61ST Monterey Jazz Festival Hits All the Right Notes
By Barbara Smith
Photos by ESE
The 61st Monterey Jazz Festival offered a generous mix of jazz legends including sax giant Charles Lloyd, vocalist Dianne Reeves, flutist Hubert Laws, trumpeter/bandleader/composer Wynton Marsalis, pianist Dave Grusin, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green, drummer Brian Blade and New Orleans musician/bandleader Jon Batiste. Women were showcased prominently this year with saxophonist Tia Fuller and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen serving as co-Artists-in-Residence, multi-Grammy winner Norah Jones, Detroit blues queen Thornetta Davis, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Israeli clarinetist extraordinaire, among others, hitting all the right notes. Over 500 artists on 8 stages filled the air at the 3-day festival with gorgeous sounds of jazz, R & B, blues, and Latin rhythms on the idyllic Monterey fairgrounds. The Monterey Jazz Festival is the longest running jazz festival in the world.
Dianne Reeves set the stage on Friday night with a mesmerizing opening, keeping the audience rapt through her 50 minute act. This year’s MJF Showcase Artist opened with a smooth, fluid “The Twelfth of Never” in beautiful melodic tones, and moved through her varied set, at times sassy, at others scatting so that her voice took on the sound of an African drummer or the searing sounds of the saxophone. Reeves delivered a deliciously crafted message in song with lyrics that spoke of humanity and also the fraught political landscape, adding not-so-thinly veiled references to the current White House occupant and the impassioned call to action, “One world, one love—Vote!” The message came through clear and decisive with audience in call-and-response mode cheering loudly.
Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra dazzled with the virtuosic trumpeter/composer/bandleader showcasing his original “Spaces,” a brilliantly executed melding of big band jazz and modern dance, accompanied by Marsalis’ wildly imaginative narration in exploring the animal kingdom. Ground-breaking dancers Lil Buck and Jared Grimes interpreted animal moves in graceful, quirky leaps and glides, ranging from the fierce warrior lion to the playful, social penguins (“These birds are really from the South,” cracked Marsalis), the magical, mysterious snake, Queen Bee and her Drones and more. Marsalis’ non-standard humorous, joyful and insightful animal suite was worth the price of admission alone.
Among Saturday’s standout performers were Detroit’s own Queen of the Blues Thornetta Davis and Louisiana native son Jon Batiste. Davis woke the crowd Saturday afternoon with swag, sass and a throaty growl. “I gotta sing the blues,” she roared, dedicating more than one of her gems “to all those low down dirty dogs out there. You know who you are.” Decked out in all shades of black and blue and accompanied by a hale of fine musicians, including her bandmate husband James “Jamalot” Anderson, with whom she slow danced just a little suggestively, the soulful diva commanded the stage with blues-soaked ballads like “Am I Just a Shadow” and “I’d Rather Be Alone.” A fine mix of tempos, some jazzy, some sweet and old-school, captivated, leading one woman in the audience to howl, “You’re speaking to me in my language, sister!”
Saturday’s closer, Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings, was the perfect ending to a day of musical gumbo. Batiste, who grew up in a large musical family in Kenner, near New Orleans in Louisiana, and now is music director of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” displayed phenomenal mastery of piano, with lightning-fast fingers combining classical with African rhythms, jazz and boogie woogie. His genius arrangement of the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues” from his new release “Hollywood Africans,” incorporated dirge-like sets of chords, spare and melancholy. With his haunting vocal harmony, joined by the Grammy-nominated Dap-Kings, the song was transformed from a classical piece to a deeply blues-entrenched tune. “Kenner Boogie,” by contrast, was high-energy, infused with the African bamboula rhythm, so much at the base of New Orleans music. Batiste is a master showman, moving from piano to melodica, (the wind instrument with a 32-key keyboard that has become his signature), to his bandmates, and prodigious backup Dap-Kings, all the while maintaining a symbiotic rapport with the adoring audience. “Soak up the day and dance the night away,” he entreated. The set was exhausting and exhilarating and left the audience wishing for more.
Sunday afternoon belonged to sax giant Charles Lloyd, who lit up the stage with a loving musical energy that is the hallmark of this creative master. At 80 years old, he is joyfully still at the top of his game. Dressed nattily in linen jacket, slacks and stylish hat, Lloyd entered the stage with bounce and funk. With his stellar group the Marvels, the 1-hour set was an in-the-moment party, with fast improvisational runs, especially enhanced with the rich sounds of Greg Leisz’ pedal steel guitar. “La Llorona,” the beautiful Mexican cansione, was a standout. If one could write a love poem with a sax, Charles Lloyd is the master poet.
Norah Jones, a newcomer to the Monterey stage, closed out the 3-day fest with a splendid set that showcased both her unique vocal stylings and her perhaps underappreciated piano artistry. The multi-Grammy winner flashed a smile and offered a wave to the audience at the beginning of her set and after that let her music speak in sweet, breathy tones, opening with “Cold, Cold Heart” followed by “Nightingale,” enchanting in its fragility, an ethereal “Sunrise,” and much later, the song that launched her career, “Come Away with Me.” Most enticing was her new single “Carry On,” a delicious mix of jazzy piano rhythms, tinged with country/blues tones.
Other highlights: A celebration of saxophone great Michael Brecker, featuring his brother Randy Brecker and others; a tribute to pianist Geri Allen, led by Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jensen, featuring, among others, Terri Lynne Carrington on drums and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut; Oscar Hernandez & the Spanish Harlem Orchestra with special guest Hubert Laws; and Remembering Ray Brown featuring Christian McBride, Benny Green, Gregory Hutchinson, John Clayton, John Patitucci & Dianne Reeves.