Monterey Jazz Festival Features Highly Charged Performances


Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest continually running jazz festival in the world. This year, it ramped up its next chapter with women in marquee roles. It featured more than 60 women artists, comprising more than half of this year’s performances as leaders, co-leaders or side players. Festival veteran Dianne Reeves—MJF’s jazz legend award winner this year—swept away the audience with her Sept. 21 opening-night spotlight at the big stage. And remarkably, considering her well-seasoned career, Norah Jones made her Monterey debut in the company of drummer Brian Blade and bassist Chris Thomas, ending the weekend bash with her Sept. 23 show at the arena-like Jimmy Lyons Stage.

The Lyons den also featured this year’s co-artists-in-residence, saxophonist Tia Fuller and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, in a moving opening-night tribute to Geri Allen. The pair finished up together on Sunday afternoon, performing with Monterey’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, with whom they had been working with throughout the year.

“We were totally lost, and they held it together,” Jensen said after one tune.

The highlight of the set was her “At Sea Suite,” a tale of being on a boat for her honeymoon with friends alongside the Alaskan shoreline with the mountains of her native Canadia in the distance. She introduced the piece as a combination of seasickness and romance. At the onset, Jensen and Fuller (on soprano) blew sea-wind sounds, then sang the placid melody together, while the band contributed flowing waves of brass. In true suite character, the tune developed into a loving jaunt, then a vomit section before sailing back to shore.

While the Lyons Stage performances played to a large crowd down the Midway, the sunny and live-oak shaded Garden Stage treated audience members to a more relaxed setting of benches, blankets and bleachers. The Saturday afternoon triple-header afforded crowds a more intimate feel that also encouraged dancing in the grassy patch in front of the stage.

The proceedings began with the highly charged No B.S.! Brass Band, bringing their groove, funk and fire to Monterey from Richmond, Virginia. They played with enthusiasm, as it was their second date on the West Coast (they played Sacramento the night before). With zigzagging rhythms, torrents of brass and hip-hop flavors, the 13-piece band playfully delivered their energetic originals, including the buoyed “3 A.M. Bounce” and charged covers, including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and a delicious take on the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” sung soulfully by recently enlisted vocalist Samantha Reed. What’s impressive about the ensemble is that all the action is driven by co-founder/drummer Lance Koehler and an array of brass instruments, including co-founder/trombonist Reggie Pace. No bass, no guitar, no keyboards. There’s a brass-knuckles approach to the music with a healthy dose of dissidence, including the chant “Ain’t tolerate no tyrants.” The takeaway is how much fun the group was having in the fluid conversations during the set. It was infectious.

The follow-up at the Garden Stage on Saturday blew the crowd away. In her first time performing at Monterey, Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, Thornetta Davis, sang with no-nonsense sass, fearless in her missives against lovers, as she preached the blues. She belted out castigations about liars and cheats with lyrics like, “You can tell that lie to somebody else/ I’ve heard it before,” and “Don’t appease me/ You ain’t gonna please me.” Her band was tight and supportive, especially her husband, James “Jamalot” Anderson, who introduced her after the opening two instrumentals and played congas throughout her set. It was particularly moving when Davis sang her touch-of-Womack tune “Honest Woman,” dedicated to her husband. It was a love story about “all those times I gave up on love” and played at a slow tempo, so she and Anderson could dance together. But it didn’t take long for her to bolt out with “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin’ (To Satisfy Me),” when she encouraged the adoring audience to sing along. She received a standing ovation for her a cappella version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” with call-and-response soul with her two backup singers, Roseann and Rosemere Matthews.

That tune proved to be the perfect set up for the next Garden Stage act, José James, who worked through his latest project—a moving tribute to songwriter Bill Withers, Lean On Me. Promising to deliver his songs “simple and profound” (no hip-hop beats under his music, nor deconstructions with 10-minute bebop solos), the genre-bending James played it soulfully straight. Once he sang to the heart of Withers’ storytelling tunes, he confounded jazz critics by playing it without harmonic embellishments, beginning with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and continuing with well-known songs, such as the upbeat “Use Me” and the uplifting “Lean On Me,” with the audience happily singing along.

It was jazz at its most basic, with the melodies alone taking the lead and short improvisations by James’ band of pianist James Francies (a revelation on the keys), bassist Ben Williams and drummer Nate Smith. While James played at the Lyons main stage earlier in the afternoon (as did Davis), he seemed more in the vibe on the smaller stage, moving through the crowd with his mic. You could hear how he was grooving as he made his way to his concluding pair of songs, the funkified “Just The Two Of Us” and the dance-friendly “Lovely Day.” The entire set was soulfully joyful. DB

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