decision to return to the fairgrounds September 24-26 was fraught with uncertainty, and not just because the summer wave of the Delta variant has led many presenters to cancel or revamp their plans.
Rather than offering music simultaneously in five to seven venues, the festival has shrunk dramatically, using only two outdoor stages, alternating settings between the main arena (a stadium designed for rodeos and horse shows) and a previously overlooked space in the Restoration Court where musicians performed on a small concrete island surrounded by a dismal ditch fed by a fountain. Jazz fans, who were impressively diligent in masking, didn’t seem fazed by a version of Monterey with less than a fifth of the regular number of musicians. Tickets, which were reduced from around 35,000 to 7,500, sold out months before the festival, and I got the impression, listening to conversations around the fairgrounds, that a much higher percentage. low number of people coming from outside the region than in previous years.
A misguided jazz critic from Southern California, despising the short-cut lineup, has denounced the whole affair as a parody. In his mind, Monterey is defined by abundance. I reveled in the overwhelming experience as well, but this year’s festival manifested many ways that a smaller footprint can provide a deeper experience. Less music has offered more opportunities to hear musicians in multiple contexts, a lesson I hope the festival builds on if and when it returns to its cornucopia ways.
More than ever, after attending Monterey religiously for nearly three decades, I experienced this year’s festival as a glimpse into the future of music, and the sight was often captivating. From supernatural high school students to veteran age-defying masters surrounding themselves with bright newcomers, the talent displayed by Millennials and Gen Z musicians was positively inspiring.
That said, the youth wave got off to a slow start with Friday’s three-act show. Guitarist Mimi Renard, an esteemed Bay Area artist, appeared unaffected by the pandemic dismissal during three short court sets with drummer Lorca Hart and Brian Ho on the Hamond B-3 organ. A major voice on guitar for about three decades, she offered a full instrumental spectrum, strumming lush chord ballads and whipping fierce single-note lines. The highlight was a rushed version of Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six” that generated more power than the small jets roaring over the adjacent airport.
In the arena, Pat Metheny shoehorn an astonishing range of melodies in a 70 minute set. Their new Side-Eye trio with Houston keyboardist James Francies and New Orleans drummer Joe Dyson is still in the works, but the band is already playing at rarefied heights. Often switching from one Metheny tune to another, the trio gave a masterclass in building tension and release by varying texture, tone and dynamics. Always the technophile, Metheny seemed to have reused some of his instruments. Orchestra Project, which he seemed to control via his guitar. Even considering Francie was barricaded behind several keyboards, figuring out who was responsible for which sounds was sometimes an impossible task.
The Keyboard Fortress remained on stage for Herbie Hancock, and the 81-year-old icon practically sprinted to the platform, looking and sounding decades younger than his 81-year-old. His talented group included his longtime collaborator Lionel Loueke on guitar and vocals, bassist James Genus, Elena Pinderhughes on flute and vocals and the very impressive young drummer Justin Tyson. Drawing on beloved material from different stages of his career, like Blue Note’s mainstay “Butterfly” and the era of headhunters “Actual Proof”, his crowd-pleasing ensemble has rarely reached a height. memorable. The program featured a solo piano number or duet with Pinderhughes, who provided the most captivating moment of the ensemble playing the famous riff from Hancock’s revolutionary 1962 hit “Watermelon Man”.
Saturday was devoted to children, starting with the remarkable young trumpeter Giveton GÃ©lin, who is in his twenties and comes from the Bahamas. During four 30-minute sets on the court stage with his quartet consisting of bassist Philip Norris, drummer Kayvon Gordon and pianist Micah Thomas (another extraordinary talent), he displayed an appealing and dry tone. and a seemingly bottomless reserve. of melodic phrases. Much like his mentor Eddie Henderson, he prefers the midrange of the horn, revealing the endless variety of inflections with which a note can be placed.
In the arena, Japanese composer and conductor Miho Hazama and his chamber orchestra M Unit offered an exciting ensemble of his original pieces that effectively mixed (or contrasted) strings and brass. His festival commission, the trio Planet Suite was both programmatic and impressionistic, evoking cosmic phenomena (with the “Elliptical Orbit” shift) and blissful wonder (“Planet Nine”). Soloing powerfully and concisely, tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby provided some of the most exciting moments of the ensemble.
The inevitable shadow of the pandemic forced a last-minute cancellation when three members of Los Angeles’ Mexican roots music combo Las Cafeteras tested positive for COVID-19. Pianist Gerald clayton assembled a group from available players and was completed with a quintet featuring drum maestro Eric Harland. Beginning with an impromptu theme vaguely reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In a silent way, the set was never really developed, although it offered the first meeting with the alto saxophonist Emmanuel Wilkins, who ended up feeling like an old, familiar friend by the end of the weekend.
In a conversation on the fairgrounds, Tim Jackson, Monterey’s longtime artistic director, said trumpeter Terence Blanchard holds the unofficial record for most appearances at a festival. Wilkins, 24, whose album Blue Note Omega was the most acclaimed debut release of 2020, is a serious contender for second place. The undisputed belle of the ball, he performed in eight different sets according to my count, and during the one tune he sat in and skillfully mingled with Giveton Gelin’s trumpet, Wilkins made an impression. much deeper than in the arena set with Clayton.
Wilkins didn’t get much rest on Sunday, as he led a quartet with the pianist Micah Thomas, who returned to the court stage after the previous day’s race with Gelin and once again showed why he is one of the most beloved young jazz musicians. Over the course of four sets, Wilkins balanced a mathematical bent with a thick, supple and inviting tone. As a guest soloist, he provided another burst of energy to the New generation jazz orchestra led by Clayton in the arena (not that high school kids needed a boost), but he was particularly effective as a foil for the Nashville keyboardist and singer Sources of Kandace, whose trio with bassist / singer Caylen Bryant and drummer / singer Taylor Moore delivered the most entertaining set of the festival. With her effortless charisma and velvet soulful voice, Springs has put her own mark on jazz, bossa nova and pop standards (with Wilkins accompanying her on Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes”, she kept the tempo of the tense and delighted molasses).
Another revelation was trumpeter Skylar Tang, a sophomore at Crystal Springs Uplands School in San Mateo. She looked strong and confident during a short set Sunday in the backyard with the Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo, a quintet led by bassist / singer Katie Thiroux. Silk sounded even more impressive as a guest soloist with pianist Christian Sands and featured soloist with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Clayton with all the English physicality and body part employed by his father (John Clayton, bassist and co-leader by Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra). Maybe the kids have spent all of their time sheltering in place to practice, or maybe the awesome and resourceful Clayton knows how to put young musicians at ease (or both). The Next Gen Orchestra started out strong and maintained the fierce momentum, culminating in a stomping version of Charles Mingus ‘âMoanin’â with Walnut Creek baritone saxophonist Noa Zebley, who leaned over the piece as if trying. to save souls. Wow.
The other highlight of the festival was Ledisi, who took to the stage like a soul queen and held court with all the bounty and whims of royalty. She focused on her original songs, turning âIt’s Alrightâ into an extended affirmation, and her recent Grammy Award-winning âAnything For Youâ into a pleading statement. She approached her new album of songs associated with Nina Simone by creating a powerful version of “Baltimore” in her original track “Shot Down”. An uncontrollable talent, Ledisi received three or four standing ovations before he finished, and if it was strange for the music to end long before dark, I’m sure many musicians were grateful that they didn’t. to follow her on stage.
A much smaller footprint wasn’t ideal for Monterey, but hosting a successful jazz festival was a giant leap for a scene that craved a return to normal. There are certainly lessons from MJF64 that could enrich next year’s festival.