Whether your taste is mainstream or cutting edge, contemporary or the blues, small groups or large bands, you can take your choice. In addition, you can hear a famous jazz veteran or check out up-and-coming young talent. They are all there to be seen in several venues over three days and nights packed with music. This year, September 16-18, a record crowd of 40,000 attested to the fact that, in its 48th year, the MJF was the greatest.
This year, belying the old saw that youth must be served, it was two legendary figures who were the big hits Sonny Rollins and Tony Bennett.
Rollins, 75, one of the greatest on tenor sax for the last half-century, was coming back to Monterey for his first appearance since 1958, and he hardly showed his age. Improvising for minutes on end, his solos were creative gems. On ballads, Clifton Anderson’s trombone laid down a soft cushion for his intricately beautiful reshaping of "They Say that Falling in Love is Wonderful." He finished his set with one of his buoyant Calypso numbers which had the audience on its feet shuffling in time, clapping and shouting.
On Saturday night, popular singer Tony Bennett, who looks a decade or two younger than his 79 years, thrilled the audience, really displaying his "jazz chops" for the "hip" crowd. He sang for a hour; numbers ranged from "The Best Is Yet to Come" to "I Got Rhythm." Scat singing and trading licks with guitarist Gary Sargent and drummer Hal Jones, he sounded like he could not have been happier to be at Monterey. With so many Bay area attendees, he brought the arena crowd to its feet with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and, a little later in a serendipitous moment, the moon peeked through cloud cover just as he began "Fly Me to the Moon." It was that kind of night for him.
Among the young bloods, tenor man Branford Marsalis excelled Sunday night with his high-powered quartet, particularly on the closing number, "Black Elk Speaks," a volume based on Native American history. After reading the book, bassist Eric Nevis composed the piece in anger over the unjust treatment of tribes. His feeling came across in a scorching performance by all. One has rarely heard such raw emotion expressed in music. Marsalis, Nevis, pianist Joey Calderozzo and drummer Jeff Watts all left the stage exhausted with no more to give.
Other jazz giants came back to the festival after years away John Handy, whose quintet highlighted the 1965 festival, reformed his group for the occasion. Again age was no impediment. At 69, Handy on alto in tandem with Carlos Reyes on violin ignited the audience, the two face-to-face exchanging choruses. Likewise , pianist-arranger-composer Carla Bley came back to the area where she got her start in the 50s as a teenager. This time the prodigal was honored with a commission to write an orchestral score. We didn’t hear her with the big band but were really impressed Friday with her small Lost Chord group and her off-beat arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner" performed in the indoor Bill Berry Stage.
One problem (a good one to have) is that there are a lot of venues to go to the large outdoor Arena Stage and smaller Garden Stage, and, indoors, Dizzy’s Den, Bill Berry Stage and Starbuck’s Coffee House Gallery. With so many events running concurrently, we couldn't possibly see all the performers we would like to.
We especially like the intimate Gallery because we're up close to the players, better to appreciate the exquisite interplay of a duo, such as pianist Benny Green and guitarist Russell Malone. As well in the Gallery we pleasantly came on young vocalist Natasha Miller, who has taken the songs of Bobby Sharp (writer of the Ray Charles’ hit, "Unchain My Love") and singularly revived them. It was particularly captivating to see her and the 81-year-old Sharp sing a duet.
As always at Monterey, Saturday afternoon is time for the blues. On the Garden Stage, we had a ball listening to the soulful blues shouters Sharon Jones and Mavis Staples. Later, in the evening on the Garden Stage we were impressed with newcomer Madeleine Peyroux, who seems to channel Billie Holiday in her unique vocal style.
The festival featured a bevy of fine contemporary guitarists Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, John Scofield and Pat Matheny. They all played to enthusiastic crowds. We didn’t get a chance to see each in full sets, but we especially liked Ritenour Sunday afternoon. With the help of Ernie Watts on tenor, Dave Grusin, keyboards, and Partrice Rushen, piano, the funkiest of grooves were maintained throughout the set.
Sunday afternoon was also given over to young high school players gathered in an all-star band playing beside Branford Marsalis. Along with presenting fine music, MJF’s goal is to raise money for jazz scholarship, and, with big help from sponsor MCI, the festival has contributed millions of dollars to young musicians over the years.
As the festival wound down, we realized that we hadn’t had a chance to get over to Dizzy’s Den and see John Scofield’s "Uberjam" band, nor to Bill Berry Stage to see the Christian McBride Situation to name just a couple groups we missed. Well, there is always next year.