Monterey Festival Celebrates Risk-Taking Artists

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Co-artistic Director Derrick Hodge performed multiple sets with various ensembles during the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival, which ran Sept. 27-29 in Monterey, California.

(Photo: Tomas Ovalle)

On the Jimmy Lyons Stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which ran Sept. 27-29 in Monterey, California, co-artists-in-residence Allison Miller and Derrick Hodge launched the 62nd edition of the grand event with a moving tribute to Mary Lou Williams—paying homage to the indelible music of the iconic pianist/harmonic innovator.

The arena show honored her integrity by presenting a creative rendering of her works. Holding down the rhythm front, drummer Miller and bassist Hodge—who did not know each other prior to being named artists-in-residence—assembled a unique band of two pianists (Carmen Staaf and Shamie Royston) and three vocalists (Jean Baylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Michael Mayo) who served as the horns of the ensemble. The show opened with “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” wordlessly sung by the three-piece choir and featuring Miller’s thundering, dramatic drums and Hodge’s blues-steeped tones on acoustic. The show unfolded in sections with different configurations: the dynamic full band, a capella vocals, an ecstatic piano duo, solo tunes. Highlights included a spine-tingling gospel-prayer meeting of Royston and Baylor, and a medley of tunes Miller arranged that included “Medi II,” “Kool Bongo” and “Miss D.D.” (named for jazz philanthropist Doris Duke).

The Miller-Hodge project represented a philosophy of marrying tradition and new expression, and increasingly MJF is breaking down boundaries by presenting risk-taking artists who are resolute in evolving the music. Miller made two more appearances during the weekend with her adventurous Boom Tic Boom ensemble, as well as the Parlour Game troupe—a captivating project that combines jazz, groove and Americana—that the drummer co-leads with fiddler Jenny Scheinman.

Likewise, Hodge put on a display of ingenuity as a leader with a multipart adventure in groove at Dizzy’s Den, first with his spirited quintet when he led the charge on five-string electric bass in tandem with blasting-cap drummer Mike Mitchell (aka Blaque Dynamite). After a DJ Stutz McGee interlude, Hodge took the stage with his Color of Noize group, featuring an array of incredibly talented youth performing alongside the quintet. Hodge cooled it down toward the end with a guest vocal by Baylor, who he called one of his favorite artists.

Christian McBride also played a high-profile role as both Showcase Artist and Commission Artist. He was busy, delivering the world premiere of “Roy Anthony: The Fearless One” (composed for onetime festival favorite Roy Hargrove) with his big band, as well as displaying his alter ego DJ Brother Mister. But where McBride fully took off was at Dizzy’s Den with his band the Situation. He’s a great electric bassist, but the star of the show was keyboardist Patrice Rushen, who proved the consummate foil for the bandleader. She helped dig deep into the rhythm’s bedrock with her funked-up colors and textures, giving the bassist an opportunity to get rooted in his grooves. Rushen was the X-factor for the Situation, a band that had the aisles in dance mode and the crowd cheering them on.

More buoyancy came the following night at the outdoor Garden Stage as Steven Bernstein defied the cold winds coming in from the ocean to lead a West Coast version of his Millennial Territory Orchestra. Based up the Hudson River in New York state for many years, Bernstein has roots in Berkeley, California, where an entire community of jazz greats emerged. Many top-tier players still reside in the Bay, which led the slide-trumpet conductor to bring his old friends together for this playful music, steeped in harmonic arrangements of jazz gems from yesterday. It was a showcase for levity as Bernstein danced around and fed his community band improvisational cues on tunes by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

Given all the high-power exhibitions, it was a sweet pleasure retreating to the Night Club on Saturday to bask in the magic of Luciana Souza’s luminous trio date with Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro and rock-solid bassist Scott Colley. Highlights of the Portuguese/English/wordless vocals set was Souza’s rendering of songs based on Leonard Cohen poetry. There was hush in the house.

As noted by the fest’s opening act, during her lifetime Williams was an early pioneer in the jazz world—a performer who took charge and inspired others. At Monterey this year, a number of younger bandleaders made strong showings, hinting at the music’s future. Trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg took her music to a new level at the Night Club; trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman with guitarist Ian Faquini impressed at Dizzy’s Den; and the forward-thinking vibraphonist Sasha Berliner led a rousing electronic journey with her playful and powerful quintet (heightened by Morgan Guerin’s coloristic EWI). While Berliner’s set was truncated because of sound snafus, she overcame the adversity and played with searing energy. DB



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