Genres Blur & Swirl in Monterey’s ‘Big Tent’


Linda May Han Oh onstage at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival, held Sept. 15–17 in California.

(Photo: ©Monterey Jazz Festival/Craig Lovell)

Three years ago, when Monterey Jazz Festival Artistic Director Tim Jackson booked The Roots as a Saturday-night headliner, the house brimmed with delighted young fans, but hundreds of older folks streamed out of the arena. This year, when rapper Common took the stage Sunday afternoon, the boomers stayed put, cheering right along with the youngsters Jackson has been carefully attracting to Monterey.

What changed? Well, for starters, Common—wearing a T-shirt with the motto “We Built This Joint For Free” and drawing from his 2016 album Black America Again (Def Jam)—was spitting passionately about the same issues bassist Charles Mingus dealt with at Monterey 53 years ago in his fabled “Meditations on Integration” concert. What boomer’s heart doesn’t resonate with a line like “I’m keeping my eyes on the people, that’s the prize” (“The People”)?

Beyond that continuity about social justice, Common also spoke a musical language that drew from tradition. Amid the rapping, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who just four years ago had performed at Monterey as a high school student, spun silver coils with her solos and Common himself freestyled with the imaginative facility of a bebopper.

“Hip-hop is the child of jazz culture,” said the 45-year-old artist. “We recognize that.”

Apparently, the enthusiastic Monterey crowd did, too. Give credit to Jackson’s ears for making the connections. Allhough the programming at this year’s fest celebrated the centennial birthdays of Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie—as well as nodding to Sonny Rollins—Jackson drew the tribute line there.

“I don’t want this to be a nostalgia festival,” Jackson said backstage. “I wanted to be sure we had new artists and fresh faces.”

Any presenter with a wad of cash can snatch a popular act off the Billboard charts, but thinking about how those acts relate to each other and their respective audiences, how those audiences interact and how the present and past can have a conversation is a much deeper challenge.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Jackson said.

That kind of thinking was evident in multiple ways during this year’s annual commission, by bassist John Clayton, a majestic big-band epic titled Stories Of A Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration, which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation.

Clayton, along with his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, and longtime associate, drummer Jeff Hamilton, served as this year’s Artists in Residence and performed Clayton’s work as members of the crackling Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.

“I haven’t seen a commission the audience enjoyed as much since Gerald Wilson’s [1997] Theme For Monterey,” observed Jackson, who added that the “family feeling” embodied by the Claytons (John’s brother Jeff was also on hand) is what Monterey is all about. “John is the natural heir apparent to Gerald.”

The dynamic between past, present—and future—was also neatly captured on an opening set by drummer Matt Wilson’s Carl Sandburg-inspired project, “Honey and Salt,” which featured guest recitations by Hamilton, John Clayton, Peter Erskine and Joe Lovano, as well as a solo spot by saxophonist Joel Frahm.

Wilson, with irrepressible humor, recited a startlingly appropriate line from Sandburg: “As wave follows wave, so new men take old men’s places”—which is precisely what has been happening at the festival.

Except that now women are an integral part of that story, too, which definitely makes the conversation more interesting. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, seen in Monterey in the past with trumpeter Dave Douglas, stepped out on the Garden Stage with material from her fine new album, Walk Against Wind (Biophilia), including the fetchingly asymmetrical “Speech Impediment,” which drew listeners into a mesmerizing musical realm.

Robust, gutsy alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, a game and informative participant in the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Dan Ouellette, delivered a splendid, celebratory set with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who soloed with blinding accuracy at Dizzy’s Den.

Veteran pianist Joanne Brackeen zig-zagged through two-handed, lickety-split lines but also let the crowd luxuriate in her warm reharmonization of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

Violinist Regina Carter sparked John Beasley’s MONK’estra big band, devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk, with a touching solo on “Ask Me Now,” which featured five clarinets.

Fans of bluegrass, Latin and African music were invited to Monterey this year, as well, as mandolinist (and A Prairie Home Companion host) Chris Thile zipped through duets with pianist Brad Mehldau, Afropop vocalist Angélique Kidjo nodded to salsa and pianist Chano Dominguez offered a fluidly dancing set tinged by flamenco.

A lot of events talk about creating a “big tent.” Monterey not only puts up the tent, but has learned to help everyone get along inside of it.

“It’s intangible,” said Jackson. “But that’s what makes it easier for the potential magic.”

(To read Yoshi Kato’s review of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, click here.) DB

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