Charles Lloyd, Shawn Colvin, the Roots, and More: The 57th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Youth must be served, and age must be honored. This year’s Monterey Jazz Festival managed to do both, with admirable ambition, and demographic and musical diversity that engaged without pandering.
Twenty-five year old vocal wunderkind Cecile McLorin Salvant opened Friday night at the Jimmy Lyons Arena, an auspicious venue in which to make her MJF debut. She performed standards including “Yesterdays,’’ “The Trolley Song’’ made famous by Judy Garland and, surprisingly, “The Step Sisters Lament’’ from Cinderella. (She said she loved the TV version, with Brandy, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg.) Savalnt’s multi-octave range recalled Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. She made each song unmistakeably her own, though, segueing into “Guess Who I Saw Today” — a tale of marital infidelity whose lamenting, world-weary lyrics she might seem too young to identify with. This is a young woman with an old soul, and her rendition was indelible. It was a back-and-forth set between “musical theater,’’ as Salvant called it, and cabaret, so when she launched into “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,’’ I vamoosed to see Charles Lloyd at Dizzy’s Den, named for the late, great Mr. Gillespie.
I didn’t regret it. Saxophonist/flutist Lloyd first burst on the national jazz scene in 1966 with an unforgettable performance of “Forest Flower’’ at Monterey that was recorded (without his knowledge) by uber-engineer Wally Heider. He has been back several times, but this year he was deservedly named the 2014 Jazz Legends Gala honoree. At 76 years young, he showed no visible signs of slowing down at Dizzy’s. The venue was overheated, as usual, but so was Lloyd. Accompanied by tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland (who doubled on piano, beautifully), Lloyd was in full sax flight when I arrived, engaging with the rapt crowd in the elaborate polyrhythmic variations of “Sangham,’’ their 2006 album of the same name. As one critic described it for About Jazz: “This album captures the three grooviest motherfuckers in the world, all playing perfectly.’’ No kidding.
When the beaming Lloyd put down his horn, it was time for Hussain, and then Harland to take off, before Charles came back in again, this time on flute.
At this point in his career, Lloyd, who took a hiatus from the jazz scene for awhile to collect his thoughts and priorities and rusticate in Big Sur, can be safely compared to saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins, who also walked away from the scene for awhile, practicing quietly on the Brooklyn Bridge. We are lucky they are still willing to share their Buddhist beatitudes with the rest of us.
That was the high point Friday. I checked out a bit of the highly hyped Robert Glasper Experiment – too synthesized for me, though tastes differ. I heard Jason Moran sat in with them later, which probably improved things. More to my liking, again on the old timers front, was piano veteran Harold Mabern, who regaled Coffee House listeners with tales of storming Birdland (he lived around the corner) with Sonny Stitt, who walked in the door carrying an alto and tenor saxophone, “like Wyatt Earp.’’
No flies on Harold, as he performed “Mr. Stitt,’’ a song for Sonny, and , perhaps surprisingly, “Through the Fire,’’ written by David Foster for Chaka Khan. Just as I was leaving, I caught Red Baraat, an absolutely wild eight-piece band based in Brooklyn that combines North India bhangra rhythms with jazz, hip-hop, go-go, and brass funk, according to their website. Everyone was up, sweating, dancing, and down with protest tunes like “Halla Bol’’ (“Raise Your Voice”).
Saturday afternoon, things picked up again with the triumphant return of Booker T. Jones to Monterey. Jones’s’ band played the M.G.’s venerable hit “Green Onions,’’ first recorded in 1962 when he was still in high school. He recalled being booked by Bill Graham after some European gigs and being escorted to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 by a phalanx of Hells Angels.
Things were understandably blurry backstage, but Jones recalled seeing a musician he’d last met when he was a sideman for the Isley Brothers: Jimi Hendrix. At 69, Booker has no need for pyrotechnics, but he summoned the spirit of his musical brother in an effectively down tempo version of “Hey Joe’’ – “heading down South to Mexico, where a man can be free.” And, he offered a deliciously slow, soulful version of “A Song For You’’ by Leon Russell, whom he said he crashed with in L.A. when Russell was writing the tune.
Deep breaths, and then it was time for Austin guitar slinger Gary Clark Jr., who summoned up Jimi’s spirit in a different way, shrieking and soaring (though he didn’t get around to burning his ax). Felt like it took a little while for Clark to warm up but when he got there, on tunes like “You’re Gonna Know My Name,’’ “Black and Blue’’ and “Please Come Home,’’ it was worth the wait.
Monterey is a bad festival for anyone suffering under FOMO (or with a less than iron constitution), so it was a hard call whether to check out Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Garden Party at the Garden Stage or pianist phenom Aaron Diehl’s debut at the Arena with a commissioned tribute to Modern Jazz Quartet leader and former Jazz Festival musical director John Lewis, at the Arena. We did a little of both, catching Moran, nattily clad in a purple suit and checked cap. He was telling stories of the times Fats was kidnapped and made to play for Al Capone. A papier mache bust of Waller by the Haitian artist Didier Civil graced the front of the stage, as Moran exhorted the crowd to show their enthusiasm: “The man’s been dead a long time, let him hear you.”
We caught ripe performances of “Lulu’s Back In Town,’’ “Honeysuckle Rose,’’ and “Ain’t Misbehavin’’ before splitting to catch Diehl. (We’d run into the pianist’s proud father, by coincidence, earlier in the evening, outside one of the food vendors – the Jazz Festival is that kind of a place). Diehl took some of the solemnity out of the occasion by asking the crowd how many of them got there early just to get good seats for the Roots, the closing act. “It’s all right, that’s why I’m here,” he allowed, before launching into lovely tunes like “Generation Y’’ and “Stop and Go.’’ He also featured the great vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist Peter Wong, and drummer Peter Van Nostrand. “Three Streams of Expression,’’ the tribute to Mr. Lewis, was tasteful and moving.
As the skies darkened and the crowd sank into reflection, we were greeted by Billy Childs, whose star-studded CD, Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro has already been written about eloquently on this site by Rob Caldwell. It was a bittersweet tribute – Nyro, too, had been there at the fateful Monterey Pop Festival, but apparently was upset at what she felt was a less-than-enthusiastic reception from the crowd craving psychedelia.
That was far from the case Saturday night, as a crowd of Nyro fans and jazz lovers listened to pianist Billy Childs respectfully talk about her immense influence on him as a musician and composer. By the time he introduced a trio of vocalists – Becca Stevens, Shawn Colvin and Lisa Fischer — you could literally hear a pin drop, notwithstanding the occasional sound of planes flying overhead, a ritual Monterey fans have become used to.
Before introducing Colvin, Childs said her initial tune, “And When I Die,’’ was the first song Nyro wrote, an impossible standard to match.
I’d been on a news blackout all weekend – my copy of the Times hadn’t arrived, and I’d deliberately not checked it out online – so it felt like a shock to the nervous system when Childs introduced a song he said Nyro wrote in response to “everything that was going on in the ‘60s’’ – the assassinations of King and Kennedy and the anguish about the war, which he said, forty years later, was still sadly relevant to what’s going on in this country now.
Accompanied by the quiet eloquence of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, Colvin ripped the heart and soul out of the tune. We were away from the madness of the world, at least for the moment:
Come on, people
Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers.
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love.
Nothing could top that emotional moment. But Lisa Fischer, famed for her back-up work on “Gimme Shelter’’ and her recent role in 20 Feet from Stardom did her damndest, with a rendition of “Map To The Treasure,’’ and then, in closing, a swinging “Stoned Soul Picnic’’ that left the crowd begging for more.
They got it, unexpectedly, from the Roots, who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in subtlety. They brought the younger crowd to their feet, even as some of the older jazz buffs headed for the exits. I thought it worked, and was perhaps the closest thing to the kinetic excitement of Monterey Pop in the entire weekend.
I had to hit the lonesome road, regretfully, but the festival ended Sunday night with a prime time performance by Charles Lloyd, who will play the SF Jazz Center with his Sangham trio on Oct. 10th an d 11th. There are still more exciting performances coming up on the Central Coast, with Philip Glass’ Days and Nights Festival in Carmel, Big Sur and Cal State Monterey Bay’s Cinematic Arts Studio in Seaside Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 25-28. The minimalist master is scheduled to perform with, among others, cellist Matt Haimovitz, violinist Tim Fain and Jaron Lanier, the musician and “virtual reality’’ inventor who’s made a sharply critical turn against the electronic brave new world.
It’s a place where new talents are recognized, and older voices find replenishment, to make sense of the senseless and bring people together when circumstances seemingly pull us apart.
So, that’s the report. Sorry, folks, that it’s gone on so long. Had I more time, as they say, I would have written you a shorter letter. I just wish you were there with me, in Monterey.
Montereyjazzfestival.org / Sfjazz.org / Daysandnightsfestival.org