More than 50 percent of the Monterey festival program this year boasted women leaders or side players.
Jazz festival review
Monterey, Calif. — There was a time when jazz groups led by women were considered a novelty. How refreshing, then, that it felt absolutely normal when tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and trumpeter Bria Skonberg came out to front a band that will go on tour to advertise the riches of the Monterey Jazz Festival (Seattle date: April 7, 2019).
More than 50 percent of the Monterey festival program this year boasted women leaders or side players — not just singer/pianists like Norah Jones, who concluded the three-day spree (Sept. 21-23) Sunday with a powerful set. We’re talking about drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, guitarist Mary Halvorson, flutist Jamie Baum, pianists Kris Davis and Dawn Clement and saxophonists Anat Cohen, Tia Fuller, Jane Ira Bloom and Jane Bunnett.
Wow. Among the highlights were Friday’s opener by a band featuring Jensen and Fuller, this year’s artists-in-residence (plus Carrington and Davis), who celebrated the life and music of Detroit pianist Geri Allen, who died last year. Allen was a dazzling, genre-leaping musician who left behind a significant body of work that often shimmered with a spiritual vibration. With the occasional help of tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, the band caught Allen’s spirit in a flowing, open set, as videos and stills of Allen’s life flashed on large screens.
Also memorable was a nonstop, hourlong set by Israeli clarinet powerhouse Anat Cohen’s Tentet, from her album “Happy Song,” which ranged from joyous, Benny Goodman-style swing and Brazilian choro to klezmer and psychedelic rock epics.
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The two reed-playing Janes — Bunnett and Bloom — also made strong marks. Canadian soprano saxophonist Bunnett lit up the place with her all-women Afro-Cuban band, Maqueque, which included full-throated vocalist Melvis Santa and Cuban drum tyro Yissy Garcia. Bloom, who waves her soprano around to accent the spatial dimension of sound, collaborated with a witty and animated Clement to celebrate the work of poet Emily Dickinson, per their new album, “Wild Lines.”
Another Seattle keyboardist, funk-rock Hammond B3 organist Delvon Lamarr, also played Monterey this year, offering a set that owed much to the riff-based soul-rock of his Seattle predecessor, Dave Lewis. Sadly, Lamarr, like Clement earlier this year, is leaving Seattle.
It was a great weekend for jazz flute. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra performed a crisply-developed festival commission written by its leader, Oscar Hernández, “Monterey Encounter (A Latin Jazz Suite For Flute),” which had flute maestro Hubert Laws dueling delightfully with the orchestra’s Jeremy Bosch. Baum’s set drew from her world fusion album, “Bridges,” which featured driving rhythms and tasty voicings for alto flute, French horn, bass clarinet and trumpet.
Guitar fared well, too. Halvorson’s trio, Thumbscrew, offered cheerfully cheeky, key-allergic tunes and another ex-Seattleite, Bill Frisell, reached back to the rolling twang of his song, “Rambler.”
In days gone by, jazz women were often singers. Thankfully, they are still at it. Blues mama Thornetta Davis delivered a heart-wrenching blues ballad, “Just A Shadow,” and from the opposite, elegant end of the vocal spectrum came Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose a cappella rendition of the murder ballad, “Naomi Wise,” awed the crowd to silence. Gravel-voiced singer Lucinda Williams added a world-weary blur to the seen-through-smoked glass Memphis musical memories of saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his new band, The Marvels, which also included Frisell.
In what was her Monterey debut, Jones left behind the glancing phrasing and wistful mood of her former self. Forceful and authoritative, Jones sang sweet old favorites like “Sunrise” and “Come Away With Me” but also hard-edged songs like the dark “Flipside” and a haunting new one, “My Heart Is Full,” which evoked the political and social angst of the moment. A standing ovation brought her back for an encore on “Don’t Know Why.”
The wealth of women at Monterey included another nod to Seattle: Ballard High School graduate and saxophonist Katie Webster was awarded the festival’s Jimmy Lyons (full-tuition) scholarship to the Berklee College, in Boston.
Years down the line, perhaps Webster herself will grace the main stage in what is clearly a continuing legacy of women in jazz.