May 27, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

All-star shows don’t really cut the mustard at Monterey Jazz Festival 2023: Video, Photos

More often than not, all-star shows don’t really cut the mustard – usually because the players haven’t played together beforehand, so there’s history but no chemistry.

The Monterey Jazz Festival (now in its 65th year) took a page from Jazz At The Philharmonic and put their all-stars on tour, with 25 shows in 12 states this year.

Herbie Hancock performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival
Let’s start with the lineup: MJF was fronted by tenor icon James Moody & superstar trumpeter Terence Blanchard, with occasional vocals by Nneena Freelon, with Ray Brown Trio pianist Benny Gren Benny Green as its musical director.While that show had great moments throughout, the focus was squarely on the festival’s history. How could it not, with the octogenarian Moody on the front line telling hilarious stories? Also, the number of chances the band took risks was in single digits – a reflection, I feel, of Green’s musically conservative nature.John Scofield performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

MJF started out looking threadbare on the front line because there was only one actual instrument: Lakecia Benjamin’s alto sax. No worries, though. Aside from the fact that Benjamin’s alto has (as we would find out later) more power than most SpaceX rockets, vocalists Kurt Elling and Veronica Swift easily became de facto horns by scatting us all into a spin on the rousing opener “Too Close for Comfort.” Dressed like he was off to a day at the Flat Track, Elling would follow that up with a stellar version of Harry “Sweets” Edison’s “Did You Call Her Today” that had Elling and Benjamin duking it out with happy abandon at the end.

Dianne Reeves performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Both Benjamin and Swift (who just joined the tour two shows ago, replacing DeeDee Bridgewater) looked the complete opposite of Elling; between Benjamin’s gold-and-silver Prince/P-Funk outfit and Swift’s floor-length blue-and-paisley kaftan, they both seemed prepped for the Monterey Pop Festival, not MJF ’65. But Swift needs to be seen live for the main reason that her recordings don’t come near to capturing her boundless energy and effervescent personality. She hit Louis Armstrong’s “Good Reviews” out of the park before literally calling up Gracie Slick at Monterey Pop with a knockout take on the Jefferson Airplane masterwork “White Rabbit.” Elling called Swift “The Future,” and I think he’s right.

While Swift can’t help but come off as genuine, Elling’s own stage persona is, frankly, anything but. Maybe I’ve heard his stories (or stories like the stories he told at UPH) too many times before, and while we’re not talking Las Vegas lounge act, there were moments when drummer Clarence Penn could have thrown in a rim shot, and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. That said, Elling is still one of the baddest vocalists on the planet, and his closing numbers showed he can still execute vocal gymnastics with Olympian style, particularly on a great reboot of Joe Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made” that let Elling pay tribute to the late Wayne Shorter and let bassist Yasushi Nakamura show off his ample chops.
Terri Lyne Carrington performing with Linda May Han Oh and Kris Davis performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

I’ve been following Lakecia Benjamin since I first saw her backing Charenee Wade’s Gil Scott-Heron project, and her career’s growth curve has looked like the aforementioned SpaceX rocket ever since. She joked that she was going to honor “one of the lesser-known members of the Monterey Jazz Festival – John Coltrane…” but her love for the iconic saxman is no joke, as anyone who’s heard her Ropeadope disc Pursuance: The Coltranes can tell you. Benjamin kickstarted her original “Trane” by making her alto sound like a baritone sax that had just been insulted and then proceeded to blow the place to musical smithereens. “Sheets of sound”? More like tarpaulins, you’d use to cover a baseball diamond, and the colors and angles in her solos were literally brain-bending! Benjamin’s volcanic performance got the first standing ovation of the evening.

Christian McBride and his New Jawn Quartet performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

“There’s only one word to describe Lakecia,” Sands informed us, just as flattened by Benjamin as we were. “That word is ‘Damn!’”

Sands did his level best to help Benjamin create chaos, but in his own super sweet way, and showed his history with a spot-on sub-reference of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” during his solo on “Trane.” Unlike Benny Green, whose musical efforts left me flat as a pancake on record and in concert, Christian Sands has developed the kind of adventurous spirit that reflects his time backing Christian McBride. His solos and counters did nothing but improve every piece he touched, and Sands followed his terrific story about meeting MJF legend Dave Brubeck with a version of “Strange Meadow Lark” that definitely came from the infinite heart of Christian Sands.
Samara Joy performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

It all ended with everyone onstage bringing their individual & collective spirit to Eddie Harris’ flag-waver “Compared To What.” In addition to their own solo spots, Penn & Nakamura laid down the adamantine foundation I’ve seen them knit for Dave Douglas, Maria Schneider, and many others. This let Sands focus on bringing his own singular sound to the badass-hits package that is MJF ’65, and on “Compared”, that base let everyone have a bagful of fun, especially the audience. Universal Preservation Hall is one of those many venues that got kneecapped by Lockdown. UPH not only survived but its main concert hall is kitted out with dynamite sound systems and one of the best lighting systems in the area. A full schedule of acts is well underway, including up-and-coming jazz keyboardist Connie Han on May 6th. I’ve always thought Saratoga Springs needed a year-round concert venue, and with a robust booking policy that matches the established houses in Albany, Universal Preservation Hall may just fit the bill. Four Stars! Joe Bob sez, “Check it out!”

The Charles Lloyd Quartet performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Ambrose Akinmusire performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Tal Wilkenfeld performing with Scary Goldings at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Jamie Cullum performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Oumou Sangare performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Verified by MonsterInsights