Monterey Jazz Fest Revival Projects Theme of Spirituality


Allison Miller performs with Artemis at the 65th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Randy Tunnell)

The Monterey Jazz Festival bounced back to its maskless, pre-COVID self for its 65th edition, as the Arena Stage returned to full capacity (5,000), the fairgrounds re-opened with two outdoor stages and an abundance of acts rivaled rosters of the past. It was a welcome revival, after the 2020 shutdown and 2021’s successful but abbreviated festival.

Over the course of the Sept. 23–26 weekend, a theme of spirituality emanated from many acts, even as a sense of theatricality blossomed in others, which was new to Monterey. The great Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdés kicked off the spiritual side opening night with his boffo Afro-Cuban opus La Creación. With a 23-piece orchestra consisting of John Beasley’s Monk’estra and Chucho’s own Yoruband, directed by keyboardist Hilario Duran, the 80-year-old maestro took the crowd on a thunderous, three-movement journey from Africa to the Caribbean. Fittingly, percussion and brass stood out, with astoundingly intricate and creative solos by conguero Roberto Vizcaino Jr. and traps man Dafnis Prieto.

Vocalist Kurt Elling, who often walks a knife-edge between exuberance and excess, landed firmly on heaven’s side with his new project, SuperBlue, with San Francisco guitarist Charlie Hunter. Driven by horns and the blues, Elling reeled into characteristically Kerouackian story-songs, waxing witty and worldy-wise. The crowd was with him all the way, up and dancing at the end, as he gobsmacked ’em with the gorgeous ballad “Endless Lawns.”

Like Elling, vocalist Gregory Porter is a festival favorite who also stood up for blues and soul, crooning his classics “Musical Genocide,” “No Love Dying” and a medley of inspirational allusions (“What The World Needs Now,” “A Change Is Gonna Come”). Porter’s affirmation that a broken world can be made right drew hearty approval in the form of a standing ovation. Likewise, Ravi Coltrane and Brandee Younger, brought the shimmering spirit of Alice Coltrane to life, though Younger’s harp was often drowned out by electric piano.

Affirmation of life — and soul music as a tiller for its navigation — sprouted on the Garden Stage, as well. The great soul tenor saxophonist Houston Person joined enchanting San Francisco singer Kim Nalley for a sweet set there (with welcome guest spots by the great Maria Muldaur), and Mavis Staples-like mistress of the blues Terrie Odabi, who should be better known beyond the Golden Gate, hypnotized the crowd with the Bobby Bland classic “I’ll Take Care Of You.” Sunday morning, that Garden Stage flooded with faith as pianist Tammy L. Hall led the Texas Southern University and Morgan State University choirs for the packed gospel show.

The new, theatrical feel at Monterey manifested itself in a variety of ways, one of the most delightful being a snappy, talented trio of teenage dancers from the Netherlands, Let It Happen, who joined the Next Generation Orchestra for a rousing version of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack” as well as dancing multiple brief sets at the Arena Stage. The excellent Los Angeles Chicano revue Las Cafeteras (who had to cancel last year) had a show-band vibe that was nicely balanced by its deep dive into roots music, especially a wonderful requinto jarocho solo.

But sometimes the thespian touch didn’t feel quite right. Veronica Swift, wearing a silver Supergirl-like bodysuit with white, floor-length fringes, offered a breathless, Liza Minelli-like “I can do it all!” set featuring pop, rock, soul and Broadway, which, granted, was note-perfect. What a talent. But you could feel the crowd warm to Bob Dorough’s “I Don’t Want To Cry Anymore” and Dave Frishberg’s “A Little Taste” and reach for their phones during Blood, Sweat & Tears and Jimi Hendrix. Festival commission composer Kris Bowers also brought a certain theatricality — in this case, cinematic — to his piece for jazz band and strings, ÁSYLO, that featured underwater video illustrating the composition’s ocean conservation theme. But, like the music itself, it was a bit literal, like the TV documentaries he is known for.

Of course, some of the music was just flat-out great, never mind themes. To wit: a flawless reunion of Joshua Redman’s 1994 Moodswing quartet with Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass) and Brian Blade (drums), and the all-female supergroup Artemis featuring Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Renee Rosnes (piano), Allison Miller (drums), Alexa Tarantino (alto saxophone and flute), Nicole Glover (tenor saxophone) and Noriko Ueda (bass). Artemis shot its arrows with artful urgency, filling the Arena Stage to overflowing with an atmospheric yet driving Wayne Shorter-like feel.

Before COVID, Monterey used the Pacific Jazz Café to showcase groups of an experimental persuasion, and Artistic Director Tim Jackson said he hopes the indoor café will return next year. But even without it, non-mainstream music thrived. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton and New World Order (Cliff Hines, modular synthesizer and guitar; Sash Masakowski, looper and drum machine) bravely explored an electronic world of sound, with Masakowski creatively sampling and chorusing Payton’s trumpet lines, then re-assembling them into new solos, and Hines drawing a compelling universe of “er-wheeps” and “bloinks” from a wild tangle of wires. Out on the large new outdoor West End Stage, vibraphonist Joel Ross held forth with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and drummer Jeremy Dutton with a hypnotic, fluid, transportive set.

But avant-garde or straightahead, theatrical or spiritual, the Monterey Jazz Festival is back. Jackson said the Arena was at 90 to 100% all weekend, the fairgrounds at full capacity. The two outdoor stages were a welcome change and, even better, the festival ended at 9 p.m. thanks to a shift held over from last year of having one long, continuous program Saturday and Sunday instead of separate afternoon and evening shows.

“I’ve been wanting to do it for years, and COVID allowed it to happen,” Jackson said. “I don’t care who was on stage, it could be the reincarnation of John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, and at 10 o’clock people would stream out of the arena because they were tired and cold.”

It’s a good bet the crowds will be streaming back for 2023. DB

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September 2023
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