MONTEREY, Calif: The stresses of the bebop life took so many valuable lives prematurely, but Jimmy Heath survived it all. Sunday afternoon in the Pacific Jazz Café, the 90-year-old saxophonist told us a bit about his life in an often hilarious, always mesmerizing conversation with writer Ashley Kahn. There were stories about John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, lampoons of the R&B sessions that he played for the money, a funny anecdote about how Miles Davis stole “The Serpent’s Tooth” from him and would periodically slip him a couple of hundred dollars as compensation upon request. Heath didn’t mince words about contemporary music; he listens to some, alright, but complained that “today’s jazz is so distant from swing and the beat.” Of his aphorisms too numerous to list, here are a few: “Everything new is not true. “Everything old is not cold.” “Bebop is soul and science.”
The ever-gracious Chick Corea, a mere 76, was next, happily talking shop about a strap-on Yamaha synthesizer that he signed for one of James Carter’s sidemen and revealing that he was practicing hard for an encounter with Lang Lang in Rhapsody In Blue at Carnegie Hall.
Back at Dizzy’s Den, I came upon a small group from the aggregation labeled as Andy Weis and the Monterey All-Stars, a Jay-and-Kai-like team of two trombonists (Brian Morre, Steve Wilson) sounding mellifluous and cool in a lazily loping “Theme from `Picnic.’” Later on at Dizzy’s, Joe Lovano’s post-bop quartet broiled at a combustible level in “Bird’s Eye View” before settling into a ballad with husky Hawk-like tones from the leader on tenor sax. Tia Fuller, in league with Ingrid Jensen, celebrated “the power of the Angelic Warrior” in their set – Fuller tearing it up on alto sax, Jensen, a bit hesitant at first on trumpet but soon getting immersed in the restless, tense textures the rhythm section was serving up.
Much later on in the Den, Regina Carter could be heard in yet another setting, this time in Southern Comfort (the title of her 2014 CD) mode in which she played well in a style approaching that of country fiddle and reminisced about her family history in that context. Her cousin, saxophonist James Carter, started his set at the Night Club with a lengthy ingratiating rap about what his organ trio was about to play, but I had to split before the music began. (Alas, I was told by colleagues later that Carter was really killing it that night, and a posted video on YouTube confirmed it).
Blue Note chief Don Was held court in the Blue Note At Sea tent spinning upcoming releases from a clutch of artists on the label. Unfortunately we heard the music through muddy, bassy, wireless headphones; even the P.A. would have been more acceptable. Not too far away in the Pacific Jazz Café, pianist Chano Dominguez – the cat from Cadiz – put on a bewildering display of polyrhythmic skill in a solo spot, each hand acting with complete independence, before settling into “Blue in Green” with his trio.
Out on the big Jimmy Lyons Stage, the versatile, excitable mandolinist/singer Chris Thile and the iconoclastic pianist Brad Mehldau were making interesting music that would baffle anyone trying to stick a label on it. Singing, plunking, and strumming manically with blinding virtuosity on his small instrument, Thile was the live wire of the two while Mehldau was content to provide delicate obbligatos and an occasional boogie. It took awhile for the crowd to catch on to the pair’s subtle slide into Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” at set’s end.
Angélique Kidjo’s Tribute to Salsa band in the Lyons promised to get the crowd up on its feet dancing with its “Africa Meets Cuba” theme, and that’s exactly what they did in the numbers I caught. But Kidjo had more than party-time on her mind as she gave impassioned pleas for peace and understanding – “My weapon is my microphone!” she said – reverting to Afro-pop in “Mama Africa” with a fervor that conjured memories of the late Miriam Makeba.
I peeked in on former Santana keyboardist Chester Thompson’s set at the Night Club and caught a good steaming rendition of “Speak No Evil” on the Hammond B3 before moving on. The festival was drawing near its end, with one significant act piled on top of another, and I was trying to cover as much ground as I could. But eventually, I had to forego a number of them – James Carter being one – because Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were starting one of their rare encounters together in the Lyons arena.
The two first played together on Miles Davis’ early electric recording sessions, then locked horns on grand pianos for a pair of double albums in 1978. Four decades on, the basic idea is still the same as the two erudite pianists – Herbie on a Fazioli, Chick on a Yamaha – explored the netherworld between the progressive classical and jazz camps in often-dissonant, stream-of-consciousness rambles with some printed music as anchors.
You could find reference points amidst the abstractions. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 soon morphed into “Cantaloupe Island;” a classical excursion looped through Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and inevitably, Corea’s “Spain” before going out the back door with amusing quasi-Rachmaninoff. Neither of these veterans have lost an iota of technique or curiosity, and they stayed on the uncompromising high road as the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival came to a close.
Part One of my Monterey Jazz Festival wrapup can be found at https://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2017/09/23/monterey-jazz-festival-celebrates-its-60th-edition/