Jazzed in Monterey

Las Vegas Academy jazz band

Las Vegas Academy jazz band

The 59th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was this past weekend. It was three chilly nights and two blazing afternoons of jazz in the open-air rodeo arena at the county fairgrounds.

On Saturday afternoon Davina and the Vagabonds heated up the place. She referred to one of her tunes as heavy metal from the 1920s:

On Sunday afternoon in one of the half dozen side venues, the Las Vegas Academy jazz band, with the help of trumpeter Randy Brecker, provided an interlude. Brecker was performing with the Lew Tabackin Quartet:

It was what happened in between that mattered — Monterey Jazz No. 58



It began and ended with Clint Eastwood, but for the life of me I can’t come up with a decent metaphor for why that was or how it was at all apropos to what happened in between.

On Friday night the 58th annual Monterey Jazz Festival opened with Eastwood taking the stage to announce the opening act — a three piano homage to Erroll Garner’s “Concert by the Sea,” which took place 60 years ago in Carmel and accidentally became a jazz legend. Eastwood joked about being the former mayor of Carmel and glanced between the curtains to make sure who all the pianists were — Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Christian Sands.

From there it was non-stop jazz until Sunday night closed out with trumpeter Chris Botti’s soaring, sonorous high notes blowing the roof off the arena — or he would have if it had a roof — with cuts from Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” and duets with vocalist Sy Smith and violinist Caroline Campbell.

Eastwood was not on stage. As we exited from the rear of the arena, we spied the white-maned, craggy-faced, slightly stooped, casually attired actor-director milling among the shoppers at the merchandise booths that paralleled the arena.

It was what happened in between that counted.

This was our eighth MJF sojourn and it was one of the better ones. Largely absent were the “artists” who bend the genre’s famed improvisations into discordant beeps and grunts with all the melody of a traffic jam. There were no rap groups in a vain attempt to attract a younger audience. (Eastwood’s white mane hardly stood out in this crowd.) There was a paucity of attempts at electronic fusion that too often sound like screeching  cats with their tails caught under the rocker.

Even 75-year-old Chick Corea, whose experiments are known to stretch the boundaries of musicality, kept the music part of the music in mind in two separate appearances on the big Jimmy Lyons Stage in what appears to be a converted rodeo arena on the grounds of the Monterey County Fairgrounds.

On Friday night Corea mellowed out with the noted straight-ahead bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. Even his duet Sunday night with banjo player Bela Fleck sounded like a piano and bass duet, but with a little more twang and a soupçon of bluegrass.

The evenings this year were not as cold as they have been out on the peninsula but the afternoons in the aluminum bleachers topped 90 degrees to match the hot licks of Trombone Shorty on Saturday — with a two-minute, anatomically impossible trumpet blast (see below) — and Snarky Puppy on Sunday — whose staccato horns often sounded like part of the percussion section — and later 80-year-old percussionist Pete Escovedo with two of his sons and daughter Sheila E.

The evenings cooled down with the classic stylings of Dianne Reeves, who reminisced about being “Nine,” the last time you were in single digits, though she and we have hit more than a few double-digit nines since then.

Probably the highlight of the weekend was the ever ebullient Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra opening with Dave Brubeck’s classic up tempo “Blue Rondo,” though Botti did give the band a close chase. When the band joined in on violinist Campbell’s solo — “Skyfall,” I think — it sounded somewhat like the more uproarious parts of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

To appeal to that younger audience the festival as usual featured several college and high school all-star bands, which included the likes of the high school junior trumpet player who sat in front of us — courtesy of a ticket from one of his music teachers — during the Lincoln Center set, anxious to see idol Marsalis strut his stuff. He proudly proclaimed he had started playing in the fourth grade and was now playing at MJF58 — something a certain 9-year-old I know should keep in mind, speaking of “Nine.”

Sometimes a famous actor is just bookends.

A little bit of the Lincoln Center band:

A few other clips from off the web:

I could not find any Botti and Campbell video from MJF, but here is a sample from earlier in the year at another live performance. They also went into the audience in Monterey:

Reeves performing “Nine” from a year ago:

The difference between experiencing the live performances and watching these clips is the difference between being drenched in a thunderstorm and tip-toeing across the morning dew.









Don’t abandon the faithful in a futile bid for a younger audience

Perhaps there is a metaphor in here somewhere for newspapers in general and the new publisher of the Las Vegas newspaper in particular.

We just returned from the 57th annual Monterey Jazz Festival. The program has a feature story titled “Big House With Many Rooms” that carried the subhed: “Rebuilding jazz for a new century.”

The article talked about the younger generation of musicians and the evolution of the century-old genre called jazz. It prominently featured Saturday night’s big attraction in the main arena: The Roots. The Roots weren’t jazz, they weren’t music, they were rap. We walked out near the end of the first “song” and listened to a piano driven quartet in one of the side venues. We feared that would be the case but gave the band a chance.

The Roots

We also walked out of two of the arena acts on Friday night — left the Robert Glasper Experiment when the singer’s voice came screeching from some sort of synthesizer and fled the venerable Herbie Hancock when the only sounds coming from his keyboards were as melodic as a cat with its tail caught in the wringer.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with experimentation and innovation — that is how jazz got its name. But it still should be music. You don’t one day decide to publish the newspaper in pig latin.

We loved the off-beat, belted-out blues of Davina and the Vagabonds and were sorry we only got to hear a couple of tunes from Red Baraat, a group from the Indian province of Brooklyn whose leader, Sunny Jain, encouraged the audience to do a Punjabi fist jab to the beat of their music. Also enjoyed Australian singer-pianist Sarah McKenzie on the Garden stage, as well as SambaDa’s Brazilian tunes.

Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MGs fame was still innovating but playing actual musical notes.

Jon Batiste & Stay Human rocked the arena with New Orleans-style stage antics and a parade around the arena while playing the melodica.

Marcus Miller’s band played a tune called Blast, which was influenced by a recent trip to Istanbul. (Sorry, Marcus, Dave Brubeck did that 50 years ago.)

Michael Feinstein closed out the festival on Sunday in the arena with “The Sinatra Project” — not imitating Sinatra but singing and playing Ol’ Blue Eyes his way. He did a Cole Porter tune that Sinatra never performed during his collaboration with Nelson Riddle in the Riddle style. Speaking of the next generation, Feinstein was backed by the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, made up of high school musicians.

Newspapers are running celebrity gossip, social media rip-offs and lengthy features about youth trends, fashion and so-called music. At least the Las Vegas newspaper has nearly given up on blogs. Haven’t received a “Columns and Blogs” email notice since Aug. 15.

When you go seeking a new, younger audience, be careful to not alienate the faithful.

Jon Batiste & Stay Human

Jon Batiste & Stay Human

Here are a few bootleg videos grabbed off YouTube:

Booker T. without the MGs:

Davina and the Vagabonds:

Red Baraat:


Charles Lloyd:

Jon Batiste & Stay Human (that’s us in the stands at the back of the arena behind the guy in the red shirt):

Michael Feinstein:


Brothers carrying on the legacy of their jazz great father

This past weekend we attended another Monterey Jazz Festival and saw an awesome array of jazz talent, but, as often is the case, my favorite performance was in one of the little cabaret-sized venues and not in the big arena.

A number of times during various performances, artists made fond references to Dave Brubeck, who died during the past year. We saw him perform in Monterey a couple of years ago.

But the biggest tribute was in a little room dubbed “The Nightclub” where the Brubeck Brothers Quartet played. The group includes Brubeck sons Dan (drums) and Chris (bass and trombone and spokesman) along with guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb.

Chris told little stories about what inspired his father’s various tunes. Kathy’s Waltz was for a sister and another was for their mother. The story behind Blue Rondo a la Turk, according to Chris Brubeck, is that President Eisenhower convinced his father to do a good will tour of the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. Chris suggested Ike must have considered musicians expendable, but all of those places are much safer now. The rapid beat of Blue Rondo — starting out in an usual 9/8 time — was inspired by the music Dave Brubeck heard while touring.

The quartet is coming to the Smith Center Cabaret at the end of November. We’ve already got tickets.

The Smith Center posted a video sample of the quartet:

Here is a video of Dave Brubeck performing Blue Rondo: