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Monterey’s Musical Moods Stylistically Connected -- Again

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By Taylor Jordan

The roots of the music called jazz run deep into the heart and history of ancient Africa.
It journeyed through he souls of Black folks, transformed itself into a variety of stylistic expressions, infused energy into others’ music and cultures with its electrifying efforts and evolved into America’s most significant art form.

And in the western hemisphere, it is doubtful few festivals stage more genuine or heartfelt presentations of this music than Monterey Jazz Festival.

For 46 years, Monterey has remained true to the creative forces who really play jazz. There are few pretenders here -- at least they don’t last long or are appropriately unappreciated by the aficionados who know the truth and the novices striving to learn it.

The eclectic mix of jazz staged at Monterey each year touches the spirit, sets emotional moods, stirs shaking feet, hands and heads.

And so it was again this year.

Monterey Jazz Festival is more than music.

It is a microcosm of the world as it should be. People of all cultural, ethnic, political, economic, religious and national origins come together without fuss, conflict, subjugation or subjective prejudice. They come for one reason: the music played on the Monterey County fairgrounds on the third weekend of every September since 1957. It is the music that, to steal a 1960s’ love generation phrase, makes everything groovy.

Monterey Jazz Festival is a place filled with fond memories for all the lucky people who’ve sat in the audience or stood on the stages. It is a continuous cornerstone of music where legends and masters succinctly demonstrate how they became legends and masters. And on the flip side, it is where little cubs become young lions and pop pretenders fade into oblivion and thankfully away from ears that know good jazz when they hear it.

The ears were wide open and generally overjoyed at the 46th installment of the world’s oldest continuous jazz festival.

There were, as always, surprises and disappointments.

The former included singer Carla Cook. She opened Dizzy’s Den Saturday night, energized her own set and set the stage for equally enthralling singer-pianist Peter Cincotti and Kurt Elling, the latter playing with the Laurence Hobgood Trio after his wide-mouthed perfect performance with Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany in the main arena.

Add to the “ahhh” surprise package the Brass Monkey Brass Band. These young men opened the “New Orleans in Monterey” blues afternoon Saturday, but they shined best marching around the grounds and standing still to play for the musical delight of everyone. Great new element, but for a group this loud, organizers should warn any future group about playing too close to Dizzy’s Den or the nightclub where more mellow mainstream music is presented.

The unfortunate folk who were at the back of the mile-long line waiting for some crazy person to leave their nightclub seat and give them a chance to see and hear Mary Stallings were disappointed. Those familiar with her past behavior were disappointed but not necessarily surprised about Randy Crawford’s no-show for The Crusaders set. The excuse given this time was illness, but Crawford’s star hasn’t risen as high as her talent and looks because of such failures to show. Maybe she really was sick, but who knows?

Squarely on the disappointment list was pianist Herbie Hancock. He only played five tunes, few in a fashion recognizable to devotees. His performance could have been phoned in. Hancock’s “special guest,” legendary vibes artist Bobby Hutcherson, was never allowed to get loose, funky or out there musically. For some strange reason, there was even a plexiglass divider physically separating Hutcherson from Hancock, drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and bassist Scott Colley.

Monterey and jazz fans in general know how awesome Hutcherson’s live performance is as a leader or coupled with piano virtuoso McCoy Tyner or anyone else. Was it Hancock’s ego that held Hutcherson back? The pianist/composer’s “Directions in Music” tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane made the Monterey audience jump up on simultaneous feet for saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Legendary trumpeter, composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson once said in an interview, when asked how all the superstars in his bands play so well together without vanity, “I tell them to check the egos at the door. This is about the music.” Somebody should have told Herbie that, too, and perhaps people wouldn’t have left the arena wondering why they stayed for the final Monterey musical moment Sunday night.

All the music at Monterey was good, some, of course, better than others and some off the meter musically. This year, the global influences of jazz and its effects on other cultures and musical expressions were more noticeable and deliberate. A little bit of dis and a little bit of dat offered a wider range of jazz styles, and whether on liked it or not, few could honestly say there wasn’t some pleasure in every piece of the musical puzzle presented.

The pinnacle positions for the weekend wholeheartedly belonged to pianist Michel Camilo, The Crusaders, singer Nnenna Freelon, the Neville Brothers, The Four Brothers, Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and three teen trumpeters soloing and soaring for the closing number of the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band.

Camilo didn’t ease into the music as the first main stage act Friday night. There was simmer. He went instantly to boiling over with rhythmic and melodic mixes hot enough to take the chill off the Monterey night. This man of the Caribbean unrelenting power, similar to the intensity of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, on Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz rhythms was dynamic.

It probably isn’t possible for Crusaders’ pianist Joe Sample and Texas tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder to give a bad show. The childhood buddies still love one another and the music and it showed in their stage camaraderie and fun playing. Joined by trombonist Stephen Baxter who capably translated notes previously played by Crusader Wayne Henderson and guitarist Ray Parker, Jr., the latter best known for his “Ghostbusters” hit among those unaware of his dexterity on all musical styles, the Crusaders were probably the most popular group among fans.

Bebop bigots who dismiss any kind of fusion as unacceptable manage to find exception for The Crusaders. One of the first fusion bands to mix gospel, soul, funk and pop with mainstream melodies, Sample and Felder include sophisticated twists and improvisational grabs into the straight-ahead bag. This prevents anyone from strait-jacketing them into a fusion-only bag.

Freelon, the Four Brothers - vocalese master Jon Hendricks with henchmen Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany - and blood brothers Aaron, Art, Charles and Cyril Neville were distinctively different kinds of singers, but their separate sets kept people on the edge of their seats and smiling.

Hendricks remains the master of vocalese, a singing style that uses the voice to simulate instruments and lyrically sings instrumental classics. He doesn’t work up a sweat. He just sings, swings, soars. His “brothers” didn’t imitate his style, choosing instead to fly in their own way. One man laughed into the hushed, awed, attentive audience, caught up momentarily in the pure joy of the music he heard and unable to contain it. He then whispered “Wow.” It was al good, but their rendition of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” was by far the most magnificent. And sizzling sideman, pianist Laurence Hobgood, added incredible depth to the set on the main stage and later backing Elling in Dizzy’s Den.

The Nevilles, the crown princes of New Orleans, were royally received in Monterey. The arena was packed to capacity for their closing set of the blues show. Cyril warned after a couple of tunes, “We’re going to aim straight for your navel. We see you bouncing in your seats. It ain’t no shame to get up and shake your hips.” The Nevilles mixed it up, alternately tossing funk boogie, blues, rhythm and blues, reggae and a simply amazing version of the spiritual “Amazing Grace” to an audience that gobbled it all up enthusiastically.

Freelon was glad to be on the Monterey stage finally and the audience was glad to have her there. This lady put pizzazz in every song whether she was scatting up a storm, seducing with a love ballad, painting the subtle nuances of classic compositions or using dramatic pauses to shift musical moods.

Monterey has been waiting for another female crooner to stir and soothe their souls in the way their favorite female, Sarah Vaughan, did for so many years. There have been worshipful moments with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Betty Carter and Ernestine Anderson. Well, Nnenna Freelon can step into the shoes of the great ladies of jazz and they’d fit.

The Clayton-Hamilton ensemble, led by bassist John Clayton, axophonist Jeff Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton, never plays a bad note. Ever. Whether recorded or live. John Clayton, an awesome composer and arranger, could have lent a musical hand to Ralph Towner who wrote the, yawn, boring commissioned composition “Monterey Suite” and swept most of the fans from the arena before it finished.

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