Monterey Artists Lovingly Salute Jazz Icons

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Jimmy Heath (left), Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis perform a tribute to saxophone icon Sonny Rollins at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, held Sept. 15–17 in California. (Photo: ©Monterey Jazz Festival/Jim Stone)

The Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 60th anniversary Sept. 15–17 by reflecting on its continuous six-decade musical legacy and introducing new talent.

Vocalist Leslie Odom Jr. and rapper/singer Common were among those who were inaugural members of the MJF family. Odom, who won a Tony and a Grammy for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, delivered an effortless Nat “King” Cole medley that appealed to veteran MJF audience members. He also did three numbers from the smash musical that were more familiar to the ’tweens who were part of the enthusiastic crowd at his Saturday night set on the Jimmy Lyons Stage.

Common, who featured MJF Next Generation Jazz Orchestra alumnus Elena Pinderhughes on flute and vocals, delivered the kind of riveting set that has won him millions of fans from outside the hip-hop world.

An Oscar winner for his work on the soundtrack to Selma, Common acknowledged the presence of Herbie Hancock, who was seated in the front boxes. Hancock clapped—and at times even danced—enthusiastically and approvingly at the end of the charismatic musician/author/actor’s main-stage performance Sunday afternoon.

Hancock was, naturally, a major presence at the fest. The piano/synthesizer wizard performed two closing sets on the Jimmy Lyons stage—Friday with his own band and Sunday in an acoustic duet with fellow keyboard titan Chick Corea.

Multimedia presentations reminded attendees about MJF’s many legendary participants and also of other NGJO alumni, including Grammy-winning big band leader Gordon Goodwin and pianist Benny Green. Live tributes acknowledged the history of the #MJF60 (as this year’s MJF was referred to on social media), a few significant centennials and, in two instances, both.

Regina Carter performed on the Jimmy Lyons Stage on Friday evening with her Simply Ella tribute, one of many that have been presented to honor the centennial anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. The violinist drew upon material from her recent album, Ella: Accentuate The Positive (OKeh), and started with the title track. With joyful yet searching solos by pianist Xavier Davis and the bandleader, the tone was set for the remainder of a 50-minute program that would draw from Fitzgerald’s lesser-known tunes.

While introducing “Crying In The Chapel,” Carter broadcast a portion of Fitzgerald’s original recording on her smart phone. Guitarist Marvin Sewell provided a sleek, unaccompanied introduction that was followed by an extended exploration by Carter and an intense solo by Davis, who had switched to Fender Rhodes.

Bassist Chris Lightcap’s arrangement of “I’ll Never Be Free” was full of pathos and urgency, and Carter introduced “Judy” by explaining that a young Fitzgerald had performed the song at the Apollo Theater. The rhythm section received the spotlight at the end, with energetic solos by Davis, Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett.

A veteran of MJF icon Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, Kenny Barron followed Carter by presenting a tribute to his former bandleader’s centennial. With drummer Justin Faulkner and Barron’s regular bassist, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, the pianist led an all-star Gillespie group that included trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones and conguero Pedrito Martinez.

Each of the special guests were showcased, and those catching the end of the set heard a masterful rendition of Gillespie’s “Manteca” that found the two trumpeters engaged in a lively conversation.

Though 2017 isn’t the 100th anniversary of his birth, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins did celebrate his 87th birthday eight days prior and is a past MJF favorite. (Gillespie and Rollins both participated in the inaugural MJF back in 1958, so it was only appropriate that both should be remembered on the Jimmy Lyons Stage with prime set times.)

Four of the leading tenors of their respective generations—Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and NGFO alumnus Joshua Redman—explored the Rollins songbook with pianist/Musical Director/MJF co-Artist-in-Residence Gerald Clayton, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash. The saxophonists played “Tenor Madness” together, with each doing a quartet number afterwards. (Marsalis tackled “Way Out West,” Lovano played “Paradox” and Redman dove into “Unit 7.”)

The elder statesman of the festival, 90-year-old Heath, spoke about his friend, whom he said he had met while he was in his early twenties and Rollins was still in his late teens. They still speak by phone two to three times a week, he revealed, before picking up his soprano saxophone and delivering an unexpected version of “’Round Midnight” that was a highlight of the entire weekend. He switched to tenor saxophone for the latter half of his sublime interpretation and brought the crowd to its feet.

Nash introduced the familiar rhythmic statement of “St. Thomas,” which Rollins himself performed during the final closing night main stage set back in 1997. The four tenors all took turns with rounds of brief solos, but the surprising MVP of this finale was Colley, whose solo built up a dramatic yet grooving tension before resolving itself magnificently.

Like his friend and fellow bop pioneer Gillespie, Thelonious Monk is being honored during his centennial year and was an active MJF participant, having been booked on four different occasions between the early ’60s and early ’70s. Pianist John Beasley’s MONK’estra big band was an ideal vehicle to do a deep dive into Monk’s influential compositions.

“I Mean You” (which appears on Beasley’s new Mack Avenue album, MONK’estra, Vol. 2) began with a punchy, modern feel before segueing into more recognizable sonic territory. Beasley stood in front to conduct the band and then moved to the piano to comp during trumpeter Brian Swartz’s shimmering solo.

For “Ugly Beauty,” Benjamin Shepherd substituted a six-string bass guitar for his usual contrabass, which, combined with Beasley’s swirling synthesizer, added a slightly psychedelic wooziness. Beasley provided a solo piano introduction to “Gallop’s Gallop” with drummer Terreon Gully’s brushwork and tenor saxophone Bob Sheppard’s soaring solo making the piece feel as if it had been borrowed from the swing era. “Criss Cross” had the jubilant feel of a dance number from the islands.

Carter and Beasley each sat in with each other’s bands during the fest. The MONK’estra’s rendition of “Ask Me Now” featured Carter, three clarinets and two bass clarinets to convey a noirish sentiment. Interpretations of “Brake’s Sake” and “Skippy” finished out the Sunday afternoon main-stage program with avalanches of inspired revelry.

Beasley’s MONK’estra proved that a trifecta of legendary source material, creative arrangements and top-flight instrumentalists is unbeatable.

(To read Paul de Barros’ review of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, click here.) DB


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December 2017
Wynton Marsalis
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