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Review of the Festival by Chris Walker

Monterey Jazz Festival 2018, number 61 was similar to previous years—simply extraordinary! With the general population and culture currently focused on women’s achievements, contributions and issues, one could say it was the Year of The Woman at the three-day event as well. In truth, the amount of females performing at MJF seems to increase every year. Two out of three of the yearly banner appointments went to the ladies in 2018. They were Artists in Residence-Tia Fuller & Ingrid Jensen and Jazz Legend & Showcase Artist-Dianne Reeves. The MJF Commission Artist-Oscar Hernandez & The Spanish Harlem Orchestra w/Hubert Laws performed Monterey Encounter (A Latin Jazz Suite For Flute). 

In the main arena Fuller-alto sax and Jensen-trumpet used their “creative capital” to play tribute to their highly respected colleague, pianist, arranger, composer and educator Gerri Allen who sadly passed away in 2017. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an “all women” affair, with Kris Davis-keyboards, Robert Hurst-bass and Maurice Chestnut-DJ/dancer joining the co-leaders, along with Terri Lyne Carrington-drums and Shamie Royston-keyboards. Together they played solidly and emotionally to a backdrop montage that included video clips and photos of Allen. Additionally, Fuller, Jensen and Ora Harris, Allen's manager for the last 20 years discussed her musical legacy with journalist Suzan Jenkins hosting.

If that wasn’t enough, the Artists in Residence, as is customary, performed with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra featuring the most talented upcoming college musicians from around the U.S. Jensen and Fuller interacted with the NGJO for a hard-jamming original and a piece by the trumpeter depicting an island getaway. Furthermore, the saxophonist and trumpeter also respectively led their own ensembles. Jensen directed an ensemble that included her sister, Christine (from Stockholm, Sweden) playing saxophone that opened with modern band jamming “Blue Yonder” and later showcased the saxophonist’s moderately driving “Swirl Around” featuring her soloing and engaging the band. While Fuller, also with her sister Shamie Royston headed the conceptional   Diamond Cut who played suite-like piece based on the characteristics of diamonds that was explosive, probing and reflective, while also showcasing the bandleader and group.

Reeves was vibrant as ever, first on the main stage with her regular band extraordinarily scatting away on Pat Metheny’s energetic and melodic Amazon River influenced “Minuano (Six Eight),” and later vamped away on Oscar Brown, Jr.’s blues/urban themed “As Long as You’re Living.” She also was featured In Conversation with author/journalist Ashley Kahn and back on the main stage for a Tribute to Ray Brown with the Christian McBride, Benny Green and Gregory Hutcherson Trio that also included John Patitucci and John Clayton to amazingly sing ballad “The Nearness Of You.” Finally, on a smaller stage Reeves debuted her new project Beleza (beauty of) Brazil with Peter Martin-piano and Romero Lubambo-guitar from her regular band, along with Itaiguara Brandão-bass and Rafael Barata-drums.

Other women excelling on stage were the MJF on Tour 60th Anniversary Edition, featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant-vocals, Bria Skonberg-trumpet/vocals and Melissa Aldana-sax with Christian Sands-piano/Musical Director, Jamison Ross-drums/vocals and Yasushi Nakamura-bass. They had a highly eclectic set that featured Salvant doing a dire wife killing English folk song a cappella and blues standard “That Spoonful” lightly jazzed up, Skonberg cheeringly singing Valaida Snow’s trad classic “High-Hat, Trumpet And Rhythm,” along with very male Ross singing a soulful ballad to delight the audience. The women additionally participated in Women in Jazz Part II, The Conversation Continues with Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller and Suzan Jenkins moderating.

Continuing, flautist/composer and 2014 Guggenheim Fellow Jamie Baum Septet+ was robust and also quite flowing for lively swinging and intellectual selections. Virtuosic reedist Anat Cohen and her Tentet showcased newest CD suite-like Happy Song in its entirety and more, while also spotlighting guitarist Sheryl Bailey to thoroughly impress the audience. Thumbscrew consisting of Tomas Fujiwara-drums, Michael Formanek-bass and emerging guitarist Mary Halvorson explored avant-garde and fusion with fans and curiosity-seekers in attendance. 

Master reedist Jane Ira Bloom brilliantly worked with her own quartet and also played beautiful duets with pianist Fred Hersch, who also performed solely and with his trio. A major MJF highlight was Norah Jones with Brian Blade-drums and Christopher Thomas-bass rekindling their relationship going back to the singer’s multi-platinum first album in 2002 and is also the focus of the recent DVD Live at Ronnie Scotts. From a vastly different standpoint, Thornetta Davis’ singing was a blues clinic bolstered by a scorching band for “Gotta Sing The Blues” and “Wild Women Never Get The Blues.” Pianist/singer Tammy L. Hall’s Peace-tet was hot swinging jazz with a dose of gospel through special guest, vocalist Kim Nalley. Country maverick Lucinda Williams injected her twangy vocals and personal poetry to Charles Lloyd & the Marvels mix of wrangling rock, airy fusion and jazzy blues.

In the realm of world music renowned Canadian reedist Jane Bunnett has created a musical triangle with her homeland, America, and Cuba to showcase Latin (Cuban) music and presented Maqueque an all-women ensemble. Percussionist Marcie Chapa who worked in pop diva Beyoncé’s first all-female band, played with Jay Z, Alicia Keys, J Lo, Jill Scott, Al Jarreau and many others led The Youth Orchestra of Salinas (YOSAL) Bucket Band. LADAMA a vocal/percussive quartet comprised of women from Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia and the U.S. with a bass player supporting, merged cumbia, maracatu, onda nueva, joropo, R&B and pop into their own unique music.

Lesser known and deserving attention, Bay Area saxophonist Kristen Strom did a tribute to recently departed bassist, composer and friend John Shifflett (1955-2017). Los Angeles’ Katie Thiroux led a trio singing and playing bass with pianist Justin Kauflin and drummer Matt Witek for originals and standards. Lisa Mezzacappa an adventurous bassist, composer and bandleader also from the Bay Area presented avantNOIR consisting of compositions based on noir fiction from New York and LA detective stories from ‘30s. 

Veronica Swift was second place in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in 2015 and since then has appearing around the country and headlined the Telluride Jazz Festival in 2016. Japanese trumpeter Aya Takazawa made her first appearance at MJF in 2013 with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet in Noto Japan, played with Delfeayo Marsalis's Uptown Jazz Orchestra and this year was her official MJF debut with a quintet. Locally, sisters Akili-trumpet and Ayana-piano Bradley came up through MJF’s education programs to play in a variety of high school and all-star bands that prepared them for leading their own Bradley Quintet.

As for the men performing there was José James doing a tribute to soul legend Bill Withers, Jon Batiste did a set with the Dap-Kings but didn’t mention recently departed singer Sharon Jones who fronted the band. Highly regarded saxophonist Michael Brecker was celebrated, featuring top-notch group of players, friends and family with Randy Brecker-trumpet, Gil Goldstein-accordion, Donny McCaslin-sax, Antonio Sanchez-drums, John Patitucci-bass, and Adam Rogers-guitar, who earlier also participated in MJF Conversation Series: The Legacy of Michael Brecker. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra performed Spaces, his ballet suite dedicated to animal and insect characteristics incredibly interpreted through dance by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts.

Other large ensembles, besides the multitude of college and high school bands representing were the No BS! Brass Band and John Santos Unusual Standards with Destani Wolf & Kenny Washington. In quintet and quartet formats Wadada Leo Smith unveiled his somewhat abstract America’s National Parks that incorporated pictures from various national parks. Will Vinson’s Quartet at times resembled Keith Jarrett’s ‘70s work with Dewey Redman. Gary Meek’s Quintet was solid and tastefully rendered the saxophonist’s originals mostly with Akili Bradley supporting on trumpet. Contrarily, Donny McCaslin’s Group was similar to his former employer David Bowie and intensely rocked out.

There was also a bit of a Guitar Fest within MJF with four very different guitar-led groups happening. Bay Area-based Hristo Vitchev’s Quartet was the first of the four strummers to play with appealing early Pat Metheny-like fusion. Julian Lage also from the SF region had a more straightforward akin to a Pat Martino meets Jim Hall style. While New York-based Adam Rogers & Dice, who studied under John Scofield leaned more toward his mentor’s funk, blues and fusion identity. Contrarily, Bill Frisell was much more eclectic going from country to atmospheric soundscapes with some jazz thrown in.

Notably, outside of Oscar Hernandez & The Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Jane Bunnett’s all-female Cuban group Maqueque, there wasn’t much Latin Jazz happening at MJF 2018. Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa’s Trio was the only other geniune genre representative and shined brightly dazzling the audience with astonishing playing and intriguing melodies from his homeland.

Making up for the Latin jazz deficit were funk, R&B and gospel oriented groups, KNOWER, Gabriel Royal, Cameron Graves, The Baylor Project and Mwenso & the Shakes, who were in the world music camp. The other sub-category was organ jazz through the Bobby Floyd Trio, Dvon Lamarr’s Organ Trio, and the current grand master of the instrument, Joey DeFrancesco (also sings and plays trumpet) & the People. Pianist Addison Frei greeted MJF attendees on the Courtyard Stage and icon Dave Grusin did a special solo showcase.

Coinciding with the music were MJF’s exceptional expanded ancillary events, such as DownBeat Blindfold Test with John Clayton, Wynton Marsalis in Conversation with Don Was, Blue Note Listening Session with Don Was, Charles Lloyd in Conversation with Don Was, José James in Conversation with Don Was, Drum Talk with Brian Blade & Eric Harland and Guitar Talk with Bill Frisell & Julian Lage. 

Furthermore there were screening of documentaries Not Enough Time that focused on Grusin, and Two Trains Runnin’ paid tribute to musicians and music integral to the Civil Rights Movement past and present. Rounding it all out was the exhibit: The Color of Jazz: Album cover photographs by Pete Turner that were superb. Overall, MJF 2018 was another total immersion into jazz music; culture and history that makes you hunger for more.

For more info go to:

Dianne Reeves

Christian McBride

Jon Batiste

Norah Jones

Tia Fuller / Ingrid Jensen

Oscar Hernández

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Charles Lloyd