Re-Connecting, Re-Inventing: Monterey Jazz Festival
By Barbara Smith
“Art makes life worth living.” So said Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton’s Tony-winning singer/actor, who headlined Saturday night’s Monterey Jazz Festival. The same could be said of the iconic festival itself where this year, celebrating its 60th anniversary, it held true to its cherished tradition of assembling the most masterful and brilliantly shining stars in the world of jazz. It was a weekend filled with connections–musical, familial, generational–all in celebration of America’s original and treasured art form.
A centennial celebration of three jazz icons, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Dizzie Gillespie with Kenny Barron at the helm of a tribute to Diz; a commissioned masterwork by John Clayton and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra featuring the great John Clayton, son Gerald Clayton, brother Jeff Clayton, and longtime collaborator Jeff Hamilton; an homage to saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins featuring four of the world’s premiere sax players—Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman; and a gorgeous Sunday night closing with piano giants Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea engaging in piano talk, exploring possibilities—were all centerpieces of last weekend’s 3-day extravaganza of splendid sun and sounds at the Monterey Fairgrounds. Add to this mix Monterey newcomers Leslie Odom, Jr., Common and an electrifying bluesman Mr. Sipp, along with returning icons Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter, and Angelique Kidjo, and the weekend presented a soul-satisfying confluence of music at its best, presented by its best and brightest.
Every year for many jazz fans, one special moment occurs–I call it my “Monterey moment”–that imprints itself indelibly on the festival goer’s heart. It usually comes unexpectedly and for this writer the 2017 moment occurred on the Jimmy Lyons stage when Mississippi-born Mr. Sipp, a guitar-slinging powerhouse, broke into his electrified and electrifying arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The master showman had already won our hearts delivering a big gulp of roadhouse boogie blues and some sweet personal ballads (“Knock a Hole in It” was a standout) and then jumping off the stage to wind his way through the Arena, joyful fans following. “I asked the Jimi Hendrix estate if I could this,” the 41-year International Blues Challenge winner recounted, expecting, he said, to be turned down. “But they told me, “Hell, yeah!” And with that, echoes of Jimi Hendrix filled the Arena, many with hands to heart, rising in unity, to honor Hendrix, jazz, art and, yes, our country. It was emotional and deeply satisfying and he surely did Hendrix proud.
Jazz violinist virtuoso Regina Carter served as this year’s Showcase Artist, and thankfully, graced the stage on all three days. “Southern Comfort,” which she performed in Dizzy’s on Sunday night, was profoundly moving as an exploration of her family history, which began in West Africa, Finland, Eastern Europe, and, in her generation, Alabama, which she remembers visiting often as a child who grew up in Detroit. Folk songs, hymns, work songs were part of the musical experience of her grandfather, the eldest of 14 children, and a coal miner from Alabama, and in “Southern Comfort,” Carter luminously transfers these sounds to a modern idiom. “Shoo-Rye,” derived from a dance and seamlessly led by accordionist Will Holshouser, was great fun. The set elevated the musical journey to a level of storytelling and a great offshoot of the performance was the conversations it started among festival goers after the concert of familial and ancestral explorations.
Leslie Odom, Jr., who is familiar to most for his Tony-winning portrayal of Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” made his Monterey Jazz Fest debut (and hopefully more to follow) delivering a dazzling set that began with an achingly beautiful medley of Nat King Cole Songs, “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and “Unforgettable,” his voice caressing each note in an oh-so-tender timbre. “When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall,” was another show stopper, showcasing a many-hued piano accompaniment by Michael Mitchell. Riveting, breathtaking, delicate, ecstatic—all describe an unforgettable Monterey performance.
Also making a Monterey debut was rapper and hip hop artist Common. His Saturday afternoon Arena performance set a new tone for Monterey, cracking open wide the jazz family to include the newer art form. Common’s high energy set, filled with a politically-charged positive vibe, was well received by those who stayed in the Arena (some left, not apparently in protest, but, as one expressed, “It’s just not my kind of music.”). Elena Pinderhughes on jazz-infused flute and background vocal was outstanding.
Other highlights: Roberta Gambarini’s lustrous set in the new Pacific Jazz Club (formerly the Coffee House Gallery); Dee Dee Bridgewater, who, full-tilt re-invented herself singing a soul-soaked collection of R & B favorites, including “Try a Little Tenderness,” and the doo wop favorite, “Are You Ready?”; Bay Area-based Con Brio, led by Ziek McCarter, who rocked the Garden Stage with acrobatics, lyrics-wise and otherwise; and Benin-born Angelique Kidjo’s Tribute to Salsa, featuring master Cuban conguero Pedrito Martinez.
Chris Anderson has been coming to the Festival for over 50 years, her first visit in the 1960’s as a poor college student with the man she later married. “One concert was all we could afford back then,” she laughs, remembering happily enjoying an afternoon blues concert. Over the years, the music and the ambiance brought them back, and they saw many of the masters including Gene Krupa, Paul Desmond, and Dizzy Gillespie. “One of the most poignant experiences,” says the Marin County resident, “has been seeing the old masters like Dave Brubeck and Gerald Wilson as they give their final performance.” But, she adds, “Seeing the up-and-coming new artists makes Monterey that much more a special experience.”
For Inland Valley resident Dr. James Benson, the vibe of love and peace that permeates the Festival along with the music has brought him back year after year since 1963. Benson is an accomplished saxophonist and founding member of the Gow Dow Experience, a groundbreaking jazz combo. “Jazz has a certain energy that brings people together in a kind of harmonious relationship,” he says. The Sonny Rollins tribute was the musical highlight for this master sax man. “I’m from that period and these are the fellas I grew up with. Jimmy Heath, Sonny Rollins—these are my heroes. Benson, a lifelong educator, was also impressed with sixteen-year-old Matthew Whitaker, a piano prodigy who performed at the Festival’s Courtyard Stage on the Yamaha AvantGrand and also sat in with Benson and guitarist Calvin Keyes at the Hyatt Hotel at their traditional Thursday night jam. Added Benson, “Programs that the Monterey Jazz Festival offers for young musicians like Matthew give me faith about the future of jazz.”