MONTEREY, Calif. – The 61st Monterey Jazz Festival Sep. 21-23 was billed as a salute to “The Year Of The Woman” – and they weren’t kidding. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and alto saxophonist Tia Fuller were designated as the artists-in-residence, singer Dianne Reeves was the 2018 Showcase Artist and MJF Jazz Legend Award honoree. The schedule was loaded with female artists; during one long stretch on opening night, I encountered three groups in a row whose lineups were all female except for one male outlier, Robert Hurst, playing bass in the Fuller/Jensen band’s tribute to the late Geri Allen. It was an illuminating demonstration of how far a once overwhelmingly male art form has advanced toward equal representation.
What they couldn’t have known when this festival was planned was how the #MeToo movement would explode in the ensuing year, and that the festival would take place during a tumultuous weekend when Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was being accused of sexual assault and convicted sex offender Bill Cosby was about to be jailed. Such was the grim subtext underneath the comfortable afternoons and chilly nights of nearly non-stop music, international food and fun.
That said, on to the music – or as best I can since as always, no one person can take in all of this eight-ring circus.
The Geri Allen tribute on Sep. 21 bravely focused on her adventurous spirit, with bebop unison riffs over Teri Lyne Carrington’s syncopated drums, tap dancing from Maurice Chestnut, and sound effects from DJ Val Jeanty as just one example of the set’s original combinations of sound. The competing Latin jazz bands, Tammy L. Hall’s Peace-tet on the Garden Stage and Jane Bunnett & Maqueque in Dizzy’s Den were the other two all-female bands on the streak noted above, and I couldn’t even get to concurrent sets by Reeves, Jane Ira Bloom and other female leaders that night, nor to Norah Jones’ headlining set Sep. 23, for that matter.
Fresh from Hollywood Bowl the previous night, Wynton Marsalis and the masterful Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra repeated his whimsical ballet for big band and tap dancers, Spaces, with its bizarre animal imitations and Wynton’s pleasing extensions of Ellingtonia. Prior to that, Wynton was in trenchantly funny form in the Blue Note tent (his former label), defending his views on jazz and society while curiously name-dropping Bach and Shostakovich more than any others.
The biggest surprise of the events of Sep. 22 was a name new to me, Jamie Baum, a diminutive flute player whose imagination is as big as the world. Standing outside Dizzy’s Den in the afternoon, I heard some delicious cacophony coming from the room and thought, oh yes, let’s check this out. Upon entering, I saw a uniquely-configured nonet (including French horn, electric guitar and Baum’s bass flute) playing jazz with off-kilter Balkan meters, stuttering Hebrew rhythms, and ultimately, an extended piece, Honoring Nepal: The Shiva Suite, with a Tibetan bowl providing a drone, a freeform earthquake, gamelan-like patterns, and other eclectic pursuits. It was the most extraordinary music of the festival, I thought.
Out on the Garden Stage, Detroit’s blues belter Thornetta Davis got some great warmup music from her backup band who got down on “Cold Duck Time” before the headliner mused on issues like ”I Gotta Sang The Blues” and “Why Women Never Get The Blues.” José James feted Bill Withers on the Lyons Stage in a deep bass-baritone voice completely unlike Withers’ own but effective enough on favorites like “Use Me” and “Lean On Me.”
James was succeeded by Oscar Hernandez’s Spanish Harlem Orchestra – standard crowd-rousing salsa until they came to the MJF-commissioned extended piece, “Monterey Encounters,” which had a far wider variety of Latin jazz styles that the great flutist Hubert Laws was eager to exploit in tandem with SHO flutist Jeremy Bosch. Unbelievably, this was the first Latin jazz commission in the MJF’s long history, and they ought to do more of that.
Ingrid Jensen and her sister Christine offered advanced jazz with a fatback beat, gentle rains of electronics, and loping folk-like tunes at the Night Club while across the lawn in a packed Dizzy’s, Dave Grusin was playing a rare solo piano gig, from which I could only catch a wistful take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.” Three stalwart double bass players, John Clayton, Christian McBride and John Patitucci, teamed up to recreate Ray Brown’s Superbass band on the Lyons Stage, slyly manipulating fingers and bows and making it sound easy.
To close things out, Stephen Colbert’s bandleader Jon Batiste stepped out to front the Dap-Kings in a completely re-harmonized, re-melodized version of “This Land Is Your Land,” singing in a Sly Stone-like voice. And for something different, he played a few stripped-down numbers alone on the piano from his new album; simplicity may be a virtue but in this case, it came too late on a long day.
Charles Lloyd, Sunday afternoon on the Lyons Stage was a return to the scene of the 1966 gig that yielded a terrific album, Forest Flower, which sent his career into orbit, winning him a following among young rock fans even though his band – which included 21-year-old Keith Jarrett – was all-acoustic. This time, Lloyd, now 80, did have an electric band, the Marvels, with guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel man Greg Leisz grooving wonderfully with Lloyd on the first number (as on the Forest Flower album, a jet from the airport next door buzzed the set for old times’ sake). From that sizzling start, though, the set gradually lost altitude, segueing comfortably into an amiable country-rock outfit underneath Lucinda Williams’ guest vocals.
Prior to Lloyd, Bokanté – billed as a “world music supergroup” – was dishing out the percolating Afro-beat at the Lyons with a three-electric-guitar, plus lap steel guitar, front line. The band’s singer Malika Tirolien responded to the turmoil in the real world with “Echo Chamber,” a song in French about how social media unites and divides us.
Gary Meek, living out his Monterey dream at Dizzy’s for the first time at 57, offered straight-ahead, bop-grounded swinging on tenor sax. Four hours later at Dizzy’s, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith – now 76 and still working through an unprecedentedly creative Indian summer – led his entire 95-minute suite, America’s National Parks. More contemporary classical music than jazz per se, the piece’s absorbing contemplation and whirling maelstroms were definitely enhanced by surreal video visions of natural landmarks and the musicians in real time.
Meanwhile in the Nightclub, three soul-jazz organ groups wailed through the evening – across the lawn yet a world away from the avant-garde abstractions of Wadada. Bobby Floyd’s trio trucked along, Delvon Lamarr’s threesome was a hard-charging outfit. Joey DeFrancesco’s quartet developed a good head of steam, even getting the audience to clap in 5/4 time while also reviving my favorite Victor Young song that has curiously disappeared from the repertoire, “Around The World.”
The last evening in the Lyons led off with a most interesting band belonging to clarinetist Anat Cohen. The band swerved from idiom to idiom – channeling Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, playing a dirge where New Orleans and Jerusalem intersected, eventually breaking into Jewish wedding music complete with a freeform climax (a pileup on the dance floor?). “Celebrating Michael Brecker” had brother Randy sizzling on trumpet, driven by Antonio Sanchez’s astonishing drumming. The latter I witnessed via video simulcast inside the Jazz Theatre, which had good sound and better yet, served as a refuge from the cold, damp Lyons grounds.
But the last set of the last day of the 61st festival may have been the most heartening one of the whole weekend. It was a quintet inside Dizzy’s – five gifted, globally diverse musicians in their late-20s to mid-30s that was organized as the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. The bundle of talent in this band is extraordinary – Bria Skonberg (Canada), who in a retro number sang like Dorothy Provine and played trumpet like Louis Armstrong; the burning tenor sax of Melissa Aldana (Chile); bass anchor Yasushi Nakamura (Japan); drummer Jamison Ross (Florida) who revealed a George Benson-like singing voice; and the do-everything pianist Christian Sands (New Haven). And oh, how could I forget Cécile McLorin Salvant (Haiti/France/Miami), the owner of a spectacular, penetrating, soulful voice, holding the audience and me spellbound with “Spoonful.” It may be a stretch to say that jazz’s salvation lies with an international young group like this, but what a role model it is.