Mostly for Fun-Once Again

This post may turn out to be just a tease—largely due to poor planning. I originally intended to cover this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival in some detail, but forgot that, not long after that event, my wife Betty and I were heading out for eight days (and nights) in Kauai, an experience I also hoped to describe in print. However, those eight days and nights proved to be so restful, so blissfully relaxing (I seem to have had no trouble emptying my monkey brain of most of its “precious junk”), that I didn’t write a thing while there—but just let soft trade winds play about my ears while listening to recordings I’d brought along by Keili’i Reichel, ki ho’alu  or slack key guitar (Sonny Lin, Jeff Peterson, Keoki Kahumoku, Ken Emerson, Charles Michael Brotman) and the magic of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole—along with a musical feast of birdsong to wake up to each and every morning.

That concert occasionally commenced as early as 3:00 AM (the dark night of the soul, I know, but not in Kauai), initiated by a rooster whose solo offering reminded me of some of my favorite lines of poet Osip Mandelstam (my own translation: “I revere the city’s final hour and await that ceremony; the cock’s night crowing … What promise the cock, his loud extolling, proclaims”), and what followed, around 5:30 AM, with that rooster as conductor I suppose, was a veritable shower of sweet and sour sound provided by a host of birds: the White-rumped Shama (from Jim Denny’s The Birds of Kauai: “The beautiful notes of this introduced [1931] thrush can now be heard island-wide … although it sings at any time of day, the Shama Thrush, as it is sometimes called, is particularly vocal in the early morning”), the Western Meadowlark (a “gifted songster”), Northern Mockingbird (which favors a “high perch like a telephone pole or phone line from which it can sing its territorial repertoire”), Northern Cardinal (also prefers to sing from high perches), the Hwamei or Melodious Laughing-Thrush (“vocalizations are loud repeated phrases of couplets and triplets”), and the Warbling Silverbill (“metallic ‘tic-tic-tic’ sound like that of two coins being clicked together”).

I’m not a birder–just a guy who loves to lie abed and relish a range of song: every sound from gentle even mincing pleading to pipe-in-hand proclamations, sharp sandpaper-rough single eighth notes, floating liquid legato lines, one bird discharging its entire repertoire of effects and then lapsing into sudden silence, as if exhausted by its efforts; call and response (the response a full octave higher than the call), squeezed grace notes, a sweet caress (like someone running a finger up and down your forearm with love); passages as extended and inclusive as a mountain ridge or row of clouds … And the accumulated rhythms: a single squawk, spondees (a “chip-chip” rather than “chirp-chirp”), five stroke rolls, paradiddles, ratamaques, snipping, snapping, smacking percussive sound—until a final rooster crow seems to suggest that the conductor is calling it all to a halt, which he does, like Porky Pig bursting through a drum head, stuttering “Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-… That’s all, folks” at the close of a Looney Tunes cartoon. But these morning concerts were not cartoons. The music might well have been composed by Hector Berlioz.

The names of Kauai songbirds seem as melodious as what they sing: the Akepa or ‘Akeke’e (“Their ‘kee-wit’ calls are quiet and their songs are a short, warbling trill”), the Elepaio (“The cry of the bird was thought to suggest ‘ono ka i’a, ‘ono ka i’a,’ ‘fish is delicious, fish is delicious’ … Tradition has it that the Elepaio is the first bird to awaken and sing, thus telling the supernatural workers of the night, such as the menehune, that day approaches and work must be abandoned”), the Akikiki (“The call is a very short ‘sweet'”), the Ulili, which, when disturbed, utters its own name, “U-li-li-li”). I longed to fake it and include each of these–along with the Oo (which has been extinct since 1987)–among my cast of songsters, but learned they are forest or shore birds and not likely to have made it inland as far as Kipuka Street, where we stayed—unless our generous hosts, Ellie and Bret Knopf, had somehow arranged to hire them and bring them in for these early morning gigs—which, great folks Ellie and Bret are, they may well have done!

But enough on Kauai music—for now. It’s not all that big a jump to the Monterey Jazz Festival variety (just a few thousand miles)—which was splendid in and of itself. I promised just a “tease,” but here I am again, going on and on and on in my Blog Baroque manner (see last post) … so I’ll lay some restriction on myself and just tell you about the first night, Friday September 20, which, too, was splendid in and of itself.

But first—mostly for fun (once again!)—here’s a photo of yours truly (as they used to say) holding a copy of his book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years—two racks of which I found for sale in the Festival’s merchandise shop, when I went there to get this year’s T-shirt as a gift for brother-in-law Bob Aldred, a jazz fan back in Royal Oak, Michigan. When I found the book for sale, I ran to find my friend, photographer Stu Brinin, who stays at our house throughout the Festival weekend, and he graciously took the pic. Thanks again, Stu! And just for kicks, because he’s a cool guy, I’ll fit a photo of Stu in here too, holding forth in our kitchen.

Bill and MJF Book6   Stu

The first night of the Monterey Jazz Festival (September 20) proved to be a joyous danceable occasion for me because, kicked off on the Garden Stage by fully engaging Cuban pianist/singer Roberto Fonseca, it ended with an epic set provided by Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club on the Jimmy Lyons Stage—bright bookends for a grand opening night that also featured the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and, in the intimate Coffee House Gallery, one of my favorite pianists, Uri Caine.

Roberto Fonseca’s music has been compared to that of conparsa, Cuban carnival groups that parade through the streets once a year—and like the participants in that event, he does not just perform with his voice and hands, but full body, drawing on a host of diverse sources (Afro Cuban, Griot, Yoruban) and a host of instruments: Hammond organ, n’goni (a West African string instrument made of wood or calabash with dried animal–often goat–skin head stretched over it), kora (a twenty-one string bridge harp, built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin with a long hardwood neck that forms a resonator), congas, and talking drums. In a fine background piece (still available on the Monterey Jazz Festival website:, the pianist told writer Yannis Ruel that he hopes “to delve deep into my roots in light of my experiences and show the diversity of my musical universe.”

And a “universe” it is. Raised in the San Miquel del Padron neighborhood of Havana, Fonseca paid homage to his family’s African Yoruban culture and fulfilled a dream by having African musicians of his own generation participate in his recording, Yo (“me” in Spanish), a major work that included a total of fifteen musicians, instrumentalists and singers acquired for the production. One of the African artists was on hand in Monterey Friday night: Sekuo Kouyate (kora), along with Cuban musicians Ramses Rodriquez (drums) and Joel Hierrezuelo (Cuban percussion, coros). These three, joined by guitarist Jorge Chicoy and bassist Yandy Martinez, offered everything from a stimulating synthesis of Afro Cuban and Griot tradition to soul-funk and bluesy ballad—Fonseca telling Ruel: “Musicians too often forget that silence is full of music and that it can mean more than a profusion of notes”—which seems an excellent observation to me.

I find music this inclusive exciting, just as I did when, gathering material for a book, Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union, I discovered artists such as Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh, a then twenty-one year old pianist who seamlessly merged her reverence for the music of Thelonious Monk with traditional Azerbaijani folk patterns called mugam. In Aziza’s case, as with Roberto Fonseca, what I love most about jazz (pride of purpose, pulse, improvisation) was successfully wed to indigenous music. I think it’s safe to place last year’s superb commissioned piece, Bill Frisell’s Big Sur, in that “genre” as well.

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which features John Clayton as bassist and arranger, and Jeff Hamilton on drums, Clayton’s brother Jeff on alto sax and George Bohanon (a long-term Festival favorite) on trombone, presented a commissioned tribute to the music of Dave Brubeck: Sweet Suite Dave: The Brubeck Files. Having warmed up by way of a thoughtful homage to Charles Mingus (his composition “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a thoughtful homage in itself to Lester “Pres” Young), this solid orchestra offered a medley of nine original “not so well known” pieces by Brubeck, four of which I was familiar with: “Lost Waltz,” “Three’s a Crowd,” “Softly William, Softly,” and “Summer Song” (from Dave and Iola Brubeck’s 1962 jazz musical, The Real Ambassadors—the last an absolutely charming song I found myself singing out loud alongside the voice of Louis Armstrong, dubbed over the fine arrangement), but the others proved to be treasures I did not know: “Something to Sing About,” “ Cantiga Nova Swing,” “Autumn in Your Town,” “Don’t Forget Me,” and “Maori Blues.” What a joy to “find” these tunes!

I came to know Dave Brubeck when I was working on the Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years book. I had a ninety minute phone interview with him (he was living in Connecticut), after which, when I got in bed that night and my wife Betty noticed an idiot grin of delight on my face and asked “Why?”, I said, “I just had a ninety minute conversation with Dave Brubeck!” During which, I told him about an experience I’d had when I was just seventeen and a freshman at the University of Michigan. At the time, I was a Detroit (so many fine pianists: Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Sir Roland Hanna!) jazz nut, and when a friend of mine, Jim Cattey (also a jazz nut) told me a pianist from California was giving a concert in Ann Arbor and said we had to go, I replied, “Why?” At the time, California for me was as distant as the moon. It was “Lompoc” and “Cucamonga” on the Jack Benny radio show. But Jim dragged me off to the concert and we sat in the very first row (I can still see the tape—wire?—recorder reel going round and round) and the visiting pianist was, of course, Dave Brubeck—with Paul Desmond on alto sax, Bob Bates, bass, and Joe Dodge, drums. The recording in progress was, of course, Jazz Goes to College. When I hear the applause for “Balcony Rock” on that recording, I recognize a set of seventeen-year-old hands clapping—mine! The year was 1954. I told this tale to Dave Brubeck and I think he got a kick out of it  “I almost missed you!” I said.

By Friday night, September 20, 2013, I thought I was acquainted with just about all of Dave Brubeck’s music, including the sacred concerts, but the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra proved me wrong, disclosing wondrous compositions I’d not heard before, pieces that ranged from tender ballads to up tempo swing that allowed Jeff Hamilton to show his own stuff, his ride cymbal glistening with golden joy, as if caught in bright sudden light the heavens had chosen to unveil in honor of the fully comprehensive, inclusive genius of Dave Brubeck. The entire orchestra offered a fully moving tribute to the music of this exceptionally gifted—and endlessly giving—man.

After, nested in the Coffee House Gallery, I relished the work of another excellent pianist: Uri Caine. I have six of his “classical” CDs—brilliant re-castings of or reinvention on Robert Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and Mahler—and recordings by two of his “straightahead” (or as straightahead as he gets!) trios: Blue Wail (with James Genus, bass, and Ralph Peterson Jr., drums) and Siren ( John Hebert, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums). Hebert appeared with Caine at Monterey, Clarence Penn replacing Perowsky. I’ll just give you a sampling of two tunes I heard: “I’m Meshugah For My Sugar (And My Sugah’s Meshugah For Me)” and “Smelly.” After a very percussive piece more than “laced” with saturation drumming, Uri Caine introduced the first tune by saying, “Now … another love song,” and the second with, “Dedicated to one of my neighbors.”

“Meshugah” was playful, fragmented, ambivalent (like the real thing–love!), prancing, pranking, sharp stride mixed with sweet (yes, sweet!) impressionist chords that also knew how to growl—a delicious good fun musical omelette that spared no ingredient. Whoever “Sugah” is, she’s a handful (as they say), a “high maintenance chick” (as they also say), but more than likely well worth the requisite effort. Caine is a master of providing (another gustatory analogy; forgive me) “classical”-tainted pieces that contain a rich mix of zesty jazz sauce or dressing. And talk about “teasing”! “Smelly” does just that: a languid, bluesy, funky (as in the original meaning of that word: “strong body odor,” or derived from Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, “bad body odor”), an appealing “neighborly” melody, Caine’s deft touch offset by Penn’s handsome brush work, the pianist’s customary mocking ambivalence well represented: a dissonant humor, playfulness, increasing anxiety, stunted rhythm, solid swing, and a teasing fade at the close.

The appearance of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club was great, right from the start—their set truly epic, featuring the still vivacious vocalist Omara Portuondo, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, and trumpeter Manual ‘Grajiro’ Mirabel from the film Ry Cooder produced in 1997, now mated with “a younger group of Cuban musicians” who more than just carried on the flame but let it shine bright, the total ensemble–with its two large conga drums, pair of bongos, timbales providing continuously infectious rhythms–and fleshed out by three trumpets, a trombone, piano, tres (a fusion of guitar, tiple or bandola, and son, a musical style that originated in the Oriente province in the eastern part of Cuba), laud (which belongs to the cittern family of instruments, twelve strings in pairs), bass and several singers. The effect was overwhelming—and immediately set one’s heart, and the feet of many present, dancing (as were the musicians themselves, with synchronized step-dancing worthy of the Temptations or Four Tops).

The group was garbed with outrageous dignity for the event: one member in a blinding white suit, another in a suit that housed every shade of blue. Eliades Ochoa strolled out dressed all in black, and white cowboy hat;  vocalist Idania Valdes’ braces sparkling (which made her all the more seductive!), pianist Rolando Luna providing athletic clave, Filiberto Sanchez subtle timbales, the overall percussion leaving room for a distinct cowbell and cymbal splashes. No let up now–one number sliding gracefully and joyously into another. And then Omara Portuondo bringing the house down when she made her appearance in a gown that resembled a silken blue mumu, also sporting a baby-blue bandana. She looked ageless, grandmotherly beautiful, and her presence enhanced a performance to which it seemed nothing more enhancing could be added—but made room for a bit of comedy when a singer appeared to have reservations regarding a guitar solo, was handed the guitar, and proceeded to try to play it behind his back!

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club collected the inevitable encore, the audience’s appreciation having increased geometrically, and a six note vamp led into a Ochoa vocal with a three syllable chant behind him, dancers from the audience making use of a side portion of the stage. The set closed out filled with carnival contagion. And this was just the first night of the 56th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival!

Well … true to my Blog Baroque nature, what started out here as a mere “tease” has turned into a “tome” in and of itself, but I’m not going to apologize, because I’ve had  so much fun attempting to tell you about all this good “stuff.” I’m an appreciator, a celebrator, not a critic. The distinction might make an interesting topic for a blog discussion, no? (If I don’t like or have serious reservations about something, I just don’t bother to write about it).

I will end with a “Preview of Coming Attractions,” which, of course, will include more on the Monterey Jazz Festival (since I’ve only covered one night), and a bit more on Kauai. Here are some photos taken in Kauai. I won’t attempt to identify them (the locations), but, for now, just let you look and, I hope, enjoy (well, I will say that the first is of the papaya tree that graced our backyard, and the rooster was found outside Starbucks and more than likely not the one who woke us up at 3:00 AM).

Papaya Tree  Kauai Rooster  Kauai Wailua Falls

Fern Grotto Kauai         Banyan Tree and Flowers2

Coming up: I would like to pay homage (as a did last post out to Bob Danizger) to another local musical artist: Dottie Dodgion, an amazing drummer/vocalist who’s played with the likes of Charles Mingus, Marian McPartland, Benny Goodman, Wild Bill Davison, Jackie Coon, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims—and more! Dottie now performs each Thursday night at the Lobby Lounge at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, CA—and in the good company of fine pianist Marty Headman and the bassist I’ve had the good fortune to work with, Heath Proskin.

I’ve talked to blogging folks who’ve said they’ve abstained or slacked off because they felt they had run out of “stuff” to write about, but aside from those eight blissful days of Trappist silence in Kauai, I don’t think I’m in immediate danger of running out of things to say (once I get to putting what I have in mind “out there” again). I have run into an interesting situation I did anticipate, and that is the risk of setting aside or postponing steady work on a major (in my case “Minor,” ho ho) new book project in favor of blogging, but I believe I’ve found a  suitable way to deal with that: I’ll just include some portions of the new work (which is a sequel, “Going Solo,” to the recent book, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir) as future posts for the blog. Does that sound sensible? I hope so.

See you next post!