Metheny, Trombone Shorty Inspire Monterey Jazz Fest Crowds
The red numbers flashing on the Monterey County Fairgrounds’ LED billboard seemed daunting: hundreds of musicians in dozens of performances at eight staged areas over three nights and two days. Ultimately, the 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) on Sept. 21–23 was a weekend of connections and impressions.
Pat Metheny’s inspired (and aptly named) Unity Band opened Sunday evening’s main Jimmy Lyons Stage activity and embodied that spirit of MJF interconnectivity. The guitarist had been on the same stage the night before with bassist Christian McBride in a special trio led by drummer Jack DeJohnette, who was celebrating his 70th birthday.
Unity Band saxophonist Chris Potter played both the night before, in Dizzy’s Den, and as part of the main stage set immediate following Metheny’s quartet as a member of the fiery Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour Band (which also features McBride). Bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez led their own bands the previous night.
The arena hosted adoring audiences for one of the strongest bills of the jazz festival season. Tony Bennett proved once more that age is but a number. His voice rang clear and true as his stage presence captivated the Monterey crowd. So, too, did Trombone Shorty with his brand of arena jazz. He brought the audience to their dancing feet and howling with a combination of songs from his last two albums, Backatown and For True, as well as his take on classics like “St. James Infirmary” and Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips.” For the latter, Shorty brought dozens of women onstage, strictly for demonstration purposes.
A strong contingent of guitarists, bassists and vocalists left distinct impressions during the festival, especially the vocalists. Locally based singer Tammi Brown opened the festivities on the Garden Stage, with Melody Gardot’s atmospheric style providing an aural palate-cleanser on the Jimmy Lyons Stage between the powerhouse larger group offerings of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa Orchestra.
Singer Gregory Porter quickly won over a Friday night standing-room-only Night Club crowd with his heartfelt delivery and was the clear candidate most likely to graduate to the main stage. His saxophonist, Yosuke Sato, was like his id and was able to go off on emotive solos while he kept a measured, if sincere, temperament.
Among those enjoying themselves in the audience for Porter was Dee Dee Bridgewater, who would go on to dazzle on consecutive nights as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour Band.
The Garden Stage was the site of two other vocal revelations. On Saturday evening, Catherine Russell explained the back stories of songs from the ’30s with the authority of a scholar and the ease of a cabaret artist before giving ethos-filled interpretations of tunes such as “Under The Spell Of The Blues” and “Fine And Mellow.”
The night before, vocalist José James’ charismatic show sharply blended neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz. Whether doing his own single “Trouble” or covering John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” or the L.A.-based hip-hop unit Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People,” James impressed as a crossover talent.
Bass guitar was notably featured in acoustic rhythm sections throughout the weekend. In addition to being a part of James’ band and played frequently by Esperanza Spalding during her Radio Music Society’s Sunday afternoon main stage gig, the electric instrument could be heard in bands such as harmonica player Grégoire Maret’s tight quartet and pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s alternately hypnotic and dizzying trio.
Guitars also made quite an impression at this year’s festival. In addition to Metheny, Bill Frisell was also presented in a pair of settings. The 2012 MJF Commission, his pastoral “The Music Of Glen Deven Ranch,” made its debut Saturday night on the main stage and was performed by his Big Sur Quintet with cello, viola, violin and drums. Frisell also quietly dazzled Sunday night at Dizzy’s Den in a duet setting with DeJohnette, who alternated between drums and piano.
Guitarist John Abercrombie’s cerebral organ trio overlapped with Frisell and DeJohnette across the way at the Night Club. And violinist Mads Tolling had an empathetic rapport with his guitarist, Michael Abraham, as witnessed earlier in the afternoon on the Garden Stage.