The venerable Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 60th birthday over the weekend.
MONTEREY, Calif. – “If you mention you’re playing the Monterey Jazz Festival, people light up,” explained Seattle drummer John Bishop, sipping a latte on the festival grounds Sunday morning before his gig with flamenco-inspired pianist Chano Dominguez.
Bishop was delighted to be in Monterey, and so were the animated crowds this past weekend, as the festival celebrated its 60th birthday with an eclectic lineup that included Chicago rapper Common and mandolin master Chris Thile, as well as tributes to the 100th birthdays of Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
The continuity from past to present to future was neatly captured on an opening set by drummer Matt Wilson’s Carl Sandburg-inspired project, Honey and Salt, which featured Seattle pianist and vocalist Dawn Clement.
“As wave follows wave,” recited the swinging, loose-armed drummer, “so new men take old men’s places.”
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Pianist Joanne Brackeen zig-zagged through lickety-split lines; robust alto saxophonist Tia Fuller and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen shared a splendid, celebratory set; and bassist Linda May Han Oh offered shapely, thoughtful pieces that drew the listener in.
Those acts performed on stages scattered around the Monterey Fairgrounds, while marquee attractions such as keyboard man Herbie Hancock played the main arena. On Friday, Hancock delivered an intense, funky, hard-edged electric set that included snatches of new music as well as old favorites such as the Headhunters’ popping “Actual Proof” and the hip-swaying “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock closed the festival Sunday with a set of free-ranging acoustic grand piano duets with pianist Chick Corea.
Monterey’s annual commission went to bassist John Clayton, who along with his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, and his longtime associate, drummer Jeff Hamilton, served as artists in residence. The bassist served up a majestic big-band epic, “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration,” which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation. So did Saturday’s rollicking tribute to Sonny Rollins featuring tenor saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman and a show-stealing, 90-year-old Jimmy Heath.
From another part of the spectrum, Common captured the crowd Sunday with a smart concept show titled “Black America Again,” which illuminated the continuity between jazz improvisation and rapid-fire freestyling. Another nice touch: Flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who appeared four years ago at the festival as a high-school student, played in Common’s crackerjack band.
Monterey afternoons celebrate the shimmying backside of the music, and this year that was sizzling Mississippi bluesman Castro Coleman, who goes by the stage name Mr. Sipp. A consummate showman, Coleman combined the aisle-roaming excursions of Buddy Guy with the spiritual searching of Jimi Hendrix, no doubt aware that some of this audience had seen Hendrix on these very grounds 50 years earlier.
Violinist Regina Carter lit up John Beasley’s “Monk’Estra” big band, devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk, with a touching solo on “Ask Me Now,” which featured five clarinets, and returned with an order of home fries Sunday, with her magical band “Southern Comfort.” Mandolinist Chris Thile added more Southern tang with his rangy duets with pianist Brad Mehldau.
Dominguez’s fluidly dancing set, which featured yet another Seattle player, bassist Jeff Johnson, was also a highlight, as was Olympia High School reed player Willie Bays, who played a crisp alto sax solo with the all-star Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.
There were a few disappointments. Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater took far too long getting into emotional gear, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet was off its game.
But overall, this was a marvelous year. Crowds were up, according to artistic director Tim Jackson, who proudly noted a special “family feeling” on the fairgrounds that is unique to Monterey.