From International Review of Music:
January 25, 2013
By Michael Katz
Northridge, CA. There were lots of good vibes, not to mention some friendly apparitions, circulating through the Valley Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, as the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars brought their tour to the campus of Cal State Northridge. The sextet, which had closed the curtain on the 55th MJF last September, featured vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the world class rhythm section of Benny Green, Lewis Nash and musical director Christian McBride, and a front line of Chris Potter on tenor sax and young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
As they did at Monterey, Dee Dee Bridgewater and McBride opened with a duet, this time Billie Holiday’s “My Mother’s Son-In-Law.” Bridgewater lithely covered McBride’s fingerings, giving the song an intimate, conversational feel that invited the audience into the performance. Throughout the evening the group would split into various permutations – duets, trios, a stunning piano solo to open the second set by Green – as they explored the many nuances of improvisational music.
In a “Super Group” of this sort, you never know who will stand out on any given night, and on this evening it seemed Benny Green was charged up right from the start. His work on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga,” the group’s first trio presentation, was inspired. He subtly shifted tempos, his right hand dancing over the keyboard, while across the stage Lewis Nash was pulsating with sticks and brushes. As for McBride, we sometimes forget, for all his versatility, what a terrific trio anchor he is, and he would turn the format on its ear later in the evening.
Chris Potter and Ambrose Akinmusire provided robust counterpoints for the group, giving Bridgewater some added oomph (not that she needed much) on “All of Me” and Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty.” Potter, who can reach out to the edges of Coltrane-inspired territory, stayed mostly straight ahead with this group. Akinmusire, the ascending star who was the MJF Artist-In-Residence in 2012, provided some spirited riffs, and teamed with Potter on his haunting composition “Henya” in the second set. The trumpeter had some terrific soloing as the concert progressed, but it would have been nice to see him take command of another tune on his own, whether a more familiar ballad or a hard charger, just to give the audience a taste of his potential as a leader.
As readers of this space know, I think Dee Dee Bridgewater is on the short, short list of the best vocalists around. Last night she did a lovely version of Thad Jones’s “A Child Is Born,” softly modulating the rarely heard lyrics, with the trio backing her up in spare accompaniment. Later, in the second set, she reached for the opposite end of the spectrum, interpreting “God Bless The Child” with a gospel verve that would have made Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples proud. The audience, which had a substantial and appreciative segment of CSUN students, (many of them no doubt from their award winning big band) was on its feet.
Benny Green, as noted earlier, walked out alone to start the second set. He set up his extended solo with the chords of “The Man I Love,” and dived into an improvisational mode, tossing in quotes from “I Can’t Get Started,” among others, gathering steam and moving to a crescendo before pulling back for the denouement and gently bowing out.
I mentioned a couple of apparitions. The first would be the late, great bassist Ray Brown, whose wife, Cecelia, was in the audience. The rhythm trio has all played with Brown and their adoration was evident. On “East of The Sun, West of the Moon,” Christian McBride took the main line on the bass, his notes clear, crisp and swinging. He segued from melody to improvisation, setting the stage for more great stick work behind him from Lewis Nash. In a night full of highlights, the virtuosity of McBride and the trio was a delight.
The other apparition was the recently departed Dave Brubeck, who meant so much to everyone at the Monterey Jazz Festival. After blazing through Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” to nominally close the show, the group reassembled and chose one of Brubeck’s less familiar tunes, “Mr. Broadway.” It was a perfect choice to honor his memory, one that avoided the trap of mimicking “Take Five” or “Blue Rondo.” It provided a swinging framework for the front line to go out charging – I thought Akinmusire’s trumpet solo was one of his best moments of the evening. And Dee Dee Bridgewater provided some tender vocalizing, slipping into the lines of “Take Five” at the end, a perfect coda to the performance.
As difficult as it is to transfer the ambience and spirit of the Monterey Jazz Festival to another performance venue, the MJF All Stars managed to do it.
Now, only eight more months to MJF 56.
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From International Review of Music:
September 24, 2012
By Michael Katz
It is Monday morning, and a layer of fog has settled over Monterey Bay. The 55th Monterey Jazz Festival is now an empty fairgrounds. Places with names like Dizzy’s Den and the Nightclub are now bland outbuildings connected by an empty midway. But if you close your eyes, you can still imagine a magical place, where a high school flutist can say she followed Ambrose Akinmusire on the stage of the Jimmy Lyons Arena, or a young singer can say she stood in front of a big band on the same stage and was the hottest thing going. And that was just a prelude to the concluding day, which brought Esperanza Spalding, Pat Metheny and an All-Star MJF combo to conclude one of MJF’s best festivals.
Next Generation Jazz Orchestra
The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra led by Paul Contos kicked things off with some terrific arrangements, including a knockout version of “Harlem Nocturne.” A few of the highlights included the winning composition, “Something Small,” by Christopher McCarthy, and vocalist Laila Smith, who shone on “Only You” and an upbeat arrangement of “Smile.” Artist-in-Residence Ambrose Akinmusire made his first Arena appearance of the festival with a couple of numbers that featured his searing horn. You can only imagine the confidence director Contos had in Elena Pinderhughes to have her follow Akinmusire’s extended riff with a zesty flute solo of her own, and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who shared the stand with Akinmusire for his final tune.
Esperanza Spalding had to be the perfect choice to anchor the Sunday afternoon show. She has the crossover creds to draw a young audience into the Arena, yet her jazz chops endear her to the Monterey faithful. She brought a solid eleven piece ensemble to the Arena in support of her current hit CD, Radio Music, that included rising tenor star Tia Fuller and Chris Turner on supporting vocals. Emerging in a flowing white gown and trademark Afro, she led her band through a jam session that won over the audience from the start. If there was one unavoidable timing glitch, it was having a lovely ballad set in the midst of what turned out to be the flyover of Thunderbird F-16s from the nearby Salinas Air Show, but by then crowd knew what was coming and waited patiently for the jets to finish, while Spalding adapted with panache.
It’s possible that Esperanza had a little case of Trombone Shorty-itis, as she tried to get a crowd going that was still suffering a bit of an emotional hangover from the day before. Her style is gentler, her voice at its best wafts sweetly over her bass tones. Her finale, an extended rendition of the Radio Music theme, brought home her point about falling in love with music through the radio, but it seemed to leave the set a tad on the short side. One more smaller, more dramatic vocal (and let the crowd take care of itself) might have been more fulfilling.
The mid-afternoon sets at the Garden Stage are always some of my favorite moments. They are a chance to wind down from what tends to be a raucous atmosphere in the Arena and set the stage for the evening’s jazz headliners. Danish violinist Mads Tolling was a wonderful example of this Sunday. The Turtle Island veteran led a quartet that featured sterling guitar work from Michael Abraham and support from bassist George Ben-Weiss and drummer Eric Garland. Together they exploited every aspect of Tollings’ instrument, from Danish folksongs to jazz standards to extended flights in homage to Jean Luc Ponty. My favorites included the opener, “Danish Dessert,” which began with some nice counter plucking between violin and guitar, “Take Off Blues” by Danish legend Svend Asmussen and Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rumba.” Tollings had a gorgeous extended solo in “Beatrice,” then brought the group back for another Jean Luc tribute, “Pontification.”
There was plenty of activity going on throughout the festival as the curtain went down Sunday night, but by that time I was content to stay at the Arena for what turned out to be a superb evening. Pat Metheny returned to the stage with his Unity Band quartet, featuring Chris Potter on reeds, Antonio Sanchez on percussion and upcoming bass star Ben Williams. Metheny remains something of a mad scientist, with his “Orchestrion” lurking in the background like some sort of cross between a super computer and an alien spaceship. This was all linked to something resembling an apothecary shelf at the right of the stage, filled with bottles and beakers that lit up like Christmas lights throughout the show.
Metheny started with a type of combination guitar/harp known as the Pikasso. He was joined by Potter on bass clarinet in a lovely pairing that was augmented by some terrific bass lines by Williams. The band went through material from the new Unity album; like most everything Metheny does, it is hard to categorize. If you are a jazz purist you tend to love his full sound and wandering melodies. You sometimes cringe at the more rock-style riffs, but there was relatively little of that Sunday night, and it was kept earthbound by the fine work of Potter, whose soprano matched Metheny’s occasional trips into the stratosphere.
There were times when I felt a little sympathy for Antonio Sanchez, whose masterful rhythms seemed to be competing against the bells and chimes of the Orchestrion. Once or twice I thought I’d stumbled into a soundtrack for the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. But as the show went on Sanchez had plenty of room to stretch out. And the final moments of the ninety-minute set, when Potter doubled on flute and did a lovely duet with Metheny, brought the audience to its feet.
The final performance at the Arena would have highlighted any night, but it was a perfect coda to MJF 55. The MJF Jazz Festival on Tour started out with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Christian McBride sharing the stage, with an inspired version of “Do What You Want To Do.” Bridgewater teased the audience as she synched with McBride’s bass, the two of them interweaving riffs. The rest of the band followed: pianist Bennie Green; Chris Potter doing double duty, bridging the gap between avant garde and straight ahead; trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Lewis Nash. Bridgewater led a spirited version of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” and Akinmusire stretched out on McBride’s composition “Shade of The Cedar Tree.”
In recent years MJF has shifted the Sunday show to two 90 minute performances, and this works perfectly for the All-Star groups. In the past, with only an hour, it seemed like they were just warming up when the curtain fell. And the fact that the group had played Saturday night at Dizzy’s Den gave the Arena crowd the benefit of their additional time together. If there’s one player who ought to especially benefit from the extended tour, which will begin in January, it is Akinmusire, who will surely get some added recognition from his presence, as well as the opportunity to test his compositions against this stellar group.
Dee Dee Bridgewater
But there were plenty of highlights from everyone, including wonderful brushwork by Lewis Nash with the group reduced to a trio for Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga.” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One,” featured Akinmusire and Potter, and Chris shone in his composition “Salome’s Dance.” Still, if there was a first among equals it had to be Dee Dee Bridgewater. She mesmerized the crowd with “Don’t Explain,” and later closed the show leading the band in “All of Me.” It is impossible to compare any singer with prior eras, where a national spotlight shone on Sarah and Ellie and Billie, but Dee Dee Bridgewater, at this stage of her career, belongs in the conversation.
As the MJF Touring all-stars finished “All of Me” to a standing ovation, from a crowd that had braved yet another chilly night, there were a few wistful remarks about the paucity of “real jazz” on the Arena schedule. While that may be a narrow definition, I can understand the sentiment. But the umbrella of jazz has spread wide, and there were nearly countless opportunities on the various stages to see jazz of every fashion. The venues played to near capacity crowds almost everywhere. It was sad to see the closing curtain fall, as it meant farewell to friends seen too seldom, and a spirit of art and friendship unmatched anywhere in the world.
See you next year, Monterey.
Photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Here’s my review from International Review of Music:
July 13, 2012
By Michael Katz
When you consider the arc of Ray Charles’ career – jazz, blues, R&B, country, it’s no surprise that it took a village Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl to pay tribute to him. There was an all-star jazz band, in addition to the Count Basie Band, strings, a choir, headliners from all the touchstones of Charles’ music, plus a loaded version of the Raelettes (Patti Austin!), all tied up in a ribbon by Tavis Smiley. If it only occasionally matched the searing genius of Brother Ray Himself, it did keep everyone on their toes.
Ray Charles’ voice was unmistakable – not just for the raw soulfulness mixed with lyric grace, but for the pain that was never far from the surface. There is a certain courageousness in that for a male singer, and it’s not surprising that the women on the program seemed to channel Charles’ spirit most effectively, with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ms. Austin exhibits A and 1A. More on that later.
The first half of he show was anchored by an all-star band led by drummer and musical director Gregg Field. The front line featured Terence Blanchard and Scotty Barnhart (Barnhart also led the trumpet section of the Basie band), with Dave Koz on alto sax, Houston Person on tenor and Tom Scott on baritone. George Duke sparkled throughout the concert on piano and electric keyboards, with Shelly Berg’s Hammond B-3 percolating underneath it all.
R&B singer BeBe Winans was the opening vocalist, smoothly working through “I Got A Woman” and a more expressive “Drown In My Own Tears.” Perhaps that is damning with faint praise, but the raw power of Ray Charles was lurking in the background, and anything short of that can’t help but be noticed. The band had “Them That Got” to themselves, featuring Dave Koz on alto and Tom Scott picking up his soprano. Koz is a star on the smooth jazz scene and dominated the sax solos during the show — this inevitably left less room for Houston Person, which was regrettable. That big tenor sound, exemplified by the late David “Fathead” Newman, whose name never came up during the evening, was a major part of the Charles sound.
And then came Dee Dee Bridgewater. Head shaven, clad in a stunning gold dress, she took over the show from the first note. She started with “Hallelujah I Love Him So,” backed up by Houston Person in his one soulful excursion of the night. She followed with “I Believe In My Soul” and the rousing “I Got News For You,” which brought Blanchard out front on trumpet and Duke alternating from keyboards to piano. Dee Dee Bridgewater simply has it all – the booming voice in perfect pitch, the sassiness in her presentation, the hurt and tenderness when she needed to reach back for it. All of it flows naturally, not a note forced. Thankfully she wasn’t done for the night.
The next section of the show featured Ray Charles’ foray into Country and Western music. It started with a standout version of the Raelettes, with Patti Austin and Siedah Garrett. Garrett led Charles’ smoldering version of “You Are My Sunshine,” then Patti Austin took center stage. Austin is just too much of a presence to keep in the background. Her intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine” seemed effortless, but before you knew it she had you in her grasp – her version of the ballad stood right there with Ray Charles’s.
Country music singer Martina McBride closed the first half of the program. If you are mainly a jazz or R&B fan with a tangential knowledge of country, McBride’s voice fits in solidly with the post-Loretta Lynn/Patsy Cline tradition. Producers Gregg Field and the legendary Phil Ramone were smart to give her a variety of settings, instead of just covering Charles’ C&W oeuvre. “Bye Bye Love” had the Raelettes behind her, then a combination of strings and the Fred Martin/Levite Camp of Urban Entertainment Institute choir filled up the stage for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Take These Chains.” Finally, trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval came onstage and joined McBride for the Hank Williams standard “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Cuban Country Soul…you just don’t get that everywhere.
The second half of the show was anchored by the Count Basie Big Band, featuring the aforementioned Barnhart on trumpet and Reggie Thomas on piano. The main vocalist for much of the set was Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. He’s an appealing singer, his voice pitched a little higher than Winans, but he just doesn’t have the visceral appeal to carry this music. “Let The Good Times Roll” was a good vehicle to start his segment. There were Charles standards to follow like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Crying Time,” which featured Monica Mancini stepping out in front of the Raelettes.
But the real fireworks came as the program concluded. There was BeBe Winans reaching back for a little extra on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Then Dee Dee Bridgewater came back out and tore the place up again with “Busted.” Before the final numbers, the video screens flashed a clip of Ray Charles as a guest on Saturday Night Live, Year 2, with Murray, Belushi, Gildna Radner et al playing a cover group, “The Young Caucasians.” It was at once hilarious and a reminder of how far Ray Charles’ music had brought us. It set the stage for “Georgia On My Mind,” which brought back Babyface as well as Patti Austin and the Raelettes, and then the whole production returned for “America The Beautiful.”
Despite the effort to sprinkle the program with all sorts of pop stars, the attendance was only around 10,000. Which makes me wonder, since it is supposed to be a jazz series, why not just give the microphone to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Houston Person, Patti Austin et al and let them try and fill the place up instead of relying on retro themes? I don’t think Ray Charles would have objected.
AND…a quick note for my blog readers. A couple of great Ray Charles tribute CDs are John Scofield’s That”s What I Say with Aaron Neville and Dr. John, and David Newman’s I Remember Brother Ray.
The 55th Monterey Jazz Festival announced its complete schedule today, adding Tony Bennett and Michael Wolff’s Cal Tjader tribute band to a program already rich with stars that include Pat Metheny, Showcase Artist Jack DeJohnette, Esperanza Spalding, Trombone Shorty, Bill Frisell and Artist-in-residence Ambrose Akinmusire.
More on all that later. If you really want to know how loaded this festival is, set your watch for 9:30 Saturday night, September 22. Here’s what you can hear: Metheny, DeJohnette and Christian McBride in a trio performance on the Lyons Stage; Wolff and his Tjader band with Warren Wolf on vibes along with Pete Escovedo, John Santos, Vince Lateano and Robb Fisher at Dizzy’s Den; The Tierney Sutton Band at the Night Club; Gerald Clayton at the Coffee House. Yikes. Fortunately, Sutton gets a head start at 9 and Metheny plays another set with his Unity Band featuring Chris Potter, Antonio Sanchez and Ben Williams on Sunday night. Still, if that cloning research gets perfected by September, you know where to find me.
Here’s a few of the other highlights. The Friday night Arena show opens with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band making its MJF debut, and we LA folk know they will get the festival off to a rollicking start. I confess to having heard little of Melody Gardot, who follows, other than sampling the bluesy jazz offerings on her website, but that’s the beauty of MJF. There’s always some fresh faces, including harmonica player Gregoire Maret at the Night Club and vocalist Gregory Porter, who has been creating a big ripple lately, with the Night Club’s late set. DeJohnette and Akinmusire perform at Dizzy’s Den and the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra caps off the Arena Show. Finally, pianist Mulgrew Miller, who I would rate along with Michael Wolff among the finest of his (and my) generation, will lead his trio in three performances at the Coffee House.
Saturday is blues/roots/funk day in the afternoon. Robert Randolph and the Family Band open the show at the Arena and end the afternoon at the Garden Stage, always a great place to hang out. As mentioned, Trombone Shorty headlines at the Arena and his performance, on the heels of his 2010 tour de force, will be one of the most anticipated of the festival. If you are looking for something a little quieter, two of my favorite musicians, flutist Ali Ryerson and guitarist Mimi Fox will be performing a matinee duet at the Night Club.
Saturday night, in addition to the aforementioned logjam at 9:30, begins at the Arena with guitarist Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers band performing the commissioned piece and ends with Tony Bennett. Whether the moon will show up on cue during the opening notes of “Fly Me To The Moon,” as it did in Bennett’s memorable 2005 concert has yet to be determined, but don’t bet against it.
Sunday afternoon features the award-winning high school and college groups, highlighted by the all-star Next Generation Band at the Arena, with alumnus Ambrose Akinmusire sitting in. The NGB was one of the highlights of the festival last year, so don’t wander in late. Esperanza Spalding, with a hot new album and lots of national exposure, anchors the afternoon show. The late afternoon Sunday shows at the Garden Stage often provide some of the most relaxed and enjoyable moments of the weekend. This year vocalist Jose James gets the 4pm slot and Kyle Eastwood’s band is sure to be a crowd pleaser at 5:30.
Sunday night at the Arena begins with Pat Metheny’s band and finishes up with the MJF 55th Anniversary All Star group, featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater, trumpeter Akinmusire, Christian McBride, Benny Green, Chris Potter and drummer Lewis Nash. (They also perform Saturday night at Dizzy’s Den.) There’s plenty happening on the grounds, including vibist Stefon Harris’ Cuban themed Ninety Miles Band with David Sanchez on sax and Nicholas Payton filling the trumpet chair; DeJohnette and Frisell in duets; and the annual Hammond B3 organ blowout featuring John Abercrombie, Larry Goldings and Chester Thompson. Tiger Hamasyan takes the piano spot at the Coffee House.
The 55th Annual MJF runs September 21-23. Details at: www.montereyjazzfestival.org/2012/
The music world, and the jazz world in particular, is a sadder place today with the news that pianist/composer/arranger Mike Melvoin passed away after a bout with throat cancer. Mike played with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones to the Beach Boys, and his life and contributions were summed up beautifully today by Don Heckman in the LA Times. I’d like to add to that a few personal notes. One of the side benefits to a lifelong friendship with Mike’s cousin, Jeff Melvoin, was the chance to get to know Mike a little and, most importantly, see him perform in some of his favorite settings, usually jazz trios. With all his rich and varied professional life, Mike was first and foremost a jazz guy, and an astonishingly good player. When he swung, he swung hard — your foot would be tapping from the first few notes. His ballads were sweet and sensitive. Whether on his own albums or backing others, Mike reveled in the intricate interworkings of the trio. A few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, Mike released a duet album with a lesser known alto player named Kim Park, entitled The Art Of Conversation. It was breathtaking, reminiscent of the best of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Stan Getz and Kenny Barron. As noted by Don, Mike was a strident defender of the working musician in town. He will be missed.
February 24, 2012
By Michael Katz
I’ve made it no secret over the years that I consider The Monterey Jazz Festival one of the world’s great musical weekends. This morning MJF, celebrating its 55th anniversary September 21-23, released a preview of its program: Pat Metheny, Esperanza Spaulding, Trombone Shorty and a new edition of the Monterey All-Stars highlight an exciting list of performers. There had been some grumbling last year among season ticket holders that seats had to be renewed before the schedule was announced. I doubt anyone will be complaining this year.
With young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire already announced as the featured artist and guitarist Bill Frisell as the comissioned artist, MJF needed some big names to complement such ambitious choices; they found them, and more. Pat Metheny is scheduled for a rare two performances on the main stage, the first on Saturday in a superb trio led by Jack DeJohnette with Christian McBride, then Sunday in a quartet with sax player Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams. That set will be followed by a duet featuring DeJohnette and Frisell.
Meanwhile, the new edition of the Monterey All Stars looks sensational. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who gave a rousing late night performance two years ago with her band, headlines this group with Benny Green, McBride, Akinmusire, Potter and drummer Lewis Nash.
The two afternoon concerts should both be real crowd pleasers. Trombone Shorty, who laid waste to the festival two years ago, will be anchoring the Saturday afternoon blues/roots show. Emerging star Esperanza Spalding will take the main stage Sunday afternoon, following the award winning high school bands and the Next Generation Band.
There is, of course, much more to come, with five stages to fill, and the Friday night main stage show yet to be announced. But the backbone of the festival looks terrific. With Pat Metheny sure to bring his devoted following into town and Trombone Shorty and Esperanza Spalding drawing a younger crowd, ticket sales figure to be brisk for MJF’s 55th.