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Monterey Maintains Best in West Status

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Monterey

By Taylor Jordan

The 45th annual Monterey Jazz Festival thrilled fans with a weekend of musical marvels Sept. 20-22.


The undisputed winners of both popularity polls and aficionados affections were: Percy, Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath, the pioneering powerhouse players serving as the festival’s artists-in-residence and proving time has only sharpened their musical senses.
Never-boring trumpeter Roy Hargrove whose latest reinvention of himself perfectly blended bebop, rhythm and blues, vocals and funk rhythms to rock the main arena and Dizzy’s Den.
Trend-setting pianist Dave Brubeck who’s still charming and magnificent at age 82, and still in love with wife Iola who co-debuted “The Real Ambassadors” for their 25th anniversary at the 1962 Monterey festival. Celebrating their 65th wedding year, reminding us the idea of humane harmony with the world rather than war-mongering for political and economic gain are still topical and substituting the talents of Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross with new young lions Hargrove, Lizz Wright and Lamont VanHook, Fred White and Lynn Fiddmont-Linsey, the Brubecks brilliantly ended MJF 2002 with a repeat of the ‘62 suite.
Barefoot contessa Rhoda Scott with four flying limbs and sizzling saxophonist Houston Person so hot the shouts of “Preach!” echo throughout the nightclub.
Blues diva Etta James can still get crowds up even when she’s sitting down and revitalize an otherwise lethargic blues afternoon in the arena.
San Francisco’s finest ever percussionist John Santos, leading an amazing jam session that had nightclub folks dance from first to last notes.
Timeless beauty Nancy Wilson and pianist Ramsey Lewis strut stylisticlly through gospel, jazz, ballads and rock renditions on Sunday afternoon. The only sad thing about this set is that it took 45 years to happen at Monterey.
Newcomer Lizz Wright, so young and gifted, showing nightclub and arena audiences silky smooth and dynamic vocals still thrills.
Piano legend Randy Weston dug deep into the roots of jazz in ancient Africa, connected the vision of the art form poetically through Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes and then stretched it into modern musical expressions still on the cutting edge. He got considerable help in the feat from dexterous Texas tenor and musical explorer Billy Harper, percussionist Niel Clarke in a West African call-and-response amazingly balancing his voice as the call and the congas as the response and bassist Alex Blake who rhythmically attacks his instrument with a vengeance. The ensemble is so authentic and dynamic an African woman in the audience accompanies them vocally.
Music, as Weston asserted in a nightclub conversation with Africana, Jazz Times and Downbeat writer Willard Jenkins and exemplified on stage, is more than notes and harmony. It is to capture the hearts of people. Yeah, brother.
Joshua Redman did what he has done best since his first teenage appearance at MJF: played the hell out of that tenor saxophone. He’s an “S” man: spontaneous, sparkling, sassy, swinging, soulful, smart. The world doesn’t need another lawyer. Thank God this son of Dewey and summa cum laude Harvard grad gave us instead the gift of his music.
Redman’s fierce tonality and fabulous range put listeners in the midst of a musical hurricane. Does Joshua have an extra pair of lungs in his chest?
Three of the men who helped pianist, composer and leader Herbie Hancock become the hands-down favorite ensemble of the 2001 Monterey Jazz Festival returned to shine again: Hargrove as leader of his latest aggregation RH Factor, standing-ovation saxophonist Michael Brecker as sizzling sideman with bassist Charlie Haden’s American Dreams and drummer Brian Blade still breezing through difficult chord transitions and bouncing to syncopated beats, this time with Redman’s Elastic Band.
There are three words for these three: more, more, more!
Three was also the magic number for the Heaths, the brothers now the first family of jazz. What can one say? What and how many adjectives appropriately describe the flows and ebbs of Percy’s bass, the mellow timbre and exhilarating riffs of Jimmy’s tenor sax, the staccato polyrhythmic rumblings of Tootie’s drums?
How fitting that their first tune, composed by Jimmy, was entitled “A Sound For Sore Ears.” Add to this musical mix, the “adopted” Heath brother, pianist Jeb Patton who successfully tackled an Art Tatum number to earn his moniker The General. As the “brethren” sailed, soared, swooped and swung straight-ahead, bebopping, hardbopping and bringing ballads alive, one mom climbed into a tree and lifted her excited toddler high enough to see these men of musical legend. A new jazz fan is born at the tender age of 3.
History was made -- but pictorially missed ‘cause of the rule of shooting only on the first two tunes, one of too many rules for a world-class audience of devoted jazz fans -- when now No. 1 Percy Heath, young lion roaring Christian McBride and pioneering trendsetter Charlie Haden paid incredible homage to late, legendary bassists Charles Mingus and Ray Brown. Wow.
The weekend’s disappointment was not surprisingly Don Byron. Most had hoped winning the coveted commission would encourage the clarinetist to create something superior to the weird “bug” music he played at Monterey in 1997. It was a hope in vain. He stayed just enough inside the perimeters of jazz to discourage the massive exodus caused by Ornette Coleman’s awful jaggie of noise in 1994, but other than a faithful few most found his set a good time to check out other stages, visit vendors or take a food break.
More disturbing than his strange music was Byron egotistically crowning himself as the man to authentically connect Cuban, Brazilian, jazz and Latin music to Africa. Ridiculous. Fans, critics, ethnomusicologists and cultural historians crown the heads of those who’ve rightfully earned it. The truly great needn’t trash pioneering predecessors to make themselves better. Who is Byron to elevate himself above the creative genius of Mario Bauza, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Juan Tizol, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Lalo Schiffrin, Baden Powell, Luiz Bonfa, Tito Puente, Milton Nascimento, Mongo Santamaria, Stan Getz, Ruben Blades, Cachao, Chano Pozo, Chucho Vades? Let’s get real.
Monterey maintained its pinnacle position as the best in the west. Only Montreaux and North Sea are better, but both are younger than this old man/woman of jazz jams. It matters not that your feet are in dirt and sawdust or that you shiver in the chill of the nights, Monterey, better than any other festival in North and South America and the Caribbean, offers genuine glimpses into the true genius, scope and diversity of this American art form loved by the world. Monterey is the Carnegie, Massey, Philharmonic hall of jazz in this hemisphere.
Its artists are eclectic, legendary, fresh, generally speaking. Hopefully, organizers won’t give in to the growing trend of corporate commercialism and industry tendency to erroneously stage pop affairs miserably passing for jazz. People may grumble about not being allowed to bring bottled water onto the Monterey County fairgrounds and the excessive costs of staying in the Monterey Peninsula on a special-event weekend. But they needn’t worry about seeing Kenny G or his ilk on a MJF stage.

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