I inhabited three exceptional nights and two exceptional days of music at the 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: September 21-23. Before I get into the depth of that music, and (given my “inclusive” nature in this blog) one unanticipated event that preceded it, I would like–as a lead for the entire blog piece–to describe a single incident that took place at the Festival, for I feel that it will heighten the joy of, and in a condensed way, summarize all that I was fortunate to experience.
One of the most engaging sets at the Festival unfolded at 3:40 on Saturday afternoon on the main (Jimmy Lyons) stage: a commissioned piece called “Premiere Monterey Encounter (A Latin Jazz Suite for Flute),” composed and presented by Oscar Hernandez and his Spanish Harlem Orchestra—with “Special Guest” Hubert Laws (on flute). The piece itself was preceded by an ample display of Latin tunes that disclosed the orchestra’s full power and finesse, and the commissioned work itself commenced with a smooth piano intro (Hernandez). Followed by swirls of sound from three vocalists, one of them–Jeremy Bosch—aptly doubling on flute. A handsome melody, as theme, emerged (offset by sudden orchestral flares, accents), then a barrage of brilliant percussion (congas, timbales, bongos, maracas, guiro), showing all that this large aggregate was capable of (deep baritone sax beneath the theme). Hernandez offered a brief piano interlude, and then Hubert Laws was introduced (wearing a snappy Fedora hat with erect feather), the crowd well aware (from previous MJF appearances) of his renown). Laws and Jeremy Bosch engaged in a rich exchange of adroitly overlapping melodic lines, while the percussion quarter went wild—anthem orchestration giving way to the sweet theme again, enhanced by the bright melodicism of the two flutes, each with its own signature tone: Bosch holding his own with the iconic Laws, who closed the piece with a coda, a chromatic delight (up, down, sideways!), the end.
The performance was amazing, indelible, and the audience emerged from the arena vocalizing fragments of what they’d just heard. I found it necessary to make use of a porta-potty that stood nearby. As I stood inside, attending to my business, I heard someone singing, beautifully, perfectly in pitch, a woman with a voice as soft and engaging as that of Norah Jones. But it was not Norah Jones. At first I thought that lovely voice must be a recording, coming from a sound system just outside or overhead—but no, I realized that it came from next door—that the sublime voice was manifesting itself in the porta-potty right next to mine! Some divine female creature with the gift of an outrageously beautiful voice was singing, while attending to her “business” just next door.
I had an urge to knock on her door and offer her a contract, on the spot—or perhaps my services as a professional accompanist (which I am, although I did not have a piano on hand). Later, when I emerged having done neither and told friends about this extraordinary encounter, we took turns coming up with better, more unique, ways in which I might have made the acquaintance of her unique talent—but alas, by then, it was too late to implement them. However, in its rare way, this experience did heighten the joy of, and in its condensed way, summarize all that I was fortunate to experience that weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Here are photos of Oscar Hernandez and his Spanish Harlem Orchestra—and flutists Jeremy Bosch and Hubert Laws (Photo credits: news.stlpublicradio.org; www.spanishharlemorchestra.com/jeremy; http://www.knkx.org)
The second unanticipated event–another fortuitous complete surprise—was an e-mail letter I received three days before the Monterey Jazz Festival began. It read:“Dear Bill … My name is Sedef and I am the interview producer of an English language broadcasting TV channel in Istanbul, Turkey–TRT World’s flagship arts and culture programme Showcase. It is my pleasure to invite you for a remote 5-7 minutes interview on Monterey Jazz Festival (we want to take it as a start point, to have a look at this year’s program, why it is such a legendary festival, and come to the question of why is jazz still cool) on September 20th Thursday 13:30 GMT via Skype … Please see below brief information on TRT World and Showcase and do not hesitate to contact me on any further questions … TRT World is Turkey’s first international English-language news network, offering in-depth reporting with a focus on global responsibility. It reaches more than 120 million households around the world, and that number is growing … I look forward to hearing from you upon your earliest convenience, Sedef ILGIC, Interview Producer.”
This “news” was pretty exciting. I responded immediately with a resounding “Yes!”—and when I heard from Sedef Ilgic, saying she was “very happy that you accept to be our guest, I am sure it will be a lovely interview,” and she wanted “to make sure that we are on the same page with timing, it will be 6:30 am in California on September 20th Thursday (I am sorry to ask you to be up that early and wish I could send you a cup of Turkish coffee – however that is the time we shoot as live that I cannot change it)”; also saying “I will send you the exact questions we plan to ask you a couple of hours prior to the interview”; and lastly, “It would be very nice if you could tell me what is the most interesting for you to talk about briefly.” I wrote back saying that I had written the text and captions for a book that came out in 1997: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years. “It was a fully engaging project that allowed me to interview, and get to know as friends, some extraordinary jazz artists: drummer Max Roach, pianist Dave Brubeck, bassist Ray Brown (to whom tribute is being paid this year), and pianist John Lewis and bassist Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I would love to be able to talk briefly about that project—and, should there be time, some work (writing) I’ve done for the Festival since then—and most importantly, this year’s Festival lineup.”
After I checked to make sure a Skype call would work on my laptop computer (fortunately, it was already fully installed), I awaited the questions I would be asked—which did arrive at 5:00 am. I felt fully prepared to respond to them. I connected with Istanbul (I even received instruction as to just how I should position myself before the camera on my computer: “A little more to the left, Bill?”) ten minutes before we went “live”—and the first question, asked by the host, a beautiful woman wearing a headscarf or hijab worn by Muslim women (I never learned her name) was: “You wrote Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years and interviewed an extraordinary lineup of jazz artists for the project. what is the most amazing moment you experienced during these interviews?”
This had been the first of six (!) questions sent me at 5:00 am, and given the limited time assigned for the interview, I wanted to do it justice, but saw no way I could do so and do justice to the others (just a little more than a minute for the rest?), but I talked about interviewing pianist Dave Brubeck for the book (forty-three years after I’d first heard him play in Ann Arbor, Michigan back in 1954), and his memorable performance of his commissioned piece, The Real Ambassadors, at MJF in 1962. Unfortunately, some glitch had occurred in the broadcast (the voice of the man who’d instructed me in positioning myself came on, asking if I heard a “buzzing” sound at my end, which I did not, so he said, “must be Skype.”)
We proceeded, and the next question was one I was well ready for: “With the abundance of musical hybrids out today, why is jazz still cool?” “Because that’s its nature,” I replied. “Jazz is cool in and of itself”—no matter what “history” may attempt to claim (“Jazz is dead”; “The audience for it is getting too old, or dead”; et cetera). “Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.” And I mentioned my own feelings when I first began to play jazz at age 14; and members of my generation in the former Soviet Union who hid beneath blankets to listen to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk on illegal VOA broadcasts, and vowed that they would become “jazzmen” or “die.”
The next and last question (“I’m sorry, Bill, we’ve run out of time.”) was: “What’s the next step in the evolution of jazz?” That, too, was easy to respond to. “Global,” I said, “world music. It already is.” And I mentioned that the host city for International Jazz Day was Istanbul, five years ago (I said “I think three,” a mistake), and mentioned seeing an “old friend” (whom I had interviewed in 1990 at Berkeley College of Music, when he was 21), Igor Butman, who was in charge of International Jazz Day in Saint Petersburg recently—and the progress Jazz has made as a global art form over the last few years: its extent now as “world music.” I said, “It’s wonderful,” and the Showcase host said, “Wonderful”, and that was it for my own ten or so minutes of world fame—which was a delight for me.
The program was “streamed,” and I watched a re-run twice, thinking I’d never have a “permanent” copy, but later in the afternoon, I found two versions, on the TRT site (https://www.trtworld.com/video/showcase/contemporary-istanbul-chamber-of-immortality-monterey-jazz-festival-full-episode-showcase/5ba4d33b58cd863d6876f3f2) and on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch time_continue=1130&v=88UV1A8GTwc. So the program has been “preserved,” and is available. Showcase added a number of fine historic photos from the Monterey Jazz Festival archives, which fleshed out the overview of the event handsomely. Thank you again, Sedef Ilgic and TRT World’s Showcase for the chance to add my “offering.”
Given my customary blog indulgence (Sorry, sort of!), I’ve spent considerable time (and space) on my Monterey Jazz Festival “prelude” (and the porta-potty songstress experience) here—so I would like to focus on one of the major Festival treats for me this year: the appearance of Norah Jones in the main (Jimmy Lyons) arena on the last night, and then two of the first sets that began it all, out on the grounds—and save the rest (There was so much admirable music this year!) for another blog, to be posted (I hope) fairly soon.
I’d never seen Norah Jones (“live”) before, but I love her music, the quality of her voice, and I looked forward to her Sunday night set, eagerly. She did not disappoint me at all. I find her voice infectious, intoxicating: the consistency of mood (subtle, generally low key, sustaining, emotionally engaging, intimate), rich with “down-to-earth”–daily round—meaning, yet at the same time transcendent, other-worldly. Listening to her sing, I share the responses (as described) by other writers: “Romantic,” “dreamy,” “a signature sound,” “a unique blend.” In a New Yorker article, “Slow Burn,” Sasha Frere-Jones writes: “She is selling the all-time No. 1 hit song—sex … Jones’s music, too, is a recombinant blend that could be racked in various parts of a store. The twang in Jones’s voice establishes a cosmetic link to country, while the upright bass and piano suggest jazz … Most important, Jones never ruffles feathers or breaks the skin.”
Frere-Jones continues: “That doesn’t mean skin is irrelevant—it is the whole point. Consider this line from guitarist Jesse Harris’s “I’ve Got to See You Again,” recorded on Jones’s first album: “To not touch your skin is not why I sing.” Sex is in the music, the look, and everywhere in between. Jones is beautiful in a way that reassures those threatened by Beyoncé’s American thighs or Britney’s global bodysuits. For such an alleged milquetoast, Jones’s breakout song, “Don’t Know Why” [which she did sing that Sunday night] is certainly suggestive: “I don’t know why I didn’t come / I left you by the house of fun.” The album’s lyrics continue in this vein, sounding like a transcription of phone calls during the first week of a romance: She’s got to see you again, she’s feeling the same way all over again, she can’t hide beneath her sheets, she’s waiting for you to come on home and turn her on. It may smell like sandalwood and your dad may give it to you for Christmas, but Jones’s music is one big booty call.”
I’ll confess that the subtle but sultry “voice’ is one that invites a bedroom setting and intimacy encouraged there (a quality I’ve also admired in vocalists from Chris Conner to Karrin Allyson), but I’m also familiar with responses far less “inviting,” or favorable. In an article, “The Humility of Norah Jones,” Daniel Schorn reports, “Quiet, slow songs are what first made her so successful, but some said they could put you to sleep—dubbing her ‘Snorah Jones.’” He adds, “One critic wrote, after her first two albums, ‘Jones’ success is due to not being all that special. You can go to your local jazz club any night and maybe see somebody just as good. All the songs sound the same. There’s nothing remotely experimental about them. The songs are, for the most part, fairly pedestrian.'”
When Katie Couric, interviewing Jones, cited this criticism, the latter said, “Uh-huh. That’s mean … What I was going for in the first two albums I didn’t necessarily achieve. Because I was young and because it was my first time out. And the second album was such a ‘quickie’ sort of ‘Let’s just get it over with!’ But the kind of music I make, there’s a lot of subtlety in it. And I think it takes a couple of listens to actually really get it. ‘Pedestrian’ is a mean way of saying simple.” “Or accessible,” Couric points out. “Or, they’re very accessible,” Jones says. But that accessibility provides the attainable (“able to be reached or entered”) fundamental meaning I value—something not always present in the pyrotechnics (as in “a spectacular display or performance of artistic or technical skill”: “spectacle”) of much contemporary jazz.
On Sunday morning of the Festival, a bunch of journalists meet for brunch, and one of my favorite people, a local Monterey writer, Beth Peerless, was critical of Norah Jones, and would, after her performance post in the local paper, The Herald, praise for the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival overall (the truly exquisite programming), a more subdued (charitable) version of what she told me (comparing two different sets: a “The Legacy of Michael Brecker” (a Coversation featuring Randy Brecker, Gil Goldstein, Donny McCaslin, and John Patitucci) to what Norah Jones had to offer. Beth wrote: “The uniqueness of each act and how expertly programmed they were [amplified] the differences that exist in the jazz canon. As an example, following the Brecker tribute to close out the festival on the main stage was Norah Jones’ set with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christopher Thomas … Her music is restrained and beautiful, her songs sometimes melancholy but nonetheless she’s amassed a huge following that gave her the top billing at this legendary jazz festival … Now some people may feel that she does not represent jazz, but being generous one can say that her music melds jazz, country and pop together with a sensitivity and with a sweet delivery that harkens nostalgia for simpler times. She played many of her hits from the breakthrough debut album, 2002’s Come Away With Me on Blue Note Records, interspersed with some new tunes that had a little more edge. That was nice to hear from her because there are many who would say she can get boring in performance because of the sensual low key vocal delivery and the wistful imagery of her lyrics, song after song. That view has its proponents, but overall her performance was a success and enjoyable for her inimitable style.”
Beth is a fine writer and characterizes Norah Jones’ style well (accurately), although I don’t agree with the ”boring in performance” phrase, nor “she does not represent jazz”—and I’d like to complete my feelings regarding Nora Jones with some thoughts on her as a jazz artist—who does, to my satisfaction, do a handsome job of “melding” that genre with country, and pop, and not just for the sake of “nostalgia for simpler times.”
As someone who writes poetry and is, at present, engaged in setting my poems to original music (an art form: genuine love song—first introduced to the world in 1300 B.C., in Egypt), I like her way with words, however low key or wistful they may be. At her best, she reminds me of my favorite “country” group: the Avette Bros., with their unique blend of sophistication and “down home” storytelling (“Call the Smithsonian, I made a discovery / Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free / Loved ones will break your heart with or without you / Turns out we don’t get to know everything.”). Of the songs Jones played and sang that last Sunday night, if you listen carefully, the very familiar “Come Away With Me” offers some apt individual lines (and images): “Come away where they can’t tempt us / With their lies”; “I want to wake up with the rain / Falling on a tin roof /While I’m safe there in your arms.” And from “Sunrise”: “Sunrise, sunrise / Couldn’t tempt us if it tried / ‘Cause the afternoon’s already come and gone … Surprise, surprise / Couldn’t find it in your eyes But I’m sure it’s written all over my face … Never something I could hide / When I see we made it through another day.” From “My Heart Is Full”: “My hands are tied (tied, tied) / I can see (see, see) / People hurting (hurting, hurting) … Are we broken? (broken, broken) / … I will rise (rise, rise) / I am tired / I am strong / I am human / I will listen / My heart is full / My eyes are open / I can see.” And the stark simplicity of these words from “After the Fall”: “Everyday was changing / Only photographs / But life goes on … Out on my own now / And I like the way it feels / You couldn’t come through / And I’m too far gone … After the fall / Do you still want it all?”).
As for her range of musical “effects,” or genres, I feel it goes well beyond melding just jazz, country and pop—it embraces the world (after all, she is the daughter of Ravi Shankar and American concert producer Sue Jones)—and does so in the most subtle manner (a host of global licks and tricks tucked away among the surface “simplicity” or accessibility). In his book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, author Nate Chinen traces the full extent of Norah Jones’ background, or training—and the extent of accomplishment and awards it’s led to. She began with jazz piano at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, and continued musical studies at the University of North Texas: this “before finding a niche in the roots-minded but non-purist singer-songwriter hub on Manhatten’s Lower East Side,” Chinen adding, “But it took a few years before her identity was fully in place.” When he first heard her, in 2001, she was “a soul-styled guest on a Charlie Hunter [“widely considered the authority on the seven and eight – string guitar”] gig.” Her debut album (Come Away With Me) was released on Blue Note “to the consternation of some jazz partisans who augured the early stirrings of a more crossover-minded direction for the label. This wasn’t an unreasonable takeaway. To some degree it was even true.”
However, at the 45th Grammys, at the tender age of twenty-three, Norah Jones “swept five categories, including Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Record of the Year.” (A wire photograph depicted an “iconic image”: “newcomer Norah Jones with an armload of awards.”). When Blue Note offered a collaboration concert to celebrate its 75th anniversary, she was found among such grand jazz company as host Jason Moran, Wayne Shorter, and Anthony Braxton. In his book, Nate Chinen sites Esperanza Spaulding as “a spiritual successor to Norah Jones … Jones was another singer-songwriter who’d parlayed her sterling jazz education into a mainstream musical career”—but I’ll take Jones over Spaulding (who I do admire immensely as an instrumentalist, as a bassist) any day as a songwriter, for in the latter area, I find Spaulding pretentious—a bit presumptuous in her ambition.
My journalist friend Dan Ourllette (who conducts the popular DownBeat Blindfold Test at the Monterey Jazz Festival) has written a book about Bruce Lundvall (Playing by Ear: Bruce Lundvall), the legendary music executive who “discovered” Norah Jones (along with Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson, Bobby Mcferrin, Cassandra Wilson, Kurt Elling, and Wynton Marsalis—to name just a few “top-tier musicians of our time”), and, with regard to Jones, Lyndvall has this to say about signing her in 2001 (when she was “just an aspiring 21-year-old who was waiting tables in New York and gigging in the East Village with jazz and pop bands”): “That was a lucky day,” adding, “You’d have to be tone deaf not to hear that voice … Norah is such a great talent. She has a signature voice that’s not like anyone else. People ask me where to find another Norah Jones. And I say, I want to find another original. That’s the answer. Real artists have careers; some aren’t artists, but more marketing confections or acts. Some may have hits, but they tend to have shorter careers. Real artists have a long-term career and a long-term vision.”
When Lundvall heard her sing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” on a demo, he “went nuts.” He asked how long she’d known the song, telling her, “I love it. I can tell you love it too.” He asked her who was playing piano.” “Me,” she answered. And Lundvall said, “ Get yourself an attorney.” “I intended to sign her right then,” he recalls, in retrospect.” Dan Ouellette ends his chapter, “Testifying: Finding Norah Jones”: “Truly an original … [She] cast a luminous spell that Bruce recognized upon first hearing her sing. With top-hit radio at that time dominated by pomposity and frenetic electronic beats, Norah offered an elegant alternative that was an alluring melding of country, blues, folk and jazz. And underlying her ‘moody little record’ [Come Away With Me] as she told one writer, was an overriding sensibility of integrity. There was nothing presumptuous or pretentious about Norah’s goals: create strong, honest songs without a game plan ro become a star manufacturing sure-fire hit-bound material. That pretty much sums up Bruce’s philosophy to follow his intuition … Norah’s commercial appeal has backed this up. All told, all of her solo albums have sold close to 50 million copies worldwide.”
But that’s not what drew me to her, and kept me there throughout her set that Sunday night. Given the extent of manipulation—emotional (fake feeling, like “fake news,” calculation of and compromise on what’s truly felt, and experienced); and otherwise: smoke screen and light-assisted glitter, dance-saturated overproduction–in the music world today, I’m hesitant to even mention the word “sincerity”; but in Norah Jones, I hear a voice to which that word applies, along with another favorite word of mine just now (given the state of affairs in the world in general): “stillness,” in the sense of Buddhist “mindfulness,” awareness of what is still genuinely meaningful, the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing [and music] because only that is worth writing [and singing] about, worth the agony and the sweat.” (William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech). She still sings herself, what she truly IS as a human being—and the effect is “beyond category” (of genre).
As Marcus J. Moore wrote about her latest album, Day Breaks: “Armed with that voice—a wry, simmering inflection—the Texas native has proven she can sing anything, and sound natural doing so, no matter where the road has taken her … Day Breaks is especially sparse, a no-frills record that fades into the background without much fuss. It seems to reflect the singer’s personal and professional comfort, that—after 15 years as a signed artist with more than 50 million records sold—Jones doesn’t need to adhere to industry pressures to remain relevant. Whereas some artists revert to their best-received work as a way to reignite past glory, Day Breaks feels like the logical next step for a singer who’s done just about everything there is to do musically. This one isn’t a barn-burner, but it’s not supposed to be.”
Thank you, Norah Jones, for remaining true to yourself—and for bringing so much genuine pleasure and appreciation to those who heard and saw you Sunday night at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
To return to Nate Chinen, and his book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, which he concludes with some thought s on where jazz “is going”: “As long as people have been talking about jazz, they’ve been talking about where it’s going. The conversation rests on presumptions of forward progress and collective striving. But while some musicians have embraced the premise, others refused to play along. A well-meaning interviewer once asked Thelonious Monk where he thought jazz was going, and the pianist replied, “I don’t know where it’s doing. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”
I agree with Nate Chinen (looking back on my claim in The Istanbul Turkey Showcase interview, when asked “Why is jazz still cool?” “Because that’s its nature. Jazz is cool in and of itself”—no matter what “history” may attempt to claim (“Jazz is dead”; “The audience for it is getting too old, or dead”; et cetera). “Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.”)—I agree with Chenin that “There is no way of prognosticating jazz’s future. Or even its precise trajectory, because the art form doesn’t adhere to a linear axis.” It just IS. Given the “spirit of multiplicity that now prevails,” I agree with Chenin when he says of “the present moment and its endless possibilities … Progress is almost beside the point. The music will flow and fluctuate, keep going. And where to? Anywhere. It just happens.”
I’m not going to apologize for enjoying what I wrote about Norah Jones (the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival’s last act) as much as I have, or at some length; but I do plan, in my next blog post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I heard over the weekend. I would like, here and now, to introduce you to two other performances I much admired on the first (Friday, September 21) night: the Hristo Vitchev Quartet (Hristo Vitchev, guitar; Jasnam Daya Singh, piano; Dan Robbins, Bass; Mike Shannon) and the Jan Ira Bloom Quartet (the leader on soprano sax; Dawn Clement, piano; Mark Hellas, bass; Bobby Previte, drums).
Here are photos of Hristo Vitchev, Jasnam Daya Singh, and Jane Ira Bloom (Photo credits: Broadbandguitar.com; Linkedin; http://www.nypl.org)
I was not all that familiar with 37-year-old Bulgaria-born (but now based in San Francisco) Hristo Vitchev (“one of the newest and most innovative voices in modern jazz guitar,” an artist who “combines elements of classical, modern jazz, folk, and avant-garde sonic hues in his music”), but I have known Brazilian-born Jasnam Daya Singh for some time, for he performed for years in Monterey as Weber Iago—and we had a chance at this year’s Festival to renew our friendship. And I have written about Dan Robbins and Mike Shannon in the past, and previewed the group’s excellent recent CD Of Light and Shadows—so I was eager to hear them “live.” Their set met all of my expectations—and I’ll describe it as best I can in the next blog.
I will also write about Jane Ira Bloom, whose work I was familiar with (I have her recordings), and she emerged as one of the weekend’s “super stars,” I feel: Her Friday night set with her quartet—and her superb set on Saturday night with pianist Fred Hersch (their duo on “Time After Time” sent writer Andy Gilbert into an ecstatic trance, and me too! Followed by a exquisite “There’s a Place for Us.”). And I have many other excellent performances I witnessed at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival to write about … in my next Bill’s Blog.
Be with you then.