All-Star Ensemble Salutes Quincy Jones at Monterey Jazz Festival


Clint Eastwood (left) and Quincy Jones at the Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, California

(Photo: ©2016 Monterey Jazz Festival/Jim Stone)

One of the highlights of the 59th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was the big band-heavy Tribute to Quincy Jones: The A&M Years, which was presented Sept. 16 on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. The performance closed out the Opening Night arena festivities that included performances from vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and bass guitarist/vocalist Richard Bona’s Mandekan Cubano. The subject of this year’s Monterey Jazz Fest magazine cover story, Jones—and his distinguished bearded visage—was seemingly omnipresent.

Out of the expansive big band that performed Sept. 16, one could have carved a number of different—and equally accomplished—smaller ensembles. Consider, for example, a trio consisting of keyboardist Dave Grusin (an alumnus of the original recording sessions for A&M), double bassist and Musical Director Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. One would still have room for another trio, this one featuring pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, double bassist John Clayton (serving as conductor that night) and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr.

MJF Board Member and noted jazz fan Clint Eastwood served as an MC of sorts, introducing Jones and noting that the two had known each other since their teen years.

Jones acknowledged the crowd but left the stage before the first notes of the Richard Carpenter classic “Walkin’,” from 1970’s Gula Matari, were played. Flutist Hubert Laws, another alumnus from those sessions, took an assured solo and created a through-line to that era, and trumpeter Sean Jones delivered with authority in a role originally filled by the late Freddie Hubbard.

Vocalist Valerie Simpson reprised her part singing the hypnotic title track to 1969’s Walking In Space. The trombones were warm and the entire horn section impressively tight as the piece continually returned to Simpson singing the phrase “my body” in a dizzying sonic recalibration. Reedist James Carter ably picked up the saxophone gauntlet originally thrown down by Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

“Ironside” (from 1971’s Smackwater Jack) was introduced as one of the great TV theme songs, and Bob Sheppard’s elegant soprano saxophone melody served as a reminder of the song’s timelessness. The late Ray Brown’s “Brown Ballad” (also from Smackwater Jack) featured harmonicist Grégoire Maret improvising lines immortalized by the late Toots Thielemans.

Referenced as Jones’ magnum opus, Gula Matari featured Jones protege Rodriguez on piano, Bona on electric bass (playing along with McBride’s acoustic) and Simpson returning to sing. It was a psychedelic demonstration of funkiness, with Grusin’s comping on keyboards and a furious guitar solo from Jackson. Rodriguez’s own solo brought anticipated heat.

McBride got to show off his own considerable bass guitar skills on the Smackwater Jack arrangement of “What’s Going On.”

Jones returned and spoke before the final number, explaining that “from bebop to doo-wop to hip-hop” music has always been connected throughout his legendary career.

He then proceeded to conduct Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe” (recorded on Walking In Space), which featured stellar solos from Sean Jones on muted trumpet and Grusin on piano.

One of the joys of multi-stage festivals is the cross-pollination that occurs. After the events at the Monterey County Fairgrounds on Sept. 16, Salvant sat in with the house band at the Hyatt Regency (temporary home to all the MJF artists) and did a stirring rendition of “Lover Man.”

Fresh from his participation in the Jones tribute, Carter picked up his tenor and traded fours with the group’s fearless saxophonist. Later, trumpeter Bria Skonberg embarked on an extended instrumental exploration of “Stardust”—delving deep into the melody. Carter joined in to offer up his own throaty solo.

The next night, the Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling closed its set on the main Jimmy Lyons Stage with “St. James Infirmary,” which Marsalis’ group had been playing at the end of its sets prior to touring with vocalist Elling. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and alto saxophonist Tia Fuller—who performed elarier as members of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project—were guests alongside Elling, who gave wordless, horn-like solos of his own.

Festivals are wonderful settings to witness breakthrough performances, and two of such displays took place in Dizzy’s Den, an indoor venue located at one end of the fairgrounds. The pathos-laden vocalist Somi and her pianist, Toru Dodo, delivered a performance so incendiary that the capacity audience instantly transformed from clapping while seated to standing and dancing.

The following afternoon, the internationally oriented Banda Magda had the crowd on its feet for the last number and demanding a rare encore, which charismatic leader/vocalist/accordionist Magda Giannikou enthusiastically accommodated.

On Sept. 18, the electro-soul trio KING closed the evening on the outdoor Garden Stage. Keyboardist-composer Paris Strother interned in the MJF production office after she graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2008, and this year was her first time appearing as a performer. The smile on her face as she looked over her bank of electronic instruments into the crowd suggested that she was ecstatic to be back.

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