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Monterey Jazz

Touring the Mother Road

THE MONTEREY ANNUAL JAZZ FESTIVAL 60TH ANNIVERSARY

by Christopher J. Walker


The Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 60th anniversary milestone by doing what it does best—assembling an unbelievable lineup of amazing artists. Six stages and the newly added Blue Note at Sea Tent were all going simultaneously for the 2017 edition. The chances of seeing all the performers was virtually impossible, even with some of them doing more than one set in different settings. Nonetheless, nearly 40,000 attendees happily enjoyed the superb musicians and the MJF “aura” over the three-day event.

Opening on the Jimmy Lyons Stage (main arena) violinist Regina Carter, the MJF 2017 Showcase Artist, who celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth with a crowd-pleasing country swing set.

Vocalists always make a strong impression at MJF and for 2017 rising star Alicia Olatuja presented a delightful mix of gospel, R&B and jazz. Kandace Springs, also a pianist/keyboardist showed she’s more than a “pretty face” with an expansive showcase that included Brazilian gem “How Insensitive,” standard “Lush Life” and funk/rock/soul classic “The World is a Ghetto” boosted by drummer Angelo Spampinato blowing the audience away.

Making the biggest impression of all the up and coming singers was Leslie Odom Jr., former co-star of Broadway musical sensations Hamilton and Rent. Although MJF is far removed from the bright lights of Broadway physically and musically, he adapted remarkably well. Included in his mix of styles were a Nat King Cole medley and a cappella “Forever Young,” with of course, songs from the musicals he was in.


Veteran vocalists Roberta Gambarini and Dee Dee Bridgewater gave clinics on finesse, timing and song selection. Gambarini focused on standards and honored icons Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath with a topnotch trio consisting of Tamir Hendleman-piano, Chuck Berghofer-bass and Joe LaBarbera-drums. Bridgewater, on the other hand, departed from jazz for homage to where she was born with classic R&B laden The Memphis Project bolstered by a large ensemble with brass and backup singers that included Prince’s “Purple Rain” as an encore.

Alternately, blues man Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child” rocked the main arena singing soulfully and wailing on guitar to songs by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and original “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business” featuring him strutting on stage. He also played “Mrs. Jones I Got to Leave You Alone” in the audience to thoroughly engage everyone. Monsieur Periné from Columbia didn’t play blues and instead offered an exciting mix of jazz, pop, rock and cumbia fronted by lead singer Catalina Garcia.

Besides Carter there were other women on the instrumental front. The Tia Fuller Quintet included Fuller-saxophone, Ingrid Jensen-trumpet and Shamie Royston-piano (her sister), James Genus-bass and Clarence Penn-drums. Fuller sang classic “Body And Soul” and Rudy Royston-drums (brother-in-law) joined them for a super hot Spanish themed tune and turned in a monster solo.

Bassist Linda May Han Oh made her Monterey debut as leader with her quintet, Ben Wendel-saxophone, Matthew Stevens-guitar, Fabian Almazan-keyboards and Rudy Royston-drums. Her music was expansive and all originals with guitar and saxophone trading off lead roles, while bass and drums laided down rock-solid foundations. Oh, though was prominent and leading for “Fire Dancer,” and sang phonetically for “Speech Impediment.”

The Joanne Brackeen Trio consisting of Brackeen-piano, Ugonna Okegwo-bass and Rudy Royston-drums was a bit “old school” compared to the other women bandleaders. She led off with a straightforward version of “Green Dolphin Street” featuring herself. Afterwards, she played similarly structured originals and coolly interacted with her players.

Artist-In-Residence, pianist Gerald Clayton with his trio, Joe Sanders-bass and Obed Calvaire-drums, took the audience on an engrossing sonic journey. It entailed post-bop, gospel and chamber jazz intertwined with compositions from his latest CD Tributary Tales. Clayton’s trio also played with his father, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton who were the other 2017 Artists-in-Residence selectees as well as leaders of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. With the other big band members they showcased the bassist’s all encompassing MJF Commission work Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. Injected into the composition was a highly appealing drum duel between Hamilton and Calvaire, along with a ballad, featuring saxophonist Jeff Clayton. 

Somewhat related to the big band was MONK’estra created and led by keyboardist John Beasley, who celebrated Thelonious Monk’s Centennial Anniversary with rip-roaring renditions of Monk’s timeless compositions. Complimenting the performance beautifully for a segment was violinist Regina Carter. The Sonny Rollins Tribute was overwrought with great playing from saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman and a rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton-piano, Scott Colley-bass and Lewis Nash-drums. Monk’s thematic “Round Midnight” and Rollin’s rollicking “St. Thomas” were among the numbers featuring everyone turning in great solos.

The Roger Fox Big Band from England was in a class all their own with special guest bluesman Chris Cain. He tore it up on guitar and vocals for “I’m Going to Leave You” and several big band charts including “Sidewalk Stanley.” Additionally, the group played traditional big band music featuring baritone sax playing from Eilish Wilson, along with Erna Fairy playing harmonica and singing bluesy “Someday Baby, Someday Maybe” and pop hit “Misty Blue.”

For more standard groupings saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Classic Quartet with Lawrence Fields-piano, Peter Slavov-bass and Larry Istrefi-drums replicated Coltrane’s classic sound during the early to mid ‘60s through expanded pieces and ballads. Bay Area organist Chester Thomson who had long tenures with Tower of Power and Santana performed hard-bop and soulful pieces with his sextet to the delight of the local attendees.

Bringing international flair to MJF was pianist Chano Dominquez originally from Spain with his trio made up of Jeff Johnson-bass and John Bishop-drums. They dazzled listeners with intense interplay and flamenco flair for Miles Davis’ “Freddy The Freeloader” and other pieces.  American-born and of Indian decent keyboardist/arranger Vijay Ilyer’s sextet was robust, dense and somewhat avant-garde with fiery solos overflowing.

Jazz super-star pianists Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock first met in the late ‘60s and in recent years toured as a duet. They reprised that relationship for a fanciful set that showcased both collective and individual brilliance. It included standards and originals from each of them, including Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and Corea’s “Spain.” It prompted the audience to clap along for a grand finish for 2017 MJF.

Not to be forgotten was rapper Common, who performed earlier and surprisingly was very well received, especially with the younger audience constituents. The Chicago-based rapper who worked with a full band and backup singers launched into a foray of social injustice and racial inequality songs with “Black Maybe,” “Get Em High” and “Glory” from the film Selma.

MJF 2017 attendees looking for a break from music had plenty of choices such as: The Downbeat Blindfold Test with Tia Fuller, individual Monterey Jazz Conversations with Jimmy Heath, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Interview with Wayne Shorter, Kandace Springs and Joe Lovano. Additionally, there was a Women In Jazz Panel with Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jensen, Exploring The Bass With John Clayton, Derrick Hodge and Don Was, along with screenings of I Call Him Morgan, Chick Corea: The Musician. Get ready for MJF 2018 by going to: www.montereyjazzfestival.org