Three years ago, when Monterey Jazz Festival artistic director Tim Jackson booked The Roots as a Saturday-night headliner, the house brimmed with delighted young fans, but hundreds of older folks streamed out of the arena. This year, when rapper Common took the stage Sunday afternoon, the boomers stayed put, cheering right along with the youngsters Jackson has been carefully attracting to Monterey.
What changed? Well, for starters, Common—wearing a T-shirt with the motto “We Built This Joint For Free” and drawing from his 2016 album Black America Again (Def Jam)—was spitting passionately about the same issues bassist Charles Mingus dealt with at Monterey 53 years ago in his fabled “Meditations on Integration” concert. What boomer’s heart doesn’t resonate with a line like “I’m keeping my eyes on the people, that’s the prize” (“The People”)?
Beyond that continuity about social justice, Common also spoke a musical language that drew from tradition. Amid the rapping, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who just four years ago had performed at Monterey as a high school student, spun silver coils with her solos and Common himself freestyled with the imaginative facility of a bebopper.
“Hip hop is the child of jazz culture,” said the 45-year-old artist. “We recognize that.”
Apparently, the enthusiastic Monterey crowd did, too. Give credit to Jackson’s ears for making the connections. Allhough the programming at this year’s fest celebrated the centennial birthdays of Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie—as well as nodding to Sonny Rollins—Jackson drew the tribute line there.
“I don’t want this to be a nostalgia festival,” Jackson said backstage. “I wanted to be sure we had new artists and fresh faces.”
Any presenter with a wad of cash can snatch a popular act off the Billboard charts, but thinking about how those acts relate to each other and their respective audiences, how those audiences interact and how the present and past can have a conversation is a much deeper challenge.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Jackson said.
That kind of thinking was evident in multiple ways during this year’s annual commission, by bassist John Clayton, a majestic big-band epic titled “Stories Of A Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration,” which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation.
Clayton, along with his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, and longtime associate, drummer Jeff Hamilton, served as this year’s Artists in Residence and performed Clayton’s work as members of the crackling Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO).
As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.
“I haven’t seen a commission the audience enjoyed as much since Gerald Wilson’s  ‘Theme For Monterey,’” observed Jackson, who added that the “family feeling” embodied by the Claytons (John’s brother Jeff was also on hand), is what Monterey is all about. “John is the natural heir apparent to Gerald.”
The dynamic between past, present—and future—was also neatly captured on an opening set by drummer Matt Wilson’s Carl Sandburg-inspired project, “Honey and Salt,” which featured guest recitations by Hamilton, John Clayton, Peter Erskine and Joe Lovano, as well as a solo spot by saxophonist Joel Frahm.
Wilson, with irrepressible humor, recited a startlingly appropriate line from Sandburg: “As wave follows wave, so new men take old men’s places”—which is precisely what has been happening at the festival.
Except that now women are an integral part of that story, too, which definitely makes the conversation more interesting. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, seen in Monterey in the past with trumpeter Dave Douglas, stepped out on the Garden Stage with material from her fine new album, Walk Against Wind (Biophilia), including the fetchingly asymmetrical “Speech Impediment,” which drew listeners into a mesmerizing musical realm.
Robust, gutsy alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, a game and informative participant in the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Dan Ouellette, delivered a splendid, celebratory set with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who soloed with blinding accuracy at Dizzy’s Den.
Veteran pianist Joanne Brackeen zig-zagged through two-handed, lickety-split lines but also let the crowd luxuriate in her warm reharmonization of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Violinist Regina Carter sparked John Beasley’s MONK’estra big band, devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk, with a touching solo on “Ask Me Now,” which featured five clarinets.
Fans of bluegrass, Latin and African music were invited to Monterey this year, as well, as mandolinist (and A Prairie Home Companion host) Chris Thile zipped through duets with pianist Brad Mehldau, Afropop vocalist Angélique Kidjo nodded to salsa, and pianist Chano Dominguez offered a fluidly dancing set tinged by flamenco.
A lot of events talk about creating a “big tent,” but Monterey not only puts up the tent, but has learned to help everyone get along inside of it.
“It’s intangible,” said Jackson. “But that’s what makes it easier for the potential magic.”
Vocalist Leslie Odom Jr. and rapper/singer Common were among those who were inaugural members of the MJF family. Odom, who won a Tony and a Grammy for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, delivered an effortless Nat “King” Cole medley that appealed to veteran MJF audience members. He also did three numbers from the smash musical that were more familiar to the ’tweens who were part of the enthusiastic crowd at his Saturday night set on the Jimmy Lyons Stage.
Common, who featured MJF Next Generation Jazz Orchestra alumnus Elena Pinderhughes on flute and vocals, delivered the kind of riveting set that has won him millions of fans from outside the hip-hop world.
An Oscar winner for his work on the soundtrack to Selma, Common acknowledged the presence of Herbie Hancock, who was seated in the front boxes. Hancock clapped—and at times even danced—enthusiastically and approvingly at the end of the charismatic musician/author/actor’s main-stage performance Sunday afternoon.
Hancock was, naturally, a major presence at the fest. The piano/synthesizer wizard performed two closing sets on the Jimmy Lyons stage—Friday with his own band and Sunday in an acoustic duet with fellow keyboard titan Chick Corea.
Multimedia presentations reminded attendees about MJF’s many legendary participants and also of other NGJO alumni, including Grammy-winning big band leader Gordon Goodwin and pianist Benny Green. Live tributes acknowledged the history of the #MJF60 (as this year’s MJF was referred to on social media), a few significant centennials and, in two instances, both.
Regina Carter performed on the Jimmy Lyons Stage on Friday evening with her Simply Ella tribute, one of many that have been presented to honor the centennial anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. The violinist drew upon material from her recent album, Ella: Accentuate The Positive (OKeh), and started with the title track. With joyful yet searching solos by pianist Xavier Davis and the bandleader, the tone was set for the remainder of a 50-minute program that would draw from Fitzgerald’s lesser-known tunes.
While introducing “Crying In The Chapel,” Carter broadcast a portion of Fitzgerald’s original recording on her smart phone. Guitarist Marvin Sewell provided a sleek, unaccompanied introduction that was followed by an extended exploration by Carter and an intense solo by Davis, who had switched to Fender Rhodes.
Bassist Chris Lightcap’s arrangement of “I’ll Never Be Free” was full of pathos and urgency, and Carter introduced “Judy” by explaining that a young Fitzgerald had performed the song at the Apollo Theater. The rhythm section received the spotlight at the end, with energetic solos by Davis, Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett.
A veteran of MJF icon Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, Kenny Barron followed Carter by presenting a tribute to his former bandleader’s centennial. With drummer Justin Faulkner and Barron’s regular bassist, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, the pianist led an all-star Gillespie group that included trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones and congueroPedrito Martinez.
Each of the special guests were showcased, and those catching the end of the set heard a masterful rendition of Gillespie’s “Manteca” that found the two trumpeters engaged in a lively conversation.
Though 2017 isn’t the 100th anniversary of his birth, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins did celebrate his 87th birthday eight days prior and is a past MJF favorite. (Gillespie and Rollins both participated in the inaugural MJF back in 1958, so it was only appropriate that both should be remembered on the Jimmy Lyons Stage with prime set times.)
Four of the leading tenors of their respective generations—Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and NGFO alumnus Joshua Redman—explored the Rollins songbook with pianist/Musical Director/MJF co-Artist-in-Residence Gerald Clayton, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash. The saxophonists played “Tenor Madness” together, with each doing a quartet number afterwards. (Marsalis tackled “Way Out West,” Lovano played “Paradox” and Redman dove into “Unit 7.”)
The elder statesman of the festival, 90-year-old Heath, spoke about his friend, whom he said he had met while he was in his early twenties and Rollins was still in his late teens. They still speak by phone two to three times a week, he revealed, before picking up his soprano saxophone and delivering an unexpected version of “’Round Midnight” that was a highlight of the entire weekend. He switched to tenor saxophone for the latter half of his sublime interpretation and brought the crowd to its feet.
Nash introduced the familiar rhythmic statement of “St. Thomas,” which Rollins himself performed during the final closing night main stage set back in 1997. The four tenors all took turns with rounds of brief solos, but the surprising MVP of this finale was Colley, whose solo built up a dramatic yet grooving tension before resolving itself magnificently.
Like his friend and fellow bop pioneer Gillespie, Thelonious Monk is being honored during his centennial year and was an active MJF participant, having been booked on four different occasions between the early ’60s and early ’70s. Pianist John Beasley’s MONK’estra big band was an ideal vehicle to do a deep dive into Monk’s influential compositions.
“I Mean You” (which appears on Beasley’s new Mack Avenue album, MONK’estra, Vol. 2) began with a punchy, modern feel before segueing into more recognizable sonic territory. Beasley stood in front to conduct the band and then moved to the piano to comp during trumpeter Brian Swartz’s shimmering solo.
For “Ugly Beauty,” Benjamin Shepherd substituted a six-string bass guitar for his usual contrabass, which, combined with Beasley’s swirling synthesizer, added a slightly psychedelic wooziness. Beasley provided a solo piano introduction to “Gallop’s Gallop” with drummer Terreon Gully’s brushwork and tenor saxophone Bob Sheppard’s soaring solo making the piece feel as if it had been borrowed from the swing era. “Criss Cross” had the jubilant feel of a dance number from the islands.
Carter and Beasley each sat in with each other’s bands during the fest. The MONK’estra’s rendition of “Ask Me Now” featured Carter, three clarinets and two bass clarinets to convey a noirish sentiment. Interpretations of “Brake’s Sake” and “Skippy” finished out the Sunday afternoon main-stage program with avalanches of inspired revelry.
Beasley’s MONK’estra proved that a trifecta of legendary source material, creative arrangements and top-flight instrumentalists is unbeatable.