From International Review of Music, here’s my review of PJF, Day 1.
Review by Michael Katz
Photos by Bonnie Perkinson
Hollywood CA. One happy problem with an eight hour music fest that runs uninterrupted through the shifting temperatures of a near-summer’s day at the Hollywood Bowl is a lineup so strong you don’t want to leave your seat. That was the occasion on Saturday, Day 1 of the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival. It was a show that featured some bright new names in the jazz realm, a blur of world music and vocal skills, plus cameos and guest appearances from jazz legends and LA icons.
The most notable new face was comedian and actor George Lopez, who took over the emcee duties from Bill Cosby. Lopez smartly kept his patter brief and enthusiastic. Cosby, himself, never tried to upstage the music, and although his Cos of Good Music bands are dearly missed, their spirit was reflected in some adventurous booking, particularly a powerhouse mid-day lineup that had the sold-out house dancing in the aisles.
Some snarling traffic (not to mention my Park and Ride bus that broke down halfway between Westwood and the Bowl) resulted in a crowd filtering in through the first several acts. I entered to a pleasant set by percussionist Pedrito Martinez, with Ariacne Trujillo on keyboards and vocals. Their Latin rhythms set up a relaxed atmosphere as the crowd gathered and settled into party mode. But things got down to business immediately thereafter, with the appearance of Grace Kelly and her quintet.
The vivacious Kelly, only 21 years of age, has a half-dozen albums already to her credit. She plays mostly alto sax and doubles as a vocalist, excelling at both. Her alto tones are clean and driving, her own compositions melodic and well served by her lovely voice. Her band included one of LA’s premier young pianists, Josh Nelson, and an outstanding young trumpeter from Boston, Jason Palmer, who gave us some of the handful of great trumpet licks of the afternoon.
It takes plenty of self-assurance for a young musician to invite Phil Woods on as a guest and then stand up to him, lick for lick, but Kelly was up to the task. They dueted on her composition “Man In A Hat,” (from the CD of the same name) written as an homage to Woods. His presence seemed to inspire Ms. Kelly, and I don’t think a blindfold test could have separated the two of them. They later romped through a medley of “How High The Moon” and “Ornithology” with equally fine results. Bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Bill Goodwin rounded out this terrific band. Grace Kelly, originally from Boston, has settled here in the LA area, which is great news for local jazz fans – if they can catch her on a break from an ambitious touring schedule.
I had caught the end of an electrifying set by Gregory Porter last September at the Monterey Jazz Festival (where he will be the opening act this year), so it was no surprise to see him light up the Playboy stage, even in the shank of the warm afternoon. Porter has it all. His deep, evocative voice has the authority of a Joe Williams; he has an engaging stage presence that can command even a crowd settling down for wine and hors d’oeuvres. Porter was in a romantic mood, with a ballad, “No Love Dying,” from a soon-to-be-released album. His band features a sparkplug in altoist Yosuke Sato, who whipped the crowd up with ascending riffs that arced into the pungent afternoon air like tracers. Porter continued on, imploring the audience to “Hold On,” while segueing into Oscar Brown Jr.’s lyrics to Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” The title song to his new CD, Liquid Spirit, featured some terrific piano work by Chip Crawford. Porter’s closer, (as in the Monterey set), was “1960 What,” an ode to the unrest in sixties Detroit, sung with a gospel fervor that recalled Les McCann’s vocals from the seventies. Porter shone throughout. The LA native, by way of Bakersfield, is clearly on the cusp of something special.
Robert Glasper has been a ubiquitous presence lately, bridging the gap between jazz and pop with his straight ahead jazz trio and his “Robert Glasper Experiment,” which usually includes a guest from the hip hop world. On Saturday he featured Casey Benjamin on sax and vocoder, as well as the terrific jazz bassist Derrick Hodge and Mark Colenburg on drums. I’ll freely admit that I prefer the “jazz trio” – I put that in quotes because whatever Glasper does has a spirit of adventure to it. Glasper has a quick wit and engaging patter – he’s clearly the jazz performer most likely to host his own TV show. The Experiment is, no surprise, amped up and electronic, and went over fine with the crowd. But Glasper still found the occasion to invite Bowl favorite Dianne Reeves onstage. True to the Experimental spirit, she sang Oscar Brown Jr.’s lyrics to “Afro Blue,” circling on and off the beat, letting the audience find their way into the song.
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performer for a music festival than Angelique Kidjo, from Benin. I’ve seen her twice, now – the first time anchoring the Sunday afternoon stage show at Monterey a few years ago. Her unique blend of African rhythms, elucidated in several languages, French, Yoruba and Swahili among them, is intoxicating. The pulsating rhythms and percussions, familiar to U. S. audiences through such artists as Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mumbazo, were highlighted by a terrific guitarist, Dominic James, and percussionists Magatte Sow and Yayo Serka, along with Itaiguara Brandao on bass.
As if that was not enough, Hugh Masekela joined the group for several numbers. Kidjo exudes warmth – even if you can’t decipher her lyrics, the spirit of inclusiveness permeates everything she does.
Masekela’s flugelhorn remains deceptively simple, his tones clear and bold. His gravelly voice counteracted with Kidjo’s, and the two of them brought the crowd to their feet early and for the duration. Kidjo’s finale included promenading into the crowd and bringing back selected audience members onto the stage – I don’t know whether she does some magical on-the-spot scouting or just counts on divine inspiration, but it works wonderfully. Magatte Sow took center stage on his conga drum and provided the transformational spell, while the audience had a blast, onstage and off.
I’ve always thought that the Playboy Jazz Festival might benefit from a ten or fifteen minute break sometime during the show. It would give the audience a chance to wind down, break out the picnic baskets, talk to their friends without having to shout over the music. If there was ever a time to do it, it would have been after Angelique Kidjo’s set, which was impossible to follow. Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band would seem to be a perfect candidate, with the impressive sound of a 20 piece ensemble.
They opened with two burners and a great solo on alto sax by Eric Marienthal, but the audience wasn’t ready to be engaged by what is basically a performance band. They finally found a little traction with Goodwin’s Grammy-winning arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Gershwin, after all this time, can still make people sit up and pay attention. After a brief appearance by “The Voice” vocalist Judith Hill, the band found some more familiar and appealing ground when they were joined by guitarist Lee Ritenour. Ritenour brought one of his most successful arrangements, his adaptation of Jobim’s “Stone Flower” into the Big Phat Band groove. His second number was a tight Goodwin arrangement of his tribute to the late Les Paul, simply titled L.P. That was the Big Phat Band and Ritenour at their best, weaving smart guitar licks into the larger sound. They kept the audience with them for the final tune, “Race To The Bridge,” with sax player Brian Scanlon and Andy Martin on trombone leading the way out.
Naturally 7 is a contemporary vocal band, sort of a capella meets hip hop, led by baritone Roger Thomas. This was their third Playboy appearance in four years, so they were warmly received throughout their set. The group combines elements of Doo-Wop, Hip Hop, and McFerriana. Their “vocal play” extends past the traditional vocal levels and instruments; it includes “DJ” and “Beat Box.” Whatever the simulation, it was pretty heavily amplified from the start, proving it is possible to have too much bass, even if you don’t have a bass. But it was a tight and lively show, emphasizing Doo – Wop in “Summer Breeze” and providing a playful narrative with “Englishman In New York.”
Herbie Hancock joined them with one of his “keytars;” it seemed altogether fitting that he would jam with them on “Chameleon.” The opening bass line to that Herbie classic still galvanizes an audience, and Hancock continued with splashes of electronica throughout his appearance. The group finished off with George Harrison’s Beatles classic, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” At that point you could look back pleasingly at the versatility of the entire Saturday lineup; in a matter of a few hours you could go from Gershwin to Jobim to Herbie Hancock to George Harrison and somehow fit it all under the jazz tent.
And there was still some Coltrane to come. Maybe not quite enough; Poncho Sanchez’s set was entitled Ole’ Coltrane, after the 1961 Coltrane album of the same name, though the set was more Ole’ than Coltrane. Not that there’s anything wrong with spending an hour with Poncho’s band, whatever the circumstances. Along with Sanchez’s formidable conga work, his group featured Musical Director Francisco Torres, doing double duty (he also soloed with the Big Phat Band.)
But I was especially impressed by Ron Blake, who delivered some feisty trumpet cadenzas in the opening Latin numbers. We didn’t hear a lot of lead work from the staple jazz instruments over the day’s program, which was heavy on vocals and large ensembles, so it was a pleasure to hear Blake and then James Carter, who provided the Fest’s primary blast on the tenor sax. Carter provided scorching work on a Latinized arrangement of Trane’s “Giant Steps,” and more laid back and melodic playing on Duke Ellington’s “The Feeling of Jazz,” which Ellington recorded with Coltrane. Poncho’s version had a tinge of the Mingus Latin feel to it, with some excellent supporting work by Torres. That was it, though, for the Coltrane material. Carter rejoined the band for a final number, Poncho’s always entertaining version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
Regrets to George Duke, whose final blasts into the night came after much of the crowd had left, thoroughly sated by such a pleasing mixture of jazz and funk, performed by ensembles large and small, and by players seasoned and refreshingly new. It was one of the best days at the Playboy Jazz Festival in recent memory and a great start for the two day event.
Here’s Day 1 of MJF from International Review of Music
Live Jazz: Monterey Jazz Festival Notebook; Day #1
By Michael Katz
At about a quarter to eight last night, a line snaked down the midway at the Monterey Fairgrounds leading to the Coffee House, the smallest of the grounds venues at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I have been attending this festival since the mid-nineties, and as much as I love the sound and feel of the small combos that are staged there, I can’t remember such a line for the Coffee House opener. Then again, Mulgrew Miller had never fronted a trio there before.
Miller commanded the stage from the opening notes. There was an undercurrent of blues in his crisp, clear tones, as he launched into a standard, “If I Should Lose You.” It was more evident in the next number, one of his one compositions, “When I Got There.” Not recognizing the tune, I could sense a Monkish spirit, with a little bit of Fats Waller oozing out. The trio, with Ivan Taylor on bass and Rodney Green on drums, was tight throughout, bouncing between Jobim’s “O Grande Amor” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream.” It was just classic piano trio music, a perfect way to kick off the festival. An homage to Charlie Parker, “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” finished off the set, and then it was back off into the evening.
And it was a chilly evening. Layers came on as early as the opening set at the Garden Stage, where Santa Cruz singerTammi Brown kicked off MJF 55 with a soulful set, fronting a group full of Bay Area musicians, leading off with her version of a couple of Hal David/Burt Bacharach tunes, “What The World Needs Now” and “Look of Love,” before wowing the early arrivals with an extended jam session. In the backdrop was a gorgeous Monterey sunset, the clouds turning a deep pink behind Brown and her group.
Every MJF presents strategic options, given the four basic grounds venues and the main Arena show. Last night I spent little time with the headliners, which is not to slight the Arena line-up. I heard the Big Phat Band was great, but I’ve seen them plenty in LA. After the Mulgrew Miller set, I dropped in for about twenty minutes ofJack DeJohnette’s eclectic group featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto and David Fiuczinski on guitar. I caught most of an extended flight into Shorter-like territory, noteworthy for DeJohnette’s spatial patter on the drum set. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but I’ll catch the drummer at least once more over the weekend; I was eager to hear Gregoire Maret’s set across the way at the Night Club, so off I went.
To say that harmonica player Maret’s sound bears a resemblance to Toot’s Thielemans makes it distinctly different than anyone else. It’s a haunting sound, full within the limited confines of the instrument. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself in a small club in Paris, the sound wafting into a summer’s night. At first I thought Maret had trouble making the sound heard above his quartet, with Matt Brewer starting on electric bass and Clarence Penn on drums. I sensed a little uncertainty from the audience as well. Maret was the least-known performer of anyone I heard Friday, and the venue was only about half full to start. But as the set progressed, the sound balance was solved, and Maret seemed to find his audience – more people were sifting in, and more people were staying than leaving.
I thought the quartet worked best when pianist Shedrick Mitchell was given some room to stretch out. The harmonica is a small instrument; even Toots doubles on guitar (and he whistles, too). Stevie Wonder, whose “Secret Life of Plants” was the second number, sings and plays keyboards, among other things. So the more Mitchell expounded, the more Maret had to riff against. You could see the quartet working better on “The Man I Love,” and things really started cooking on the last two numbers. Brewer had switched to acoustic bass, and Penn had an effective drum solo on the penultimate number, with Maret soaring now, splashing riff after riff towards the growing audience. I don’t know what it would have been like to see Toots when he was in his twenties, but I surely got a sense that Maret was someone who will be a dominating voice on jazz harmonica for years to come.
I thought I would settle nicely into Eddie Palmieri’s closing set at the Arena, given the reports I’d heard from his concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He had a terrific band that included trumpeter Brian Lynch and trombonist Conrad Herwig. But somehow I just felt restless, or maybe I just needed to hear something new and different. A little voice inside was saying, “You really ought to hear Gregory Porter.” Now I am of an age where hearing little voices is not necessarily a good thing. But I wanted to find out what the fuss about Porter was all about – I’d heard him a little on the radio, mostly ballads that had a Johnny Hartman feel to them. But I was in for a revelation, if only for the last third of a set. I walked into a packed Night Club to hear him finish a rousing version of “Skylark.” Wearing what is apparently a trademark cap with earflaps, Porter has a vocal timbre that is somewhere between Hartman and Joe Williams. He had complete command of the audience, and he performed with a soulful funkiness that brought to mind Les McCann. His closing number was a recall of the Detroit riots, “1960 What” – yes, definitely a McCann influence here – which had the audience on its feet. There was no way they were going to let him leave, so back he came with a soulful “Water,” from his most recent CD.
That concluded a wonderful first night. More tomorrow with Trombone Shorty, Michael Wolff’s Cal Tjader band, Pat Metheny, Tony Bennett and more.
Photos courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
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/