I began the last post with an apology for poor planning–for forgetting, when I intended to post a full report on this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, that my wife Betty and I were leaving for the island of Kauai, where I enjoyed such non-verbal tropical Trappist bliss that I didn’t write a word while there. And I’ll have to begin this post with another apology. Back home on the central coast of California, we experienced a rare Ice Age that rendered the garage-turned-studio in which I work uninhabitable, no matter how early I turned the heater on in the morning. We Californians are a bunch of sissies when it comes to weather, I know–compared to folks back East or in the Midwest whose conception of “fun” is to play football at freezing temperatures and in eight inches of snow–but here, for some time now, as far as blog posts go, I might as well have been writing inside the refrigerator. So I did the sensible thing. I took to the only warm spot in the house: the bed (piled high with down comforters, borgana, a San Francisco Giants blanket, and the bed spread). I got lots of draft work done on a new book project, “Going Solo” (a sequel to the book which would make a splendid gift for your friends and family this holiday season: The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir), but not a word on the blog, my computer shivering, huddled in the iceberg studio.
Things have thawed out a bit now, so I’m back at work–and here’s a Holiday reminder about The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, the book your friends and family are sure to love:
Now that we’re into it: this will be a jazz post for the most part (completing what I started last time on this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival)–and I’d like to begin with some words on music in general I just found in a novel I’ve been re-reading by Wright Morris, In Orbit. Wright Morris is not a well known name, if known at all, to the current crop of writers coming up, but I was fortunate–no, blessed–to have him as a teacher, a genuine mentor (lots of “one on one” sessions), when I was working on a masters degree in “Language Arts” at San Francisco State in 1963. At the time his substantial body of work was celebrated as “one of the major achievements of contemporary American literature,” In In Orbit, a character reflects on an “unborn child, months away from birth,” and concludes, “Before it heard music, there was a tingling dance along the nerves. In the blood that coursed the veins, tracing a leaf-like pattern, a blueprint for the wondrous work of man, music coursed before the ear had been shaped to hear. What had not been given? What could not be described as an inheritance?” Amen.
In the last post, I described as well as I could what my own ears heard on the first night (September 20) of the 56th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and I’ll continue now into Saturday and beyond–but just before I do: one more short piece of news (of good fortune) that does relate to the Festival directly. In an earlier post called “More Than Just Leftovers,” I described a project I had worked on: the then freshly inaugurated Monterey Jazz Festival-Monterey/Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines that feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively “jazz” designs, and stops at thirty-three handsome shelters (I was asked to provide copy for twenty-eight), stops from which, making a smart phone connection with a bar code, you can listen to musical highlights from the year represented while you wait for your bus. I’ll repeat the photos I posted before:
I recently heard from Phil Wellman, who’s in charge of Festival graphic design, and he asked if I’d be interested in creating copy for twenty-four more shelters–a continuation and completion of the JAZZ BUS project to be undertaken in 2014. My response was a hearty “YES!” I also learned that Phil had received a national award for a masterful TV ad for the JAZZ BUS project. You can find it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek
Meanwhile, back at the 56th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival itself, on Saturday afternoon, I attended the DownBeat Blindfold Test another friend and house guest throughout the event (I mentioned photographer Stu Brinin in the last post, who also stays at the house: our motto “tous pour un, un pour tous”–all for one, one for all,” as in The Three Musketeers–for three days), Dan Ouellette, a highly respected New York writer who has been conducting the Blindfold Test at the Monterey Jazz Festival for the past eighteen years–this year with saxophonist Joe Lovano. Here’s a photo of Dan–and a plug for his new book, Playing by Ear: The Bruce Lundvall Project.
The Blindfold Test has been defined as “a listening test that challenges the featured artist to identify and discuss music and musicians who perform on selected recordings,” and then rate each tune. If that’s the objective, Lovano (this year’s Festival artist-in-residence) fulfilled the purpose to the max, correctly identifying nearly every artist and–a born teacher–adding beneficial insights galore for prospective musicians on accessible effects: time-saving lessons on performance and the respect required for genuine “listening” and interaction. Of a recording by fellow tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley he said, “The feel is amazing. Hank’s ideas and his flowing conceptions tell a story–just like every solo he ever played. His approach is so personal.” On trombonist Roswell Rudd and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy together: “That had a joyous feeling. They get a groove going together and demonstrated the collective feeling of an ensemble … they created their own melodies within the piece.” (Lovano also quoted Lacy as saying he “didn’t want to make a record and sell a million copies, but make a million records and sell one copy.”). Of a piece by tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran, Lovano said, “It was a journey, with a collective flow of awareness of each other”–and my favorite quote: Lester “Pres” Young saying, “Everyone’s got the blues, but only some people can play it.”
Another Saturday afternoon event I enjoyed was a panel discussion (a perfect follow up to the music presented by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra the previous night): “Dave Brubeck: Hip as a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses: Six Decades at Monterey.” It featured two of Brubeck’s son, Chris and Dan, Russell Gloyd (“Since 1976 Russell Gloyd has been associated with Dave Brubeck and has conducted the many symphonic and choral appearances of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the United States and around the world.”), and “Senator” Eugene Wright, the only living member of the classic quartet (playing on the group’s 1959 Time Out album, with drummer Joe Morello and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond).
Panels can be tricky–disintegrating into chaos or, worse yet, boredom if not well organized and artfully conducted, but host Ashley Kahn gave the people who knew the panel’s subject best ample time to come up with lively anecdotes–these interspersed with video clips of everything from Dave Brubeck, as a stand in, rehearsing Louis Armstrong’s duets with Carmen McRae for the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival musical The Real Ambassadors (Chris got a kick out of this: “I’ve never heard him sing; Dad sounds like an inebriated Bob Dorough”) to a clip of the Brubeck brothers themselves playing together. Discussing what it was like to have Dave Brubeck for a father, and with jazz artists such as Eugene Wright and Joe Morello hanging around the house (and Ella Fitzgerald as a “baby sitter”!), Chris said, “It was the sound track of our lives.” Chris mentioned sleeping on the floor next to Eugene Wright’s bass: “I couldn’t pick it up, but I could pick at it.”
Wright had observations of his own, such as, speaking of the Brubeck boys, “I remember you when you were babies,” and reminiscing on the first tune he ever played with Dave Brubeck, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”: “The moment he hit the stand, Dave had a tempo,” saying he himself would talk to Morello “like a fisherman reeling in a fish” (“Stay with me, stay with me … Don’t go there!”) and recalled Joe Morello’s own assessment of playing with Brubeck, “You just walk on stage and hang on for dear life!” When Chris added, “Gene, you held it all together; you were playin’ your ass off,” Wright replied, “That was my job!” Russell Gloyd contributed a great tale about the group working with Leonard Bernstein, taking a break from Basin Street, changing into tuxedos in a cab on the way to performing with the New York Philharmonic. When Bernstein, before conducting, told Dave, “Tell your drummer to watch and follow me,” Brubeck replied, “My drummer is blind.”
The session, in spite of its somewhat awkward subtitle, “Hip as a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses” (comedian Mort Saul described Dave Brubeck as wearing “wrought-iron glasses”), was quite lively and very moving at times–the second handsome tribute I’d heard to Dave Brubeck in two days. Following an enjoyable meal (tako and unagi sushi–octopus and eel–assisted by a glass of Scheid Vineyards Chardonnay), I looked forward to the evening’s fare–starting with pianists Orrin Evans and Marc Cary, the first playing in the Coffee House Gallery, the second on the Garden Stage–and unfortunately at the same time. I was familiar with Cary (his fine and loving solo piano tribute to vocalist/songwriter Abbey Lincoln, with whom he spent twelve years as accompanist), but had only heard of Evans, who’s been written about as “one of the most critically overlooked musicians in all of jazz”–yet with twenty albums to his credit as a leader since the late 90s.
When I walked in on Evans he was already into a recognizable tune, “I Want to Be Happy,” but with a fresh take or approach, one filled with crisp Monk edges, solid hard bop runs, playful open spaces, and more than minimal rhythmic assistance on the part of bassist Eric Revis and Donald Edwards on drums. Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connection” held a mix of New Orleans funk and hip-hop, the beat “catnip to Evans, who gets right down and rolls in it” (in the words of one of my favorite jazz writers, Kevin Whitehead, describing the tune as played on Evans’ It Was Beauty CD). The pianist’s style is visceral (inside the piano and out, elbows and all), percussive, laced with a teasing stutter, sudden starts and stops, dissonant trills, and (setting a precedent, a pattern I would hear too much of this night) seemingly endless vamps. He played “African Song” from the It Was Beauty CD, and Paul Motions’ “Mumbo Jumbo.” If he had offered Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” (a tune Whitehead writes is rendered “achingly slow,” and treated “with extraordinary tenderness, as if afraid the fabric will tear”), I would have stayed for more, but I didn’t want to miss what Cary might be “saying” over at the Garden Stage, so I cut out.
As I said, I was familiar with Marc Cary’s music and I expected much from it–and received a bit more than I’d anticipated. Like so many players today, Cary has a wide–vast–range of musical interests: an inclusive sphere or span that encompasses jazz, go-go, hip-hop, electronic music, Indian classical music, et cetera. Yet his bio quotes him on the “single most important lesson” he feels he learned from Abbey Lincoln: “Learning how to shed things you don’t need, and claim what is yours.” It’s good advice, but I’m not sure he held to it on that Saturday night in Monterey. But I’m obviously not a person who should complain about anyone attempting to be overly inclusive!
By way of keyboard options, Marc Cary had abundant resources available on the Garden Stage–from acoustic to digital–and adopted, in the words of critic Scott Yanow, “several different musical personalities, changing from McCoy Tyner modal jazz to free jazz a la early 1970’s Herbie Hancock and more adventurous playing”–but again, I’ll confess that I didn’t find the “adventurous” portion laced with “risk taking” you might expect so much as a self-conscious “search” that struck me as somewhat indecisive. Once again I cut out on a set and decided to try the Jimmy Lyons main stage, for a group put together by the ever and always reliable bassist Dave Holland, a group called Prism. I could still hear, in my head, some of the extraordinary music presented by Holland with Chris Potter on tenor sax, Eric Harland drums, and the amazing Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano for the occasion of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2007.
Alas, if Prism intended to offer an orthorhombic range of color, I somehow missed it–for once again, in spite of my admiration for what Kevin Eubanks can do on a guitar, and Dave Holland on a bass, I felt trapped in a world of repetition, of endless vamps (devoid of subtle minimalism), diffuse phrasing, music that seemed to wander aimlessly (not recklessly–which can be fun), stuck in a rut (not a groove) from which it struggled to extricate itself, a wine press that chews up grapes but fails to produce the vintage taste you love–music lacking that essential “story” Joe Lovano had praised in artists he admired that afternoon.
I thought back to the music–the magic–I’d heard the previous night: music that so seamlessly assimilated jazz and indigenous sources, a balanced eclecticism, and I thought of performances I’d previously heard and loved at the Monterey Jazz Festival: the Carla Bley Big Band in 2005, along with Benny Green and Russell Malone (so grand a duo I think I kept to the Coffee House Gallery for nearly three full sets–when I was not paying homage to Carla!), and within the past six years of the Monterey Jazz Festival: Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet, Billy Childs with the Kronos Quartet, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jim Hall, the piano artistry of Marcus Roberts, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Jason Moran, Geri Allen, Helen Sung and Tigran Hamasyan, the comprehensive magic of Kurt Elling, the Wayne Shorter Quartet (which, returning this year, would restore my lost faith on Sunday!), and the finesse of Gregoire Marat on harmonica,
With all this in mind, I hiked down to the Night Club, where another “reliable” performer, fine vocalist Mary Stallings was slated to appear (with a friend, Akira Tana, on drums). Her set hadn’t started yet and a long line had formed outside, so running into Scott Yanow, we headed for the back stage entrance. An over-zealous security guard wouldn’t let us in, even with our “All Weekend” Press passes on hand, saying we lacked suitable credentials (whatever they might be). I would learn later that guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola played a great set in Dizzy’s Den across the way, “cavorting,” in the words of Dan Ouellette, with all the uninhibited joy of “school kids at play during recess”–but, frustrated, I passed up that experience in favor of finding a quiet spot where I could puzzle out just why I seemed to be having some sort of musical “meltdown,” why I couldn’t find music I liked this night. At age seventy-seven, I was too old for a “midlife crisis,” but might I be having some sort of “close to the end of life” crisis? I’d devoted much of my existence to jazz, but had I now become a defrocked lover of sorts, forsaken, used up, just an “old cat” pretty well bushed and out of touch? I thought of the blues tune: “You’ve had your day, don’t stand around and frown,/You’ve been a good old wagon, Daddy, But you done broke down.”
I had to find someone to blame, a scapegoat, so I started with the musicians, then thought about the era in which we live (and its music), and of course–being All Too Human–overlooked or saved for last the one source I should have started with: myself, and what was happening in my own life that might have effected my appreciation of the music. I did realize I wasn’t being fair to the musicians I had discounted, for they were all of the stature of those I’d relished the previous night–and as far as “booking” goes, I feel Artistic Director Tim Jackson remains, when it comes to programming, the genius he’s been since he assumed the post of general manager in 1992. The diversity of offerings is amazing; there’s something for everyone. So why was I having so much trouble this night finding music to match my own preferences?
Perhaps, I thought, I could blame The Age, the era in which we live–for I had, for some time, sensed a change in attitude toward the art of making music on the part of both performers and audiences in many musical genres. There’s so much music everywhere today (along with the general “information glut”), its prevalence on every level of competence, that folks may have stopped listening in a sense, even when they think they still are–and that may even apply to some musicians, who’ve always–no matter what the genre–been in thrall to audiences to some degree, even when they turn their backs on them for the sake of “art.” We’ve also got the “American Idol” template of course, in which the emphasis is not so much on taking advantage of one’s talent and slowly but surely developing it as learning how to withstand, and manipulate, the rigors of “success” in a “Get yours! Get yours!” industry. And we’ve got “Award Shows” that turn into spectacular “Super Bowl halftime” light shows, more than likely because the hype and glitch and glitter is a necessary ingredient to cover up the paucity and impotence of both words and music, even when the subject matter is sex–as it usually is. “Every generation laughs at the old fashions but religiously follows the new,” Henry David Thoreau said–and Dolly Parton (strange bedfellows!) followed that up with, “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
A friend recently sent me an entertaining and honest (what a fine combination!) article called “Classical music needs an enema–not awards”–posted by James Rhodes on the guardian Music Blog (http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog), in which he states, “The problem with classical music is that the whole industry is so deeply ashamed of itself, so unremittingly apologetic for being involved with an art form seen as irrelevant, privileged and poncey, that it had gone to unfortunate extremes to over-compensate”–one of which was the Gramophone Classical Music Awards, which Rhodes cites as “another awards ceremony about Self. Self-congratulation, self-celebration, self-importance” in an industry that “has been divided into sharks on the one hand (anything for a buck, even if it involves bastardising the music to an unrecognizable degree) and the ‘purebloods’ on the other,” leaving those of us with a genuine love confronted by a “distressing” price to pay for the genuine joys of classical music with its “unceasing, infallible and soul-shattering ability to take all of us on a journey of self-discovery and improvement in a world where most other means of doing so seem to involve either Simon Cowell or Deepak Chopra.”
Even jazz, which does its best most of the time, I feel, to avoid extra-musical glitch and glitter (if not hype), may have a few of the faults Rhodes points out. Jazz festivals of varying quality have become nearly as prevalent (every small town seems to boast of at least one now, ho ho) as “reality” TV shows, even if the music is as “cross over” or convoluted as an LA cloverleaf freeway, and the same participants may tend to show up over and over again. Is there a danger of a “Ho hum, here we go again; A gig’s a gig” attitude setting in somehow? Cultural inertia? A lassitude of imagination? Is that why I found myself fatigued by the overkill that accompanies a “crowd-pleasing” (I remember Jazz at the Philharmonic nights, with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jaquet down on his back honking and stomping, and this before Chuck Berry!) but meaningless display of “chops” that stands in for Joe Lovano’s “story telling,” and saturation drumming as a substitute for subtle “shading”? I heard a rumor at Monterey that some performers were complaining about having to play three full sets at the Coffee House Gallery (what ever happened to the days–or nights–when you didn’t quit playing until 5:00 in the morning, ho ho?). And I will save Diane Krall’s disappointing “performance” until I write about Sunday night.
Because I write poetry and attempt to compose and play music, I undertook, some time ago, another book project so large I more than likely will not be able to finish it in my lifetime: an extensive study of “song” from the singing Neanderthals (I’ll discuss Steven Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderhals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body in a moment) to the present day. I’ve come through Peter Abelard (12th century) and troubadours such as Bernart de Ventadorn and Arnaut Daniel and now Thomas Campion and W.H. Auden’s briliiant essay in The Elizabethan Song Book on what sort of poetry is best set to music–and having listened to it also as a forerunner, I’d come to appreciate Gregorian Chant–of which Thomas Merton has written: “Its structure is mighty with a perfection that despises the effects of the most grandiloquent secular music–and says more than Bach without even exhausting the whole range of one octave … Gregorian chant that should, by rights, be monotonous, because it has none of the tricks and resources of modern music, is full of a variety infinitely rich because it is subtle and spiritual and deep, and lies rooted far beyond the shallow level of virtuosity and ‘technique.'”
There may well be lessons that one musical genre could learn from another–and even convert those lessons into a fresh and fortunate marriage of means, a genuinely new music?
Even though I’ve been a die-hard jazz fan for sixty-three years, I’ve also enjoyed a wide range of music. I rotate our five CD trays between my favorite jazz composers, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, and Wayne Shorter and Beethoven’s sonatas, orchestral pieces by Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss, and songwriter singers such as Tom Waits, Scotland’s Dougie MacLean, and Hawaiian favorites Keili’i Reichel and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. My wife and I enjoy opera and have season tickets for the Sunday matinee San Francisco offerings (we started out “standing room only” for a dollar a slot in 1960, when, as a grad student at Cal-Berkeley, I took librettos from the university music library home to study). I enjoy knowing that Louis Armstrong grew up on opera in New Orleans and brought that music into his own “sound”–and that tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins is purported to have listened only to opera music toward the end of his life.
There was a time, in the mid to late 1960s, when, like a number of Americans, I lost interest in jazz (Blue Note producer Michael Cuscuna claimed that, during the 1970s, ”Japan almost singlehandedly kept the jazz record business going … Without the Japanese market, a lot of independent jazz labels probably would have folded”) and I “discovered” the overall cultural significance and the joy of making music within a living room full of musicians playing guitars, banjos, dulcimers, and fiddles, all knowing the same “folk” (now “roots music” or “americana”) tunes–both words and chords (all three!) for accompaniment. I ended up playing professionally with a group called Bill, Blake & Rick (thank you Crosby, Stills & Nash) in bars with peanut shell floors, and with The Salty Dogs in venues with names like The Hook and Ladder and Main Street Station. My banjo/twelve string guitar buddy Lee Rexroat and I also played for beers at summer ethnic–Scandinavian, German, Polish–tent shows in Wisconsin.
Sitting in the dark at a picnic table outside The Turf Club on Saturday night at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I began to laugh, aware that in my last blog I’d bragged about being an “appreciator,” a “celebrator,” not a critic, and here I was, spending an entire evening demeaning, disparaging–finding fault with–what I’d heard! I’d dropped out of jazz once before, yes, and although I continued to write poetry myself (nearly every poem set to music now, turned into “song”), I’d grown disenchanted with and disengaged myself somewhat from the overpopulated “world” of contemporary poetry (caught in the same “survival” quandaries as music), returning to the work of favorite all time “greats”–Keats, Dickinson, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Ahkmatova, Cavafy, Neruda, Rilke, Yeats–admiring the latter’s observation in “Three movements”: “Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;/ Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the land;/ What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?” But thinking these thoughts, I had to laugh again, for I was not being fair to the host of contemporary poets I love reading: Phil Levine, Paul Zimmer, Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Ilya Kaminsky, Robert Sward, Linda Pastan, Li-Young Lee. and others.
All of the arts, having mistaken motion for action and sensation for meaning, somewhat adrift just now in a boat that’s sprung a few leaks that require mending?
Sitting in the dark, I began to laugh at myself and my own “blog” attempts at self-promotion as an “artist” of whatever sort–thinking of a quote from Susan Ertz (whoever she was: “a British fiction writer and novelist, known for her ‘sentimental tales of genteel life in the country”!): “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” And I thought of Boethius deciding we occupy a “tiny point within a point” in the universe, “shut in and hedged about, in which [we] think of spreading [our] fame and extending [our] renown, as if a glory constructed with such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth of splendor.” This last Roman gentleman, author of De Institutione Musica (considered the “stepping stone to understanding music throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance”), who wrote his The Consolation of Philosophy while sitting in a prison cell before his brutal execution in AD 524, could also say, “Let us have as well Music, the maid-servant of my house, to sing us melodies of varying mood.”
Sitting in the dark, with the light of knowing that I was more than likely the sole source of my Saturday night meltdown “turning on” in my head, I realized that if I was going through some sort of “end of life” crisis, it was because I longed, like Boethius, to spend whatever time I have left in my life listening to music with meaning–and I realized that, on that score, I had reached a state in which I could listen to Chet Baker playing and singing “This Is Always” and Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge doing “Please Don’t Tell me How the Story Ends” with equal appreciation, and respect.
I’ll close this unanticipated not exactly small essay section on the fickle nature of fan-hood with something Steven Mithen wrote toward the end of The Singing Neanderthals, a book in which he makes a good case, to my mind, for the fact that we, as human beings, sang before we possessed speech–practiced a form of verbal utterance closer to music (like scat singing?) that would eventually evolve into vocabulary and syntactical speech. Mithen writes, “Music evidently maintains many features of [that original “language”], some quite evident, such as its emotional impact and holistic nature … It is now apparent, for instance, why even when listening to music made by instruments rather than the human voice, we treat music as a virtual person and attribute to it an emotional state and sometimes a personality and intention. It is also now clear why so much of music is structured as if a conversation is taking place within the music Itself, and why we often intuitively feel that a piece of music should have a meaning attached to it, even though we cannot grasp what that might be.” Again … amen.
I realized that I may have reached a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to just “shop around” when it comes not only to jazz, but any form of music, film, novel, poetry, maybe even friends—a point at which I can only afford to settle for what I feel I can depend on when it comes to meaning (for example: not just go to any new film out, but rely on friends whose taste I trust to tell me what’s worthwhile–and I am attempting to think and say much of this in good humor!). Adopting the phrasing and syntax of Mark Twain (a writer I know I can nearly always rely on), I realized my opportunity had come to right myself and level up matters with, even though I might be the sort seldom able to seek out an opportunity “until it had ceased to be one”—so, smiling and laughing at myself, I closed out my solitary session in a dark corner of the fairgrounds and headed for the Night Club, where the Brubeck Brothers were scheduled to play a set that might offer redemption—and “tell me how the story ends.”
The group included Chris Brubeck on electric bass and trombone, Dan Brubeck on drums, Mike DeMicco on guitar, and Chuck Lamb on piano, and they offered a set that had a lot of Father Dave in it—and a number of his tunes, such as “Strange Meadow Lark” and “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Pianist Chuck Lamb provided his own share of inspired piano (with familiar “echoes” in it) and the set was filled with an heritage of subtle modulation, contagious tempos, solid structure (the “logic of poetry,” to borrow a phrase from Hart Crane)—a full range of human feeling and purpose: “meaning” in the sense I longed for.
This was a “family affair,” filled with homage to Dave and Iola Brubeck (who had added such handsome language to Dave’s music), and to the continuity of jazz in general, a meaningful context, a sort of living history. I thought of all the greats I’d been fortunate enough—no, “blessed”—to have seen and heard “live” as a teenager: Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker. At this set, the “Brothers” played another tune Dave Brubeck had composed, “Marian McPartland,” written for the woman I’d once listened to night after night at Hickory House in New York when I was nineteen—a woman who, when I interviewed her for a Monterey Jazz Festival program, responded in her fine British accent, when I told her of that experience, “You must have been just a bai-bee.” And the group closed out with an inevitable “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” granting me the “redemption” I sought.
Each year of the Monterey Jazz Festival, on Sunday morning, a bunch of jazz journalists (originally mostly members of the Jazz Journalists Association) meet for brunch at Monterey Cookhouse—an ongoing event that, in the past, has included such “guests” as Kurt Elling, Matt Wilson, John Handy, and comedian Mort Saul. Down Beat publisher Frank Alkyer picked up the tab for the second year in a row (or was it the third? Thanks Frank; you’re grand company, a fine guy!)—and a good time was had by all, getting the day off to an excellent start for me after my so-called “Dark Night of the Soul.”
The afternoon began with a local group–Along Came Betty–which the bassist I work with on occasion, Heath Proskin (frequently mentioned in this blog) is a part of, and Heath acquitted himself quite well, making me feel like a “Proud Papa” (I’m old enough to be, but am not, his father). The rest of the group is made up of Biff Smith, on piano; Brian Stock, trumpet and flugelhorn; Paul Tarantino, saxophones; and Patrick Tregenza, drums. This excellent, hard bop group (Scott Yanow, not necessarily an easy person to please, wrote after that they were “a fine quintet”) offered several of Biff’s original and uniquely named tunes: “Fanny Fangboner’s Fortuitous Flight of Fancy,” “Strange Bedfellows,” and “Looks Good on Paper” from their The Secret Parts of Fortune CD. I love this group, and not just because I know them (a “family affair” again?), but because the music they make is truly first-rate. Biff not only provides the tunes, but intense steady comping (here and there a horn phrase echoed), his own strong spare solos (with rich accord in the left hand), the entire group participating with tight logical eloquence. My only reservation might be, for a group with such entertaining song titles, they sure look super serious throughout a set—the humor, the “fun” there in their sound but not on their faces, although the music is demanding; I call it “stoic bop”). They played an original by Heath (“Riff Raff Hoi Polloi”) and although some wag down front shouted out, “Play standards!”, the group wisely stuck with their own stuff, ending with more Biff Smith originals such as “Buying Clothes for My Imaginary Friend” and ‘Bebop Note Nazi.”
That afternoon–and then again in the early evening—I was treated to gifts from two remarkable drummers: Steve Gadd (playing with Bob James and David Sanborn), Gadd a drummer with whom I once took lessons by way of two “instruction” videos of his: Up Close and In Session; and later, Brian Blade, whom I could listen to for hours should he play solo (he is that richly inclusive, skillful—although I could probably say the same of pianist Danilo Perez). Blade and Perez appeared with the Wayne Shorter Quartet (fleshed out by John Patitucci on bass), for Wayne’s “80th Birthday Celebration.” Aside from their latest CD offering, Without a Net, I own—and frequently fill our five CD trays with—just about all of Wayne Shorter’s work from early Ju Ju, Adam’s Apple, Speak No Evil, Super Nova, Schizophrenia, and Night Dreamer to Footprints and Beyond the Sound Barrier. I think I said earlier that I regard Shorter as a composer right up there with Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron, and I enjoy attempting to play such handsome pieces as “Night Dreamer,” “Black Nile,” “Virgo” (my favorite), “Wild Flower,” and “Infant Eyes” on piano. Shorter has said, “Beyond the sky we fly, perchance to see some greatness there: eternal wonder! that which is born of courage here.”
While the group’s set was wide open, free, in accord with its playing without a net approach and Wayne’s own cosmic philosophy, the music is grounded in, informed by all those years he spent creating handsome structures and striking lyricism: more than a trace of that embedded within solid innovation now, or as Andy Gilbert wrote in the Festival program: his is the work of a man “far more interested in planting new seeds than in kicking back to admire the vast musical garden he’s sown in a series of seminal ensembles.”
Wayne Shorter’s excellent set set me up for a pleasant surprise in the Coffee House Gallery—a group I’d never heard of but thoroughly enjoyed: Phronesis, made up of London-based Danish bassist Jaspar Hoiby, Ivo Neame on piano, and Anton Eger on drums. The group has been cited as “the most exciting and imaginative piano trio since EST,” and they certainly proved they aren’t shy on either skill or solid invention. Obviously steeped in European classical tradition but equally adept at jazz (everything from boogie woogie to hard bop), the trio offered that mix I love, a balanced eclecticism—and they not only provided first-rate musicianship but the drummer proved to be a showman in the Gene Krupa vein, playing “hair” as well as drums (his own hair, his slick appearance, which included coat, tie, and a discretely tucked pocket handkerchief, giving way to wild, spastic abandon, to well-styled hair unleashed and “flung” in every direction—this display offset by nimble lyrical bass passages by Hoiby (his instrument handled with the ease of a ukulele in his large Scandinavian hands); precision, Chopinesque piano on the part of Neame—the trio as a unit youthful, agile, purposeful, occasionally succumbing to the seemingly endless vamps I’d learned to love (ho ho), but offering for the most part original material that ranged in title from “Rue Cing Diamants” and “Happy Notes” to more socially-leaning pieces such as “Child Defense,” “Democracy” and ‘Economist”—the trio swinging in a tight, tough, “together” way no matter what they played. And they seemed to fully enjoy performing together, frequently exchanging glances of approval and appreciation. And drummer Eger, for all the theatrics, actually knew when to “lay off,” or “out.”
The biggest disappointment of Sunday evening for me came at the end: Diana Krall, billed now in jazz cruise ads as “The Premier Jazz Vocalist in the World”—but mysteriously endowed with some sort of ecclesiastical immunity that seems to allow her (at least in her own mind) to indulge in any sort of behavior she pleases in front of her many fans (her interpretation of Fats Waller’s stride was strictly amateur, as if she hadn’t thought to try it out for some time). I even felt she might be a bit intoxicated, but reliable sources informed me that wasn’t the case. There’s always been a sort of somewhat scowling, sweetly snide, indifferent (which is not the same as a healthy “disinterest”) side to her public “persona,” but on Sunday night, she dismissed her “sidemen” and sitting at the piano alone, began to leaf through a giant “fake book” as if it were 3:00 in the morning (another “Dark Night of the Soul”?) and she’d just come home from playing a real gig and, bored and dead tired as she might be, thought it might be OK to just noodle away absent-mindedly on a tune or two before she went off to bed. Yet her audiences still respond with near reverence—and applause. The voice was “golden,” yes, when it finally managed to locate a song she might still like, but I felt there was too little love in the performance I witnessed at the close of the 56th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival Sunday night.
In spite of some reservations (which may mostly have been the fault of my own “meltdown,” I confess—although I think it’s not all that bad for a writer to go behind the scenes of selfhood and “fanship” and disclose honest feeling of her and his own in a “review” such as this one at times—although perhaps not too often ), I feel the Monterey Jazz Festival is alive and well. After, I had people tell me of their appreciation for “acts” I missed: such as vocalist Gregory Porter; the “collective” Snarky Puppy; Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas performing two pieces composed for them by Wayne Shorter; the always vibrant Lou Donaldson—and more.
This is admittedly a LONG post (Yes!) but it feels SO GOOD to be out from the Cold and writing again for Bill’s Blog—and I have one last piece of personal good news related to music: I’ve been asked to give a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg (see the “Music to Match the Words” post under “Music” on the menu) in Lynchburg, Virginia. The entire original “troupe” won’t go, but Kitty Petruccelli, who played the role of “Susan” on the CD and in three live performances in Monterey, now living in Massachusetts, will be on hand to BE Susan again, I’ll play piano accompaniment (from the score I wrote), and a local Lynchburg actor will play the role of Charles Minor Blackford (in place of Taelen Thomas). We’ve been asked to give this performance in late April for the National Civil War Chaplain’s Museum in Lynchburg—and I will provide more details (the exact date and theater) when I know them for sure.
So one last “pitch” for another perfect Holiday Season gift for friends and family …
My wife Betty and I will be at our son Tim’s home in Galena, Nevada this weekend, with the grandkids no longer “kids,” Emily and Blake, and if there’s snow and cold there (which there more likely will be), I intend to regard it with considerable affection from within a toasty family room (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”—thank you, Mel Torme), rather than out of doors. Here’s hoping you have a joyous Holiday Season! See you next post!