The Puppet Theatre, Duos, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

When I started this blog (in July 2013), I had two “goals” or intentions in mind: (1) to let people know I had a book out I’d been at work on for six years (The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir), and (2) to make use of the somewhat casual or even “chatty” opportunities a blog affords: a new “road” or means of conversation in writing that would allow me to “experiment” with different prose styles and unusual approaches to exploring subject matter—a process similar to practice sessions at the piano or “playing” with an arrangement for a new song of my own. In this way of working (writing), I wouldn’t have to filter out the large and little eccentricities I might have to if I had an “external” editor looking over my shoulder.

In my last blog post, I attempted to combine an account of what I heard and saw at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival with an account of how I heard and saw it, given some vision and vestibular medical issues I’ve been dealing with; and I included an account of research I’d undertaken related to understanding such issues. I promised that, in my next blog (this one), I would simply provide a report on more 2015 MJF performances, without including the “side effects”; however …

I’ve had a subsequent experience that served to sustain my interest in extra-musical effects that make, I feel, music even more interesting and meaningful than it might be “on its own” (so to speak), and by way of diversion ( a habit of mine, I know, but one I see as an integral part of my approach to writing a blog, or a genre I seem to have invented: Blog Baroque), I would like to make a short “pit stop” at a subject allied to music … and then we shall travel back to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival again (I obviously never intended an “on the spot” report of the event, but have finally, eight months hence, found the “larger” frame I hoped to find for it.).

My wife Betty and I attended a Live in HD Transmission of the Metropolitan Opera performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that featured Kristine Opelais (as Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Alagna (as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton). The principles, and the production itself (Anthony Minghella’s, first offered in 2006), were superb, first-rate—but I was fascinated by a feature I’d never witnessed before (as part of this opera, which I’ve seen several times), and that was a means of presenting Cio-Cio-San’s infant son in the “Humming Chorus” scene in which  Butterfly and her ever faithful servant Suzuki spend their “long vigil through the night” awaiting Pinkerton’s return to Nagasaki after an absence of three years.

Butterfly has given birth to her faithless husband’s son, and by my math (elementary, to say the least), the kid would be about two years old, a role it’s always bothered me to see portrayed by a child actor too far beyond his “terrible twos” to bring it off. Minghella came up with a brilliant solution to this problem: he did not employ an actual human child, but a puppet! This two-year-old came alive, literally, in the hands of three puppeteers (Kevin Augustine, Tom Lee, and Marc Petrosino: members of a trope called Blind Summit Theatre). Dressed from head to toe in black, seemingly “not there,” anonymous, they manipulated Cio-Cio-San’s son’s every gesture and expression—the amazing part of which was the head, which is separated from the body, but has static features (no blinking eyes, no gaping mouth, no twitching nostrils), yet displayed the most poignant regard (love!) for its mother, just by the position of the head in one puppeteer’s black gloved hand, while the other two “worked” the feet and body respectively. It’s an amazing art form, carried out throughout the opera in other ways: black clad figures twirling constellations of stars, and even a love scene featuring a “live” Pinkerton (a dancer, or “motion artist”) and a puppet Cio-Cio-San.

Here are: a scene from the Met production: Butterfly and her son; curtain call (which included the puppet son); in Japanese Bunraku: main puppeteer unhooded (National Bunraku Theater, a style of performance known as dezukai); and three hooded puppeteers manipulating two characters in a play.

Bunraku in Butterfly 2  SONY DSC

bunraku-puppet-maiden   Bunraku Puppet Theatre

Japanese puppet theatre is called Bunraku, or Ningyo joruri—the black clad puppeteers Ningyotsukai. The playwright known as the “Japanese Shakespeare,” Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), often worked in this form because, in the words of scholar/historian Donald Keene, dissatisfied with the “liberties taken with his texts,” he preferred “obedient puppets” to “temperamental actors.” Keene finds the comparison to Shakespeare “an unfortunate identification,” feeling that Chikamatsu’s plays offer instead “a vivid picture of a unique age in Japan, and have a special importance among the dramas of the world in that they constitute the first mature tragedies written about the common man.” One of Chikamatsu’s most popular plays, Sonezaki Shinju (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) does not focus on star-crossed Montagues and Capulets, but a 25-year-old “employee of a dealer in soy sauce” and a 19-year-old courtesan: a clerk and a prostitute—the playwright having lifted his account of the love suicides of such people “from the gossip of a scandal sheet to the level of tragedy.” Keene feels, as I did about Cio-Cio-San’s puppet son, that “the stylization of puppets touches springs of pity and terror forbidden to actors.”

Thinking of the unique mix of this perfect performance on the part of a puppet and the brilliant vocal performances of Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly, and getting closer now to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (in case you’re getting impatient), I thought of another miraculous combination of art forms I’ve encountered lately. In 2012, my wife Betty and I were fortunate to attend not just two full sets at the MJF that year by an amazing pianist from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, but his rehearsal session as well. I have his latest CD, Luys I Luso: a unique combination, a “marriage,” of his own brilliant improvisation and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir performing Armenian sacred music from the 5th to the 20th century—or, in Hamasyan’s own words: “a challenge to explore the mystery of Armenian sacred music and to create polyphonic arrangements for melodies by tradition monadic.” I won’t attempt to describe the result in detail, but it’s wonderful: soothing and exciting–a music that can both touch and sting, arrest attention and transcend it. (photo credits: Vahan Stepanyan):

Tigran Hanasian    Tigran Hamasyan 3

Which brings me to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, and two performers who provided an extraordinary experience there. We all have our favorite duos: Adam & Eve, Batman & Robin, Tom & Jerry, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Anthony & Cleopatra, Cheech & Chong, macaroni & cheese, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Jekyll & Hyde, Watson & Holmes, Lewis & Clark, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Kirk & Spock, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda, Beavis & Butt-head, Samson & Delilah, Napoleon & Josephine., Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris, The Hardy Boys (Frank & Joe), Nick & Nora Charles—on and on and on …

But now, after the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I have a new favorite pairing up, a duo supreme: pianist Chick Corea & banjoist Bela Fleck.

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea’s first major professional gig was with Cab Calloway; he went on to play in trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s quintet; recorded his first album as a leader(Tones for Joan’s Bones) in 1966; replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band in 1968 (landmark albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew); experimented with Fender Rhodes electric piano, processing its output with a ring modulator; formed the group Circle with bassist Dave Holland in 1970; played with the crossover jazz fusion band Return to Forever; his composition “Spain” appeared on the group’s Light as a Feather album in 1972; issued My Spanish Heart in 1976 (jazz and flamenco); formed the Chick Corea Elektric Band (1986) and the Akoustic Band; composed his first piano concerto and performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999; duet projects with vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianists Herbie Hancock and Hiromi, and recorded the duet album The Enchantment with Bela Fleck in 2007. Chick Corea has been nominated for 63 Grammy Awards, and has won 22.

New York City born Bela Anton Leos Flack (Bela for Bartok, Anton for Webern, Leos for Janacek) first heard Flatt and Scruggs’ theme for The Beverly Hillbillies when he was five or six years old, and the sound of the banjo, in his words, “just blew me away … like sparks going off in my head.” At age nineteen, he spent a summer playing on the streets of Boston, formed a band called Spectrum with bassist Mark Schatz, and was invited to join the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in 1981. He formed the group Flecktones with bassist Victor Wooten in 1988; a self-titled CD, a “blubop” mix of jazz and bluegrass, attracted attention at Warner Bros. Records and was released in 1990; in 2003, Bela and the Flecktones released a three-disk set, Little Worlds, and then The Hidden Land, which won the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2007. Having mastered bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world music, in 2001, Bela won the GRAMMY Best Classical Crossover album award with Perpetual Motion–a venture into classical music with longtime friend Edgar Meyer, with whom he set out on a banjo/bass duo concert tour. Next stop: Chick Corea. Bela Fleck has garnered 30 nominations for GRAMMY awards, and received 14 (nominated in more different categories than anyone in GRAMMY history).

Here’s Chick Corea (Photo credit: Roberto Serra) and Bela Fleck (Photo credit: Waltons New School of Music Workshop):

MJF Chick and Bela  MJF Chick and Bela 2

Before they began their set together on the Monterey Jazz Festival main stage at 7:00 Sunday night, I was eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich from one of the Festival food booths, and Chick Corea strolled by, inconspicuously, and I thought, “Wow! He’s just a guy, like me” (although he wasn’t eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich), and it struck me later, when he and Bela were performing together on stage: “Wow! They’re just a couple of guys,” for extraordinary improvisation, for them, seemed to come about as naturally, freely, spontaneously as if they were just two guys conversing on a porch in Appalachia, enjoying the mild night air there, and each other’s musical presence. They artlessly produced exquisite art: so thoroughly acquainted with the technical vocabulary that’s become commonplace in jazz, yet so fully steeped in the music’s history (its origin in supple sex and dance), they seemed to transcend all pretense in favor of a level of higher understanding—such as that advocated by the philosopher Spinoza in Rebecca Goldstein’s words: “The world is the all-embracing web of necessary truths intelligible through and through—and our own individual salvation rests in our knowing this. Our own personal salvation … consists in achieving the most impersonal of worldviews … the peace of unity of purpose”; or, in Spinoza’s own words: “the contentment of spirit.”

I’m fascinated that just two people, a duo, can do this, musically or otherwise (no symphony orchestral backing required, or a million-voiced choir). MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson introduced Bela Fleck as “my great banjo musical hero, and this is his first time here with Chick Corea.” In a similar situation, on their recording Two, introduced, Bela waxes modest and tells the audience, “I know Chick Corea is a real hero of you guys, and he sure is to me. It’s frightening at times just to be up here playing with him.” Chick responds, “Likewise,” and Bela says, “You too? Well, because we are so frightened of each other, we’ll use this next tune to recover our nerves.” But there was no sign of nerves at all (just a host of neurons–200 billion: 100 billion each–masterfully employed in making music) the night I heard them at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

The first tune they played, one composed by Chick, was “Children’s Song No. 6,” a playfully scattered, free form piece that matched an inquisitive child’s mind searching for answers to who knows what, percussive yet containing a precise roving, all Chick (solo piano) at the start, brooding, teasing, circular swirls, nothing stationary—and Bela’s banjo enters in absolute unison, as if he’d somehow snuck into Chick’s (childlike) mind, the unison dissolving into a playground skirmish, complaints, a kinetic challenge (“It’s mine!” No, it’s mine!”), Bela taking off on a prancing Baroque line above Chick’s chomping comping, handsome interaction between the two. They produced every effect that can be acquired on a keyboard or fretboard: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty” (“All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim … ); taking turns to sit out for the other’s “fours”: a joyous encounter, an exchange of attention and response, even retaliation—with a sweet respectful close.

They played a tune that Bela wrote for his wife, Abigail, “Waltse for Abby” (Bela mentioned that their son Juno had been born while he, the father, was performing on stage): this piece opening with Chick offering whole chords, handsomely spaced out, chime-like, then settling into a melody with playful intervals, a theme Bela entered smoothly, a rich exchange captured in both call and response and counterpoint: the overall tone one of domestic joy, a sort of kitchen dance, Chick picking up a phrase  by Bela, repeating it a split second after it occurred: a common conversation taking place between the two, Chick to the forefront with some blues licks, tasty jazz—then back into the lighthearted, jubilant, domestic waltz dance, and out.

“Mountain,” another tune by Bela, had a decidedly Appalachian flavor (I was there, breathing in that mountain air, and music!): a fine folk melody carried by Bela, Chick paraphrasing it—both embodied in a fully relaxed, down home manner–perfect! Chick came across with some quick glisses, a left hand vamp, and both indulged in some good time dissonance that took them back to the theme, which they landed on with a unison smile, a romp broken wide open again and concluding with a swift stop. (photo credit: C. Charles Crothers):

MJF Chick and Bela 3  MJF Chick and Bela 4

For the sake of contrast (and a display of absolute versatility), they played a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), an Italian Baroque composer famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. The performance was “a little bit of an experiment” (in Chick Corea’s words), and they brought it off brilliantly. Writing in his book Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music, James Anderson Winn shows how composers of madrigals made use of the 14th century Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch’s “rhetorical strategy of alternating and suspending contrarieties within his own ethos … joy and lament, hope and despair, certitude and doubt,” allowing a dialectical unity to evolve out of multiplicity through patterns of shading and contrast, challenge and fulfillment, assertion and negation”—expressive value emerging alongside constructive technique. Winn also mentions Carlo Gesueldo da Venosa (1566-1613), a musician best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals that employed a wide harmonic vocabulary and chromatic language not heard again until Wagner (Stravinsky’s fondness for Gesualdo “was a recognition of kinship.”).

I’ve thrown in this aside on musical history because, on the night I heard Chick Corea and Bela Fleck together, I was in awe of the large sweep of musical history they offered, the vast repertoire they included in their performance together. They ended what I witnessed with an encore: Chick’s tune “Armando’s Rhumba,” a perfect denouement with its fully engaging rhythm, exotic flavor, and absolutely tight unison work. They were two Masters at play—a duo in the best sense of the word (Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate: “The world presents us with non-zero-sum games in which it is better for both parties to act unselfishly than for both to act selfishly (better not to shove and not be shoved than to shove and be shoved.”)). Bela Fleck plays banjo with the deft ease, the light dexterity of a master musician on a harpsichord (and not just on the Scarlatti piece!), and Chick Corea plays piano with the graceful intentionality of someone enjoying … infinity! It was an impeccable performance.

I said I could have spent the entire weekend listening to the two of them work their magic, but obviously there was a feast of other fine performances going on. Before we part from “duos,” let me mention a set that featured two musicians listening to music and then talking about what they heard: Latin jazz great Pete Escovedo and his daughter virtuoso drummer Sheila E. (both of whom performed in Pete’s 80th birthday celebration on the main stage on Sunday afternoon). The first occasion (the “listening” session) was Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test set on Saturday. (Photo credit: Mars Breslow):

MJF Pete and Sheila E   MJF Pete and Sheila E 3

DownBeat Publisher Frank Alkyer announced that this would be another anniversary: the 20th for which Dan (“a leading voice in contemporary jazz journalism”) has been host. My wife Betty and I are pleased to have had Dan stay at our home, along with Oakland photographer Stu Brinin, for the past seventeen of those twenty years—a ritual, or tradition, we hope to sustain in the future (Dan, Stu, and I enjoying Three Musketeers comradery throughout the weekend). As for the afternoon of the 20th, Frank Alkyer introduced Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. as “the most famous father and daughter team in music, without a doubt.”

This duo came through handsomely, and with considerable humor, throughout the Blindfold session: Pete identifying the artist immediately when Dan played Tito Puente’s “3-D Mambo,” and Sheila E. responding, “This [tune] was in my dad’s expansive collection when I was growing up. He played it a thousand times. I was only 6 or 8, but if he says Tito, then it must be him.” When she guessed “Machito” correctly as the artist (her father confessed he couldn’t name the orchestra on the next tune), Sheila E. rose from her chair and performed a zestful dance downstage—and when a member of the audience identified the alto saxophonist on the recording as Cannonball Adderley, she cried, “This guy deserves a hug,” and she gave him one!

Sheila E. found guitarist Marc Ribot’s “Como Se Goza En El Barrio” a “tough one” to identify, saying, “It sounds like my dad when he’d been out drinking all night” (adding that, later in her life, she enjoyed doing the same with her dad). A final piece Dan played again brought an immediate correct response from Pete Escovedo: “That’s the great Carmen McRae and Cal Tjader. I’ve always loved her singing. You don’t hear people like that anymore.” Sheila E. responded, “The style and the sound takes me back to when I was young. It reminds me of the Bay area—my dad, my family having fun, the food, the dancing all the time. When it was playing, it makes you want to stand up and do the cha-cha. In fact, I could see people in the back doing that.”

Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Tests bring out the best in everyone!

This wasn’t a duo (unless you want to multiply two by four and add one), but the John Santos Sextet, with guests Oristis Vilato, Jose Roberto Hernandez, and Ernesto Oviedo, offered a fully engaging set in Dizzy’s Den on Saturday night. Master percussionist Santos is, as a presence on stage, my idea of a “class act,” wearing a sport coat and tie and a white hat with a dark band (one of many such hats, I suspect, in his possession). He is an inspiring gentleman who takes time to provide an exegesis of the music itself, nothing extraneous, serving to enhance that music through understanding of it: paying homage to a Cuban Golden Era, “the roots of our music, with its rainbow range of colors … jazz is a clave born art form … the most natural thing.” At the start, flutist John Calloway and tenor saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo provided a handsome exchange above Saul Sierra’s bass vamp, and the full infectious rhythm took hold, offset by pianist Marco Diaz’s fine clave configurations and John Santos’ own substantial nimble-fingered congas offerings. (Photo credits’ # 1 & 4: Tom Ehrlich; #2: SF Jazz; #3: John Santos and Ernesto Oviedo at Mini Amoeba Tent at MJF):

MJF John Santos 2   MJF John Santos

MJF Santos and Oviedo    MJF Santos and Oviedo 2

Oristis Vilato was introduced, playing bongos and timbale, and then Jose Roberto Henandez on guitar, and just when it seemed there could be no further way to flesh out such a first-rate group, Santos introduced Ernesto Oriedo, Havana’s 77-year-old (in writer Andy Gilbert’s words) “preeminent interpreter of romantic boleros, the heart-on-sleeve ballads honed to poetic perfection in Havana and Mexico City and beloved across Latin America.” Santos met Oviedo on a trip to Cuba in 1990, and says, “He’s like my Cuban father.” Santos has recorded and hopes to release an album featuring Oriedo, saying, “Like a lot of the musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club, Ernesto has been on the quiet side. He’s worked all these years, but always as one of the singers in a group and never led his band. I think it’s time that changed.” On Saturday night, the presence of Ernesto Oriedo matched that of Santos himself in dignity and emotive performance skill—his elegant voice at one with the group, yet rising, handsomely, aloft.

I had been looking forward to the long-form commissioned piece, The Forgotten Places, by exceptional trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, presented on the main stage on Saturday night—a work that turned out to be extremely “atmospheric” (and ambivalent) for me: wisps of synthesized wind mixed with what, at first, seemed vocalise but turned out to be words that suggested syntactical semblance but not much symantic accessibility. When I could comprehend them, they seemed overtly obvious (“ … the way it used to be … my hope is where my heart is …”): an odd combination of effects which, along with stark contrast in the music, produced the ambivalence I mentioned. Whereas Hideaki Aomori provided fine work on clarinet and Sam House on piano, sudden gratuitous orchestral surges were mixed with Maeve Gilchrist interludes on a harp, and Okkyung Lee’s cello solo evolved into dissonant passages that resembled a prolonged scream (“dreamlike” in the sense that Carl Yung meant when he said we go crazy at night so that we may remain sane by day?). The strangest “omission,” for me, was that of Akinmusire himself: his tasteful, skillful tone so little in evidence anywhere in the piece.

The composer spent a weeklong retreat at the rustic Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, and “realized that this piece has to be about [his] experience there … reminded that solitude not only lives within us, it can also be a luxury,” and while the results did reveal the contrast between north Oakland and Glen Deven Ranch, “the forgotten places within yourself,” I couldn’t help but crave more direct involvement (performance) on the part of Ambrose himself. Later that night, Dan Ouellette would take me to task for splitting in the middle of the commissioned work, and would write, himself, in DownBeat: “From the tranquil mysterious beginning … to its surprising rhythmic conclusion, the band [a “chamber nonet”] took the crowd on a journey that was part reflection, part awakening. While the individual sections of the composition lacked the powerful, dramatic surges that often flow through a new commissioned work, Akinmusire sustained an energy throughout the piece that kept the audience mesmerized”—so, while I was by no means mesmerized, perhaps (“faith and patience”: a mantra I ordinarily attempt to put into practice) I should have stuck it out for the “surprising rhythmic conclusion,” or “awakening.”

I may have made up for my mistake at 10:30 on Saturday night, when I attended Ambrose Akinmusire’s set with his quartet in the nightclub, and walked in on a handsome ballad on which he fully displayed the rich combination of expressive value and constructive technique he’s known for—and followed that up with a full set of artful music.

Other sets I enjoyed: opening night’s “Jaco’s World: A Celebration of the Music of Jaco Pastorius,” with a very tight orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza—excellent arrangements fleshed out by solos by top flight saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Bob Sheppard in that section,  Peter Erskine on drums, Chistian McBride on bass, with Will Lee and Jaco’s son Felix providing solos front and center on electric bass. Vocalist Tierney Sutton sang Jaco’s “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” and the set closed out with a rousing Afro-Cuban, R & B rendering of “Come On, Come Over” (“We’ll sing the tune”)—the musical homage accompanied by videos with clips from Jaco Pastorius’ life shown overhead.

On a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon that drove most of the Jimmy Lyons main arena audience to a narrow zone of comfort, just six seats in each row in the shade of the left hand side (I thought I’d stick this situation out and occupy my assigned seat, at which heroic task I lasted no more than a few minutes), Snarky Puppy put on a good show, the young big band aggregate formed at the University of North Texas (“famed for its jazz studies program”), now based in Brooklyn, a “infectiously fun and seriously musical jazz/funk/R&B collective … For years, the underdog band played house parties and slept in people’s basements, but now enjoying the kind of success most musicians dream of” (as described in the MJF program). Snarky Puppy proved to be the crowd-pleasing “hip, soulful, energetic” and “explosive” aggregate they are advertised as. (Photo credit: Christi La Violette).

MJF SnarkyPuppy

Because of commitments elsewhere, I missed hearing Kurt Rosenwinkel and Lizz Wright (I did hear the latter when she first appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival several years ago)—two performers who provided excellent sets I was told. Such a wide fine range of music to take in over a weekend! Creative Director Tim Jackson’s genius for programming came through once again—and I only have one mild complaint that I and my journalist colleagues shared with regard to a “user friendly” facility we once enjoyed. This year the last portion of the Turf Club we could retire to for a glass of beer or wine and grand shop talk, had been converted to a “District 7 Premier Club” far beyond our humble price range (perhaps anyone’s, for we hardly saw a soul partaking of the comforts there all weekend).

However, the ever resourceful Stu Brinin discovered a comfortable venue at a far end of the Fairgrounds serving Guinness that allowed us to escape the heat—and we enjoyed a conversation with the members of the vocal group Duchess (Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou), who’d taken refuge at a table adjacent to ours before their Sunday evening Garden Stage set. I’d heard Amy presenting a thoroughly enjoyable, and productive, “Jazz for Kids Concert” at the Jazz Education Stage that afternoon: introducing tunes to kids by asking, “Have you been anywhere interesting on your travels with your parents?”—their avid responses leading into “Route 66”; or, “Do you ever have an argument with one your siblings?” leading into “Let’s Get Away from It All” (“You say ‘either,’ I say ‘ei-ther,’ et cetera.). Very cool.

And one last final “plug” for the two exceptional musical artists I wrote about in my last blog: vocalist Cyrille Aimee (I wrote about her CD It’s a Good Day, but I highly recommend her Cyrille Aimee + Friends Live at Smalls and Let’s Get Lost as well; and pianist Justin Kauflin (listen to what he does with “A Day in the Life” on his first CD Introducing Justin Kauflin). The documentary focused on his remarkable friendship with Clark Terry, Keep on Keepin’ On, is one of the most moving jazz-oriented documentaries I have ever seen!

Here’s Duchess (Photo credit: Mini Amoeba tent at MJF); Cyrille Aimee (Photo credit: mackavenue); and Justin Kauflin (Photo credit: YouTube: “Mom’s Song” (Live at the Edye Broad Stage)}:

MJF Duchess        MJF Cyrille Aimee 3

MJF Justin Kauflin 2

And that, folks, is it for the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (eight months after the event—but “remembered in tranquility”—and with a few of those extra-musical elements which can add so much to the music itself. Next post coming up (and soon, for I’ve already written it!) will be on Greek music, ancient and modern. Stay tuned.

Oliver Sacks, Consciousness, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

I have long been a fan, a devotee, when it comes to the work of the late great Oliver Sacks. I assigned his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat each semester I taught Humanities at the local college; I’ve relished Musicophilia as a pianist; and now, as someone who recently turned eighty years of age, and learning to accept and accommodate vestibular and vision-related medical “issues,’ I have gained much by reading Migraine and The Mind’s Eye.

What I like most about Sacks’ work is his “upbeat” attitude: the many hopeful, sanguine stories he told, working as a neurologist with patients who find ingenious ways to compensate for deprivation, with what they’ve lost, and thus turn loss into gain—possibly even finding their lives more meaningful than before, responding to their existence with increased creativity and imagination, rather than a sense of defeat or despair.

Oliver Sacks    Oliver Sacks 2

Oliver Sacks 6         Oliver Sacks 3

To start anew, always! The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, “Yesterday has not been born … it hasn’t even taken place yet.” Commenting on Mandelstam’s sense of renewal, of “transcendence” (finding life a great “gift” even in the midst of personal oppression inflicted on him at the time of The Terror), Kevin M. F. Platt has written, “Past epochs had become available in a new way for reinterpretation and reinscription with truer and more valid meaning”– “uncharted territory” for the future.

For the purpose of this essay, I do not intend to name or dwell specifically on the nature of my own “impairment” when it comes to sight and my balance system, but to focus on a rich awakening that has taken place with regard to the future, to what neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandrun, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain, has called “the conceptual twists and technical turns we are in for,” discoveries that are going to be “at least as mind bending, at least as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended classical physics a century ago”—what neuroscientist David Eagleman, in his book, The Secret Lives of the Brain, calls the “vastness of inner space” (“The cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, and so are we.”): the human brain as a “perplexing masterpiece … the most wondrous thing we have discovered in the universe, and it is us.”

Out of what I consider equal portions of healthy curiosity and “dire necessity,” I have undertaken a sort of “campaign” to understand, as much as I can, the nature of the “mind-brain mystery,” just how those three pounds of jello at the top of our heads function and why (and how) they may fail to. In the process, beginning with “vision” (every book I could get my hands on, from R.L. Gregory’s early Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, to Brain and Visual Perception by David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel–tracing their pioneering Nobel Prize winning discoveries–to Oliver Sack’s The Mind’s Eye), I have acquired a host of new words and phrases in my vocabulary which allow me to trace the amazing pathway of vision from retina to visual cortex: “fovea,” “vitreous humor,” “rhodopsin,” “hyperpolarization,” “ganglion cells,” “optic chiasma,” “thalamus,” “lateral geniculate nuclei,” and “superior colliclus.” It’s a great trip when it works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of sight.

By now, in light of the title of this essay, my musician/musical friends and blog followers may more than likely wonder just what the hell any of this has to do with this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, but I will ask you to bear with me a bit longer, for what I’ve discovered about the visual system (how it works and when it doesn’t—and “consciousness” in general) has everything to do with the manner in which I saw, heard, and felt this year’s musical offerings. I hope to make the amazing blend, the mix of what was offered (externally) with what I was perceiving (internally) as interesting and engaging as I can (it certainly was for me!)–and I will get to a first example—the nature of the “teamwork” that can take place in the “global neuronal workspace” of the brain itself and within a jazz combo in which the constituent parts or performers interact by truly “listening” to one another—as soon (given my “Baroque” nature) as I can.

In the past, because I have a Press Pass, I would roam the Festival grounds at will, bouncing from venue to venue in synch with whatever overall plan I had of what I hoped to witness. Often, having used the back entrance of a venue such as Dizzy’s Den, I’d find my niche close to the stage and, squatting there (full lotus Zen style), take notes on the music being played—but, now, that is no longer possible, my mobility also restricted by a vertigo condition kept under control for twenty-seven years yet recently (with the advent of faulty vision) returned with a vengeance. For the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I was curious as to just how well I might manipulate the throng of joyous jazz fans cruising the fairway that runs alongside the host of venders and colorful displays offering everything from food to jazz “artifacts” of considerable variety. I realized that I would have to be extremely careful taking my place among that crowd, even with the cane I now employ as the third leg of the riddle Oedipus was asked to solve.

Consequently, when I showed up Friday night for the 58th Monterey Jazz Festival, I had a very specific list of times and settings for the performances I wished to see and hear, knowing I would remain for a full set of each, rather than spend time attempting to “sprint” to a suitable portion of several sets, as I had in the past. “Think small,” “Think continuity,” was my new mantra (of necessity) , and I also–attempting to keep my difficult balance–carried with me another host of bright and brilliant terms (another favorite book from my reading on consciousness is Bright Air, Brilliant Fire by Gerald Edleman, whose important work was introduced to me by Oliver Sacks)–ingredients related to the vestibular system:  “superior, posterior, and lateral semicircular canals”; “utricle and saccule,” “endolymph fluid,” “cristae and ampullar nerves,” “calcium carbonate crystals.” Again, it’s a great trip when it all works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of possessing a balance system.

Vestibular System    Vestibular System3

The Festival program advertised vocalist Cyrille Aimee as “rapidly rising,” a “widely acclaimed young jazz singer” who’d won both the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition and the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, her musical outlook international in scope, the vocalist having grown up in Samois-Sur-Seine, sneaking out (as a teenager) to “gypsy encampments,” mesmerized by the music of “those who followed the spirit of Django Reinhardt.” She added Paris, Cameroon, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic to places of residence before finally arriving in Brooklyn, where she lives now.

Having performed at a Jazz Legends Gala Honoring Chick Corea the previous evening, Cyrille Aimee brought a group featuring two guitarists—Olli Soikkeli and Michael Valeanu—with Shawn Conley on bass and Dani Danor on drums to the Night Club on Friday night. When I walked in, my first impression (I could only find a seat at the far end of the room, where I could hear but not see so well) was of a highly animated mime dressed in black, similar to her countryman Jean-Louis Barrault, whose every gesture I’d relished in the film Les Enfants du Paradise (“Children of Paradise”): Aimee herself a delightful blur of well-formed motion: vital, vibrant, sexy. Her voice, capable of a wide range of intonation, of nuance, had a girlish edge to it, a fey quality, but coy, not mannered or “cute,” allied emotionally with a fully mature approach to the mood and tone of whatever she chose to sing—as was the case of the tune I walked in on, or the tail end of it: the title song from her debut CD: It’s a Good Day.

The next song, which I heard all of, one devoid of any “girlish” inflection, took me  by surprise. It was Jim Morrison’s “People Are Strange.” The first thing I noticed, once the group was into this tune, was just how smoothly, how tightly together—in spite of whatever attention she called to herself (her gestures, the quality of her voice)—they were. Cyrille Aimee became a part of a unique blend, a unique matchup of her “sidemen” and herself, the equally young and vibrant guitars (one with an immediately engaging “gypsy” flair or tone, the other providing a smooth bop “feel” that offset the Reinhardt mode perfectly) paired with bass and drums. The five “units” or components of this group acted as one—a single, totally compatible “family,” with no degree of separation, even though Cyrille Aimee stood (or moved) in the forefront—the whole melting, as Teilhard de Chardin said of a religious experience, “into a single vibrant surface wherein all demarcation ceased.”

The interplay between the two guitars was first-rate: the rapid fire driving Reinhardt sound offset by the smooth cool—in the tradition of Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow—inflection. “People Are Strange,” a gutsy song (“Faces look ugly when you’re alone …”), was represented as a throaty, bluesy ballad, the effect enhanced by the tight interactive guitar work. Aimee emphasized the isolation, the alienation of the “voice” in her own unique, flexible manner (she did wonderfully strange things with the word “strange”), and I couldn’t help but think of some of my recent reading on “consciousness”: Antonio Damasio writing on emotion occurring in an autobiographical setting in which “feelings generate a concern for the individual experiencing them. The past, the now, and the anticipated future are given the appropriate saliences … concern for the individual self.”

MJF 2015 1   MJF 2015 3

“People Are Strange” was followed by “Love Me Or Leave Me,” Aimee—in her appealing French accent—acknowledging the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone legacy of this song—one taken at a breakneck tempo (“Nina did it very fast, but we do it faster”), the interaction of guitars a hallmark again: Django hot sizzle played off against a “cool” mood sustained even at the frantic pace. The two guitars traded off on a “chase scene” worthy of Nat “King” Cole and Les Paul with Jazz at the Philharmonic—no winner but much good fun and respect on both sides. The song closed with Cyrille Aimee’s breathless “no one … un … less … that some … one … is you!”—and a sudden stop.

With her gift for pantomime, for significant gesture, Aimee is a delight to watch (even from the far end of a hall and with failing eyesight!) as well as listen to, and she maintained the French-flavored (Paul Verlaine: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encor…”) eroticism, announcing, “Shawn and I are going to do it right now,” introducing a duet between her and bassist Shawn Conley on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” playful, tasteful “suggestion” present throughout the tune, along with good clean pitch, articulation, and invention—and the vocalist’s hair tossed and shoulders hunched in fine time with the music.

The set was filled with an interesting array of tunes: Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (taken at a stuttering Calypso tempo—“Living crazy, that’s the only way … let the madness and the music get to you”—then a mix of tempos and textures, a percussive build up, the bright exchange of the two guitars—“There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you … it’s time to come alive”);  a song in French: “Nuit Blanche” (cheerful, skipping in the rain in Paris—“Mes levres tremblent au souvenir”—a tinkling feel, then hard scat to another breakneck tempo gypsy strum, the familiar rich mix of syllables and grooves, the group sliding smoothly from one to another); a song—“All Love”—a handsome  melody, written by Django Reinhardt’s son, the lyrics provided by Aimee herself, soft ballad nonintrusive guitar backing, tasteful, tender—“Birds flying high above you, and the smell of rain … memories you keep inside you”—handsome guitar coda ending; and an impressive original, autobiographical: “One Way Ticket”: “Smooth road, falling asleep on my baby’s shoulder … one way ticket to somewhere … I hope we never get there”: slow train ride rhythm at the start, bowl tapping drone sound in the background, her “little girl” voice on this one, giving way to scat in time with the trek, wide open rhythms at the end, and another sudden stop.

“One Way Ticket” was written about a trip Cyrille Aimee took to India (“I had some really crazy experiences.”). Hers, it appears, has been a well traveled road—as has that of her musicians: drummer Danny Danor from Israel, guitarist Olli Soikkeli from Finland , bassist Shawn Conley from Hawaii, guitarist Michail Valeanu from France and Sicily. By way of an introduction at the end, Aimee said, “These guys are not only great musicians, but they’re good looking as well”—and they are. Then, each of the musicians introduced another, a very fitting touch for such a tight as ”family” group, all boyishly agreeing that Cyrille Aimee “takes care of us like a mother”—a charming conclusion  to what I felt was an excellent, truly enjoyable set.

Taking that very “together” set with me in mind when I left, again I couldn’t help but think of what I’d read about one of the major breakthroughs in recent neurobiology. In his book, The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, Israel Rosenfield devotes a section to previously mentioned  (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire) Gerald Edlemen’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, in order to show that brain function does not depend on “localized function and fixed memories,” but “large numbers of different neuronal groups” (units of “selection”): “a set of interconnected neurons that function together.” Various scientists and philosophers have given different names to such brain-wide information sharing or neuronal syncrony: Stanislas Dehaenes’ “global neuronal workspace,” Antonio Demasio’s global assembly or “converging zones,” the “neural coalition” of Francis Crick and Christof  Koch, even John Selfridge’s “pandemonium,” a term employed to describe the joyous spontaneous union that occurs within the overall music shaped and played by the brain’s Big Band.

Cyrille Aimee’s was not the first set I’d taken in on Friday night. A “traditionalist” by nature, I’d made certain to be present each year (since he’d become General Manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992) when Tim Jackson parted the main stage (now the Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after his predecessor) curtains and welcomed those in attendance to the event—so I was on hand for that ritual at 7:30 Friday night, but the figure that emerged to welcome us was not Tim Jackson. It was a gentleman named Clint Eastwood, who announced his name and the fact that he loves jazz—this by way of introducing the “Geri Allen Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea”: a first “act” I had anticipated eagerly.

Detroit-born Geri Allen is one of my favorite jazz pianists and the set in which she participated, along with pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, with Russell Malone on guitar, Darek Oles on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of pianist Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, a local (Carmel, California) jazz show produced by Lyons prior to the Monterey Jazz Festival itself. The program for this year’s Festival stated that there had been no plan to document the original concert, but “in one of the genius-level happy jazz accidents,” Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, spotted a tape-recorder a “well-meaning local fan” had set up backstage, and Glaser acquired a recording from the owner that would eventually become a “runaway hit for Erroll Garner and Columbia Records”—regarded as one of the best-selling jazz records ever.

Here are: The original album, The Complete Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner with Martha Glaser, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, and Christian Sands:

MJF 2015 12   MJF 2015 13

MJF 2015 14    MJF 2015 15

MJF 2015 16MJF 2015 18MJF 2015 19

A three CD set, The Complete Concert by the Sea, co-produced by Allen, Steve Rosenthal, and Jocelyn Allen, had been released prior to the 2015 MJF, with notes by Geri Allen in which she says, “ I became aware of Erroll Garner as a high school pianist learning about jazz and growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the ‘70s. I was moved and inspired by his innovative approach to playing and he opened up a world of possibilities … Garner embodied the very spirit of swing,  improvisation, and the blues.”

I became very much aware of Garner as a high school student and fledgling pianist myself (1950-1953), and not only collected every record of his I could get my hands on (including his 10” LP series of recordings for Savoy), but I heard him play live at an extraordinary concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit on April12, 1952: a Piano Parade “world premiere” that featured Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson (boogie-woogie), Erroll Garner (with John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums), and the legendary Art Tatum, with Slam Stewart on bass and Everert Barksdale guitar. Just to make that evening even more exceptional than its billing, Art Tatum’s plane was grounded in Chicago due to a snowstorm, and he had to be driven to Detroit by an automobile that consumed enough time to allow Erroll Garner to play a set that lasted for two and a half hours!

The woman who would become my wife (five years later) was with me that night (even though she had a date with someone else), and Betty remembers the sight, the glint, the flash of Art Tatum’s emerald ring, even though we had seats high in the balcony. He had arrived well after midnight and provided a full set himself. What an extraordinary evening that was!—and one that prepared me well for Geri Allen’s tribute: a set that found her seated at one of three grand pianos, flanked by Jason Moran (to her left) and (right) a pianist I’d not heard perform before: Christian Sands (billed as “an emerging jazz force”), each participant paying homage, in her or his own unique way (along with the contributions of guitarist Russell Malone), to the artistry of Erroll Garner.

The three pianists, with Geri Allen stationed at the matrix, offered both brilliant unison and equally bright solo work: fine very free interpretations which, at first, struck me as too free to serve as homage to Garner’s own style–as not very “Garnerish” at all–but when I got used to the extent of license involved, I realized that each of the pianists had truly absorbed and assimilated the Master in her or his own way, declining to go the route of strict imitation in preference to independent, individual homage, proving Geri Allen’s declaration that “jazz is such a timeless experience.” The three pianists did offer familiar Garner fare from the original Concert by the Sea LP (“April in Paris,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and ‘It’s All Right with Me”), with the addition of tunes not found on the LP but included in the concert itself. Eleven of these pieces can be found on the three CD set now out, The Complete Concert by the Sea.

The celebration allowed each pianist to not only pay respect to Garner’s gutsy, idiosyncratic, off beat (literally!) style, but their own individual contributions to the world of jazz. The result was what I jotted down as “concert eloquence,” a somewhat grandiose display of individual poise, pride, and purpose—a sort of “After Erroll Garner” or “Beyond Erroll Garner” Baroque homage. Familiar as I was with both Geri Allen and Jason Moran’s styles, I was impressed by the unique approach of Christian Sands, who did commence “It’s All Right with Me” in distinct “Garner” manner, and then showed the full range of the genuinely two-handed piano he is capable of (reminding me of another of my favorite pianists: Marcus Roberts), graced with a fine feel for dynamics, fulfilling the “promise” extended in the Festival program notes: “pianistic technique in abundance … a fresh look at the entire language of jazz: stride, swing, bebop, progressive, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban … he possesses an extensive vocabulary of patterns, textures, and structures, which allow him to play in about any style.”

The Erroll Garner Project set closed with one of the Master’s own original tunes: “Gemini,” allowing all three pianists (and Russell Malone, who’d been masterful on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and Victor Lewis (who provided a fine solo on “Gemini”) to jell on a fitting conclusion to a first-rate set: a homage not just to Erroll Garner but the history of jazz itself as an art form. This entire Jimmy Lyons Main Stage session was well documented, enhanced, visually (I had no trouble seeing it!) by way of a large screen that displayed the hands of each performer in action (grand hands: “It’s all anatomy,” pianist/composer/arranger Don Schamber once said to me, commenting on the fact that Oscar Peterson’s hands were so large he could play 14ths, whereas with my meager mitts I have to “roll” 10ths). Having just seen and heard what I did, I couldn’t help but “flash back” to what I’d witnessed that night in 1952 when Erroll Garner played for two and a half hours in Detroit—and that lead to thoughts on what I’d recently read about memory and, once again, consciousness.

Piano Parade        Piano Parade 2

In previously mentioned Israel Rosenfield’s The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, after showing that the brain is not a “repository” (in which images of the past have been fixed, “imprinted and permanently stored”) but a highly creative “generator” of memory, the author devotes, as I mentioned with regard to “teamwork,” Gerald Edleman’s theory of “neuronal group selection”: “maps” made of neuronal groups: information distributed among many such maps, with “incessant reference back and forth, or venting,” so that “categorization” may take place.

Rosenfield writes: “We recollect information in different contexts; this requires the activation of different maps interacting in different ways that differ from those of our initial encounter with the information”—a skill acquired “in the course of experience … We do not simply store images and bits but become more richly endowed with the capacity to categorize in connected ways.” In support, Rosenfield quotes Frederic C. Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology): “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative [italics mine] reconstruction, or construction built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of original past reactions or experience … It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.”

Rosenfield returns to Edelman’s hypothesis: “Each person, according to his theory, is unique; his or her perceptions are to some degree creations, and his or her memories are part of an ongoing process of imagination.” Reading this, I thought, “My God, the process of memory—and the work of the mind/brain–is no different from what a writer does making art, or a visual artist—or a jazz musician! I found the idea thrilling. Memory is just like the rest of living: each of us writing the novel, creating the story of our lives. So I was now in a very favorable position to fully enjoy the imaginative reconstruction of my experience of the majesty of Erroll Garner from my first encounter in 1952 through the homage paid to him in 2015!

If, so far at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I’d had solid musical lessons in collaboration (or teamwork) and memory, a set I would have to wait until Sunday night to experience, the Festival’s final night, would impart a valuable lesson in what it might be like to produce exceptional art without possessing sight.

Festival program notes let me know that pianist Justin Kauflin, whose complete set I would attend that evening, began his musical journey at age four, with Suzuki violin lessons, “adding piano four years later.” He was, by age six, “performing in concerts, nursing homes and weddings, eventually becoming concert master for several orchestras.” During this time, he also “endured many trials, particularly losing total vision by a rare eye disorder.” Mastering five grades of Braille and cane mobility, Justin, after a decade of classical violin and piano, switched to jazz piano at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in Virginia. He attended the Vail Jazz Workshop, Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency, received “top honors in jazz festivals across the U.S.,” and turned pro at age fifteen.

MJF 2015 5    MJF 2015 7

MJF 2015 4   MJF 2015 10

In 2004, Justin Kauflin graduated, “alongside his sighted peers,” in the top 1% of Salem High School (Virginia), was Valedictorian at the Governor’s School, and received a Presidential Scholarship to attend William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was “taken under the wings of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, and took lessons from pianists Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern, and James Williams.” A documentary five years in the making, Keep on Keepin’ On, focused on Justin’s relationship with mentor Clark Terry, was “Oscar-shortlisted for best documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards.”

Sunday evening in Monterey, Justin Kauflin opened his set, assisted by Mike Cottone on trumpet, Katie Thiroux on bass, and Mike Witek on drums, with an up tempo “Brotherhood of Man,” with strong, straightahead, clear, deftly articulated bop lines, block chords (reminiscent of Red Garland), solid left hand comping matched with bright clean runs, synchronized two-octave-separated configuration—all the tricks of the trade offered with the focus and intentionality of an artist free of inhibition and distraction. “Brotherhood” was followed by a handsome solo piano intro to “Stardust,” the tune itself, once the trumpet stepped in, taken at an easy-going tempo, filled with subtle invention mixed with formal restraint that allowed the pianist to provide a “Stardust” (in spite of the song’s frequent use, and perhaps even abuse) all his own.

With an equally amiable voice, Justin announced (following “Stardust”), “All of the music is dedicated to Clark” [Terry], and he preceded to play tunes that can be found on his appropriately named second CD, Dedication. In 2008, having graduated Summa cum laude with an Honor’s degree in Music, having moved to New York, Justin Kauflin, age twenty-three, “produced, led, composed and performed on his first CD,” Introducing Justin Kauflin; and in 2013, having participated in Quincy Jones’ World Tours, he worked with Jones on the second full-length CD, Dedication, released in 2015: #6 on CMJ Jazz Chart and #10 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Chart.

Original compositions I heard from Dedication on Sunday night were “The Up and Up,” “Elusive,” and “The Professor.” The first commenced with a skipping Latin beat, the theme composed of the large block chords the pianist is fond of (and me too!), then settled into delightful fleet single note excursions, with steady left hand comping and resourceful, inventive emphasis—the entire group just swinging, the close out a strong melodic descent against the steady Latin vamp again, and a quick, joyous stop! “Elusive” begins with a slow chromatic ascent, then descent, injected into a rhythm set by the drums. Mike Cottone carried the theme on trumpet, and Justin Kauflin provided his clear, clean, concise comping: the tune “elusive” in the sense of a full range of effects offered, suggesting musical artists from Bach to Bud Powell (and Mulgrew Miller), but resisting any set or fixed “categorization”—the close a five note theme loaded with subtle minimalist repetition enhanced by a drum solo. “The Professor” honors Miller by way of another large chordal opening, concert “classical” flourishes, but tastefully simple and direct melodic lines, first-rate “principles of selection” adhered to throughout, each note a decision among options but seldom an accident–refreshingly spontaneous. As further honor to Mulgrew Miller, Justin Kauflin played his mentor’s own composition, “Return Trip,” a sonorous, joyous, anthem “open road” piece combining praise, prayer, and limitless respect.

Justin Kauflin learned some hard, tough non-musical lessons when he moved to New York City, discovering that “visionless independent mobility” was “painstakingly slow at best and life-threatening at worst.” To improve the situation, at the Seeing Eye clinic in Morristown, New Jersey, he was matched up with a black lab named Cindy, his service dog for three years in NYC (there’s a fine photo of Justin and Cindy out for a walk on the cover of the Dedication CD). He then returned to Virginia, where he would “headline regularly at the Havana Nights Jazz Club” before he won the VSA International Young Soloist Award, was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in VeerMagazine, was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition (Gene Seymour writing that Justin possessed “more shape, heft, and narration rigor than most of his peers”), and was “discovered” by Quincy Jones, who co-produced the Dedication CD.

MJF 2015 6

Speaking of that album, Justin Kauflin has said, “When first conceptualizing this project, I realized there was so much for which I am extremely grateful. It was then that I decided to dedicate this album to all the people who gave of themselves selflessly in order to help me along this journey.” The list that followed included God (“center and the source of the music I create”), family and friends, and, feeling himself “a perpetual student,” many “wonderful teachers,” including Mulgrew Miller (“eternally grateful for every second” he was able to spend with him—“such a gentle and humble spirit”) and “CT” [Clark Terry]—“Thank you for sharing your beauty and joy with the world.”

In an interview conducted by Marta Ramon (JazzTimes), which she began by acknowledging the “perceptible spiritual energy that lights Kauflin’s compositions,” the pianist stated that “developing a career in jazz is not just perfecting one’s musical craft, but like most things in life, it’s more about people and community. Spending time with CT allowed me to see the human side of being a great performer/musician/educator … Now, I make it a point to cultivate relationships with all those with whom I come in contact. I will always strive to grow as a musician, but I now understand how much more important it is to develop and grow as a human being.”

Justin Kauflin’s fine “character” (as in a complex of mental and ethical traits that individualize a person) shows up in his music, along with his abundant skill and imagination (with regard to both “embracing” tradition and feeling totally comfortable with, as he puts it, “a lot of music outside of traditional jazz that I’ve been drawn to”), and also the capacity I admired (for my own personal reasons) of remaining totally focused, composed, not at all distracted in performance—for which I would like to add the word “crystallization,” thinking of something the poet previously mentioned, Osip Mandelstam, had to say about that state: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral enjoys.”

Yet, in spite of Mandelstam’s protest, he–in poetry–and Justin Kauflin, in music (what I was privileged to hear in what he played on the Garden Stage at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival) are able to take us to a dimension in which genuine crystallization takes place!

Returning to the man whose name initiated this essay (both in the title and opening paragraph), someone who knew more than a few things about crystallography (in both science and the art of writing), Oliver Sacks, in his book The Mind’s Eye, offers a fascinating account of the compensations of three people who lost their sight and actually feel they have gained by it. In his book, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull describes experiencing (in Sack’s words or paraphrase) “a gradual aftermath of visual imagery and memory, and finally a virtual extinction of them (except in dreams) … a loss of the very idea of seeing … a prerequisite for the full development, the heightening, of his other senses,” finding “an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own … shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the other senses, and these senses assumed a new richness and power.”

In his book, Out of Darkness, Zoltan Torey provides a full account of (again in Sack’s words) “developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind,” constructing “a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense, to him, as the perceptional one he had lost—indeed, sometimes more real, more intense.” “I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,” Torey writes—and Sacks comments on “the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house–at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).” Having gone blind, Dennis Shulman found “the heightening of his other senses had increased his sensitivity to the most delicate nuances in other people’s speech and self-presentation”—through smell and emotional states (“states of tension or anxiety they might not even be aware of”), Shulman “no longer taken in by visual appearances, which most people learn to camouflage.”

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks devotes a full chapter to his own experience of being diagnosed with an ocular melanoma in his right eye, and he takes us through the entire agonizing process: from radiation treatment to the loss of central vision, the scotoma then taking over his entire eye (”I had the sense that my visual cortex was now in a heightened or sensitized state, released to some extent from purely perceptual constraints”), hallucinations (“interesting in a way: they show me the background activity, the idling, of my visual system, generating and transforming patterns, never at rest”), losing stereoscopy (the “complete and sudden flattening of the visual world … crossing streets, dealing with steps, just walking around—things that required no conscious attention before—now required constant care and forethought.”), followed by another hemorrhage that cost him whatever peripheral vision remained in his right eye. He realized that “time will tell whether I am able to adapt to this new visual challenge.”

Being Oliver Sacks, he turns the entire “experience” into one that would transform his life “in a radical way,” finding that “questions of love and work, of what really matters most, have taken on a special intensity and urgency”—turning himself into a patient the account of whose “experience” would provide inspiration. Acknowledging his gratitude to the many patients and correspondents who had granted him their own case histories,” Sacks celebrates “the complex workings of the mind and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability—to say nothing of the courage and strength that individuals can show, and the inner resources they can bring to bear, in the face of neurological challenges that are almost impossible for the rest of us to imagine.”

Oliver Sacks 5       Oliver Sacks 4

I find the words, and the life, of Oliver Sacks inspirational—and a sound way to end this essay. I will continue my account of the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival in the next blog (the extraordinary pairing off of Bella Fleck and Chick Corea; then Ambrose Akinmusire, John Santos, Snarky Puppy, Duchess, Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test with Pete Escovedo and Shiela E., the Monty Alexander Trio, and more), but in a manner that focuses on the performances themselves, devoid of any asides on “consciousness.” I do want to thank you for allowing me to approach Cyrille Aimee, Geri Allen’s Erroll Garner Project, and Justin Kauflin as I have—as I, given the nature of my own “experience” at this time in my life, heard and saw them perform. Thanks!

 

MJF57: 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival–Part Two

I’ve had to take a nearly three month hiatus from much writing, reading and even playing the piano (reading charts) in order to get my eyes “fixed”—but here, finally, is the second portion of what I intended to post on the 57th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. Back in October (not long after that event, at which I took copious notes, but was having some trouble seeing them, and also the various stages on which the music took place!), I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration (“We can’t stop it,” my ophthalmologist said, “but we can slow it down”), this while I was being set up for cataract surgery, an extraordinary procedure I underwent on December 11 (right eye) and 18 (left), at the skilled hands, heart, and mind of Dr. Holmes. I had been “at risk” for Detached Retina in 2005, so we had to make sure that important piece of property was firmly, securely in place–and the return of a vertigo condition (inner ear viral infection) I’ve had for 27 years (but kept under control until now) provided another source of “adventure.” The surgeries themselves came off without a “hitch,” thanks to Dr. Holmes–and I am ready now to post Part Two on the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival.

I’ve already provided a fairly extensive (13 pages! This is Bill’s Blog Baroque—remember?) account of five favorite MJF57 performances: Billy Child’s Saturday night premiere of Map to the Treasure, his tribute to singer/songwriter/pianist Laura Nyro; Child’s quartet’s appearance just after in Dizzy’s Den; saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s group Sangan (with percussionists Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland) and Lloyd’s Sunday night set with his quartet (Jason Moran on piano;Reuben Rogers, bass; and Harland again on drums); and Brian Blade’s The Fellowship Band performing on the Garden Stage on Sunday afternoon. Now, I’d like to pay homage to a number of other “acts” that fleshed out what I felt was an extraordinary weekend of music—Tim Jackson’s inspired programming at work (and play) again.

On Saturday afternoon, our houseguest for the weekend (along with Oakland photographer Stu Brinin), Dan Ouellette, conducted the DownBeat Blindfold Test (which Dan has done for 20 years) with guitarist Lionel Loueke, in which the latter was asked to recognize (if possible) and comment on the performance of a given artist, after hearing “the take” (a recording of a piece played). When, at first, no sound was forthcoming when requested by Dan, jazz writer Paul de Barros, who was sitting in front of me, identified the artist as “John Cage”: an “in joke,” because Cage once performed a piece called 4′33″, pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” or just “Four thirty-three,” a composition the score of which instructs the performers not to play their instrument throughout the entire piece, throughout its three movements. Cage did leave the widows open so that “ateliotic” or environmental sounds (such as auto horns honking or ambulance sirens blazing) might “intrude” upon the musical silence—or “perform” themselves.

Here’s Lionel Loueke (photo by Craig Lovell) and Dan Ourellette, Blindfold Test host:

MJF14 8   Dan

Sound forthcoming at MJF was a 1958 piece by John Coltrane, “Freight Trane” (with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Kenny Burrell on guitar). Loueke confessed he’d never heard Burrell on record before “in that style,” but loved “the tune and the way the changes are played,” and found the guitarist “very fluent in bebop vocabulary.” He did recognize the next artist, guitarist George Benson, with his “clean, perfect technique” (the root “and fifths together”) and said that he himself “started to learn to play jazz because of him,” that he loved “not just the technique but the total musicality.” A friend had given Loueke an LP of Benson’s Weekend in L.A., and when his parents went off to church, Loueke would “crank up” their record player, set his own cassette player as close to the speakers as possible, and would “try to play” with Benson, who played so fast that Loueke found he “did better” when he could slow down the recording by letting the cassette’s batteries “get worn out.” The tune Dan had played was “Body Talk,” recorded in 1973, with Harold Mabern on piano, who–ironically–would play three sets at MJF57 in the CoffeeHouse Gallery on Friday night (and more about him in a moment!).

 Dan admitted that he was going to “throw a curve ball” on the next piece: a vibrato-heavy, deep-toned, slightly rough sounding guitar piece, but Loueke got it, saying, “This has to be Kurt Rosenwinkel,” because of his “very strong guitar personality that comes through his sound.” The tune was “Mr. Hope,” which Loueke said he didn’t know firsthand, “but I love it.” He felt Rosenwinkel “takes the guitar to another level, harmonically and melodically speaking … a one-of-a-kind player who brings something new to the table … it swings so hard, and I can still feel the melody after the recording stops.”

Lionel Loueke’s responses remained insightful, astute throughout the entire Blindfold Test: “guessing” Ali Farka Toure right away (“I could hear him from the sound of his guitar … there were also two ngonis [ngoni, a traditional lute from Mali that dates back hundreds of years] so I wasn’t sure. But when he started singing. I knew it was him”). Loueke admires the way Toure “makes his guitar sound like he’s playing a kora” [a 21string lute-bridge harp used extensively in West Africa] … The first time I heard him I thought he sounded like John Lee Hooker, but in a different language. It’s the blues, the African type of blues.” Loueke didn’t “catch” Ralph Towner, originally with the group Oregon, playing solo (“I think it’s a Brazilian guitar player with that style and the nylon-string guitar.”), but he had insightful things to say about the “warmer sound” provided by nylon strings and playing with your fingers rather than a pick, because you get “a little closer to the instrument … I play with my fingers on the electric for the same reason.”

A piece by Django Reinhardt (“Dream of You,” 1950 ) brought the response, “I like this a lot. If this isn’t Django, then I have no idea … I love Django because of the way he was so melodic but at the same time so virtuosic”; and Bill Frisell (“Armarillo Barbados,” 1994), instantly recognized, also brought forth compliments: “The sound behind each note is so strong that it’s hard not to recognize him. He’s another one-of-a-kind.”

The previous evening, at 9:30, I made a fortunate discovery on the Garden Stage, when a Berklee College of Music grad (I saw my friend Rob Hayes, Assistant Vice President for External Affairs standing at the mixing board, in admiration), pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie appeared with her quartet. She not only possesses a handsome voice, but genuine “chops” as well on piano, and I thoroughly enjoyed, and admired, her set—so much so that, after she played a stunning, truly original version of one of my favorite songs, “Dindi,” I went directly to the Amoeba Music Store booth to see if the tune appeared on her latest CD, Close Your Eyes. It didn’t! But I got Close Your Eyes anyway, which is loaded with first-rate tunes, all well performed. Later, I would run into Rob (whom I interviewed just before I went to Japan in 1996, working on Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, University of Michigan Press, 2004, because, at the time, 333 musicians from Japan had graduated from Berklee.) When I talked with Rob now, he said that a McKenzie CD with “Dindi” on it was forthcoming.

MJF14 1  MJF14 2

Sarah McKenzie attended Berklee on a full scholarship, and her second album, Close Your Eyes won the ARIA (Australian GRAMMY) award as Best Jazz Album in 2012. Her quartet—a group that ranges in place of origin from Israel to Canada to Virgin Islands to Florida and Australia—is made up of Berklee classmates Daniel Rotem (tenor sax), Andrew Marzotto (guitar), Tabari Lake (bass) and Rodney Rocgues (drums). The set kicked off with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” While it may have taken the group a small stretch of time to get their truly international chops in sync, the Sarah McKenzie Quartet featured a large open style with a spirited, ingenious, tasteful dignity I love; and Sarah herself tried a number of different approaches on for size, including scat singing. I was most impressed by her piano playing. “The Way You Look Tonight” (which is on Close Your Eyes) evolved as a fully engaging piece that truly swung, with elegant phrasing, a fine svelte touch, and solid comping behind the others–Sarah McKenzie somewhat “sassy” with her scat, but showing much poise: an easeful, comfortable manner—comping her own vocals seamlessly.

The last time I heard and saw Harold Mabern was in 1994, when he appeared as a portion of the  James Williams Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a group that featured the sumptuous talents (and additional forty fingers) of Mabern, Geoff Keezer, Donald Brown, and Mulgrew Miller—along with James Williams himself. That year, they kicked off the Festival in high gear: a piano ensemble only matched, to my mind, by the appearance of Bill Charlop, Lynne Arriale, and Jason Moran with Marian McPartland in 2004. The 1994 Contemporary Piano Ensemble closed out its set with a Williams’ original, “That Church Thing,” a piece that found the five pianists circling four pianos they’d shared chores at, all five clapping hands and leading a rousing gospel parade.

Harold Mabern is a talker as well as a player, and that was just fine, because the incidental talk that preceded the playing—and sometimes accompanied it—was good. He mentioned Nat “King” Cole, and then launched into “Baby, Baby, Baby, What is Wrong with You?”—offering words of encouragement to himself in an aside: “Let’s see if I can do this one,” and then commentary on the blues in general: “You can’t teach the blues.” All this was laced, or enhanced, with scat singing intended (I think) to show that if the blues don’t come naturally, it best not arrive at all (to borrow, or steal, an observation by John Keats regarding poetry: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”). Mabern even tossed in a playful “I used to get $2000 to do this … don’t I wish,” and finally completed the tune itself, just good ole funky fun: “You packed your bags and left me;/I didn’t know what to do;/ Baby, baby, baby, what is wrong with you?”—the instrumental portions flavored with pronounced barrelhouse trills to emphasize the fact that she (“Baby, baby, baby”) had been gone far too long, et cetera.

This piece (or production) was followed by a song Mabern had written for trumpeter Lee Morgan, who recorded prolifically from 1956 until the day before his death in February 1972, when Morgan was shot and killed by his common-law wife Helen More (a.k.a. Morgan), following a between sets altercation at Slug’s Saloon, an East Village (NYC) jazz club. Mabern’s piece is called “Edward Lee,” and was rendered in a funky Trad Jazz style so percussive it sounded a bit muddy to me, but that may have been the intended effect. Whatever, Harold Mabern swings, no doubt about it, and his rhythm section (Michael Zisman, bass; Peppe Merolla, drums), if not exactly shading the piece, definitely did propel it—the overall “feel” good, all the tricks of the trade (from double time to trading fours) employed.

After, Mabern returned to “talk,” telling tales of serving time at Manassas High School, taking up the piano “late” (age 15), but making his first professional appearances, in Chicago, at that same age. He offered asides on John Coltrane’s persistence and incessant practice as an artist (“Trane laid with it till he solved his problems”), which led into a smooth, playful “But Not for Me” (part of the playfulness consisted of a quote from “Pop Goes the Weasel”), a refreshing, original interpretation of the Gershwin tune, with deep steady assistance on bass by Zisman (1/2,  ½, ½), a strong bass solo by the same while Mabern sat things out, appreciatively, before returning with a formal flourish worthy of Chopin (albeit parody)—the pianist an entertainer of the old-school as well as a first-rate instrumentalist. I enjoyed all that he had to offer.

Here’s the cover of the Contemporary Piano Ensemble CD The Key Players on which Harold Mabern appears, and the man himself at the piano:

MJF14 9      harold-mabern 2

The same was true on Saturday afternoon, when Booker T. Jones (of “Green Onions” and Booker T. and the MGs fame) performed, sans MGs, but with a fresh group. This one-time prodigy named after the great educator Booker T. Washington and now a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, offered familiar fare played with flair on the Jimmy Lyons (Main) Stage: a cover version of “Purple Rain” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Hoochy Koochy Man.” All this was taken in by a somewhat sedate but fully appreciative Saturday Afternoon Blues audience, not at all like the Festival’s 1960’s wild-with-abandon Saturday afternoon crowds (topless women and lovers who abandoned the privacy of sleeping bags to disclose other moves dancing in the aisles–and stands). Then, an annual parade was led by The Rainbow Lady (De Dee Rainbow of Seattle), dressed in effusively colorful garb, her face flecked with gold dust, her substantial body decked out in silver boas and rings ranging from turquoise Navaho to cast silver Chinese dragons, carrying her full-spectrum parasol and a globe-topped wand, a giant badge perched atop one breast that read “Enjoy life; this is not a dress rehearsal.”

Some of what Booker T. (who has retained both charm and good looks) offered was greeted with church-like reverence or solemnity—the man sitting next to me attempting to simulate the rhythms by way of both hands and head and only partially succeeding—but the spirit was there. Booker T. played “Time Is Time” (written while he was still in high school, and employed as sound track for the film Up Tight)—this as the set’s “last song,” himself on Hammond B-3 organ: a brooding start, left hand drone, and a shift to hand-clapping recognizable melody and rhythms that more than suggested anthem proportions, Booker T.’s eyes shut tight as if he were in a trance, building until the sound ceased abruptly and he cried out, “That’s our show … see you again!” And his faithful followers would—for he performed once more that evening in Dizzy’s Den, as special guest with The Philadelphia Experiment, a group featuring Uri Caine (another of my favorite pianists), bassist Christian McBride, and Questlove from the group The Roots which had stirred up its own audience (and set them dancing at midnight) on opening night.

I enjoyed so much of what I heard all weekend long at MJF57, but I was disappointed by two sets offered—expecting grand things from the second of them. The first was the Becca Stevens Band (the same vocalist who provided such a memorable performance as part of Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure premiere, singing Laura Nyro’s “Confession” and “To a Child”). On Saturday afternoon, in Dizzy’s Den, Becca offered her own songs, accompanying herself on guitar and ukulele—the first tune, which contained the solemn line “everything must go soon” was quite handsome, suggesting echoes of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” the lyrics of which (excluding the title) and final verse of which Seeger adapted word-for-word from Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes—a song that would go on to become an international hit in 1965, covered by the American folk rock band The Byrds. However, when Becca switched from guitar to ukulele, the music seemed to get as “cute” as that instrument sometimes becomes in hands (and minds) less creative than those of Jake Shimabukuro (Arthur Godfrey anyone?). Lines such as “each day that spring is in full bloom,” “look inside your heart and look inside mine,” and “bring me your higher love” struck me with less force than the lessons of Ecclesiastes, so I bowed out on Becca, who does have a lovely voice.

The second disappointing set was Jason Moran’s “Fats Waller Dance Party,” for which I had been prepared, in a very positive way, by an article Dan Ouellette wrote for DownBeat (my October issue arriving, fortunately, just before the September Festival), “Jason Moran: Other Ways of Operating.” I’ve already commented on the extraordinary work Moran does in both duos with and the quartet of Charles Lloyd, alongside his 2004 MJF appearance with Marian McPartland. And Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the first pianists who, by way of his RCA recordings, awakened a desire in me to play piano. Consequently, this alliance (Waller/Moran) and Dan’s piece aroused high hopes.

Jason Moran was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, and, in 2011, received a commission from the Harlem Stage Gatehouse to prepare and present a homage to former Harlem resident Thomas “Fats” Waller. In his article, Dan Ouellette wrote, as an aside, “It’s been said that when he died, [Waller’s] ashes were spread around the neighborhood.” For the project he’d been assigned, Moran engaged the services of vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, who has ten GRAMMY nominations to her credit, and is best known on the hip-hop and neo-soul scene. She assisted Moran, in Ouellette’s words, “translating the jazz tradition into contemporary expression as a dance party”—and the two collaborated again on the recording All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller for Blue Note Records.

“I want to know other ways of operating,” Moran told Ouellette, drawing “dance into music,” projecting what Ndegeocello calls “the party feel … Party was the focus to celebrate and praise Fats, who was a hit-maker in his time.” Moran’s task was “coming to philosophical grips about delving into the Waller songbook,” and he was concerned that the music might perhaps prove “too personal to the icon.” He did not wish to tread on Waller’s “narrative,” so he asked, “Why play his music the way that it’s always been? My goal was: Does it sound good?” Much discussion, and many different conversations ensued: with Ndegeocello, with drummer Charles Hayes (Ndegeocello on him: “His Pop groove is formidable. You can’t stand still when Charles plays.”), and with engineer Bob Power, who was impressed by the willingness of Moran and Ndegeocello to follow “an oddly otherworldly bent that carries with it a deep emotional level … They were unfettered by the originals.”

Jason Moran as Fats Waller   Jason Moran as Fats Waller 2

All this struck me as “good stuff.” With so much solid thought and preparation behind this ambitious venture–one that sought to combine solid musicianship with good time fun, hoping to entice an audience to not just listen, but (nearly automatically) get up and dance–I was eager to be a part of that audience in front of the Garden Stage on Saturday night at the MJF. But I’m sorry to say that, for me (and for a number of other folks I talked to), the “show” fell flat, in spite of so many good intentions. Moran, wearing a large papier-mache mask of Waller’s head, initiated the set as if he were his own cheerleader (or conducting a football rally pep-talk): “Keep it goin’ for as long as you can … keep it up for Fats Waller … he’s been dead for a long time, but give it up as if he were here!” This sounded a bit too much like a disclaimer to me, and the attempt to resurrect or re-interpret or re-invent Waller that followed did not take me in the direction intended (a re-appreciation of the pianist/entertainer I have loved for years), but close to the opposite: “What on earth are they doing with or to him?!”

Jason Moran (above as Fats; photo credit John Rogers for pic with microphone) offered an odd blend of endless vamps and solid stride on “Lulu’s Back in Town” (with fine support from Tarus Mateen on bass), and then vocalist Lisa Harris danced on stage—the vamp mode continuing, the title of the next tune, “Honeysuckle Rose,” a fatiguing loop embellished by Leron Thomas’ trumpet, Harris converting Waller’s clever, memorable bridge (“Don’t buy sugar/You just have to touch my cup/You’re my sugar/It’s sweeter when you stir it up”) to a static “Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh,” Moran backing this up with synthesizer chords and some more acoustic piano, the piece closing out with a five note Basie (“plink plink plink plink plink”) ending.

My favorite Waller tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was introduced by information that the composer “wrote it while he was in alimony jail,” Lisa Harris chanting the lyrics rather than singing them, the phrase “for you” (which follows “savin’ my love …”) stuck in the loop groove again, some trumpet relief provided, then more “for yous,” a seemingly endless nonsense syllable refrain, hands over her head, suggesting a dance. She did call out, “We want to see you dance”—but no one took her up on the invitation except Jason Moran himself, wearing the papier-mache mask, prancing about the stage, removing his sport coat, stripped down to his T-shirt, Harris madly shaking a tambourine; but all I could feel at the time (thinking back to the “best laid plans” projected in Dan Ourellette’s article in DownBeat) was: “They’ve somehow mistaken motion for action.”

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to the Garden Stage stands for a performance by a vocalist I’d never heard (or heard of) before, Youn Sun Nah, from Korea—making her first Monterey Jazz Festival appearance. She was accompanied by Ulf Wakenius, advertised as the “last guitarist of Oscar Peterson.” Youn Sun Nah provided a piece with a soft “Asian” blues flavor, a song of her own with lyrics about friendship and memory I had no trouble getting into: “I wear this crown of thorns … full of broken thoughts I cannot repair … everyone I know goes away at the end … that old familiar sting.”

Gifted with a voice with which she can create just about any vocal effect a human being can imagine, she reminded me of Sainkho Namtchylak (known for her Tuvan throat singing, or Khoomei–a singer I much admire), Youn Sun Nah employing dynamics that ranged from a whisper to sudden overt shouts: percussive phrases such as “not ready to play and not ready to fight” mixed with what the Japanese call “yugen” (suggestion in preference to outright statement), staging a love drama (and she has incorporated “theater” within her music seamlessly), “Stay … go,” which made  enjoyable use of scat and appropriate hand gestures that resembled the subtle maneuvers of hula. An attractive presence on stage, Youn San Nah employed a full range of effects—auditory and visual—to enhance her performance, and Ulf Wakenius was very much there at her side to match them.

MJF Youn Sun Nah    MJF Youn Sun Nah 3

I was sitting next to Mitsuru Mendenhall, wife of first-rate local pianist Eddie Mendenhall, and she introduced me to her mother, who was visiting from Japan. Intent on Youn Sun Nah, I couldn’t help but lean over and say “utsukushii” (“beautiful,” for a work of art, in Japanese), and they both nodded in agreement. Now playing kalimba (African thumb piano), the singer would offer a barely audible “Thank you” at the end of each tune—much in contrast to some of the truly powerful, even overwhelming sounds that had emerged from her lips. The single totally familiar song she sang was “My Favorite Things,” which she offered at a slow, leisurely tempo, a joyful dirge, a delicate chant—and she closed her set with an English folk song, “A Sailor’s Life,” delivered with strong emotion, building from plaintive to puissant, creating the eerie effect that she was singing in two parts, singing harmony with herself: “We can row our oars … we can be lovers without tears.” I felt the overall performance had been strong, enjoyable—a unique blend of solid musicianship and enhancing theater.

I devoted the Festival’s last night, Sunday, to the Charles Lloyd Quartet: first its appearance on the Jimmy Lyons Stage as reported in the previous post, which meant that I missed what I was told was an outstanding set by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire at the Night Club, but I did arrive there in time to hear Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone) with his special guest, family patriarch Ellis Marsalis on piano. I first heard Delfeayo Marsalis play at the Rampart Street Funky Butt in New Orleans, when my wife Betty and I attended a AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference there in 2002, so I wanted to get “caught up,” to see just what he was up to now—which was pretty much the same (and enjoyable): the Trad Jazz that is the fundamental format or source for the Marsalis family legacy.

I don’t take photos at the Monterey Jazz Festival (I’m too busy writing it all down!), so I’m going to have some fun here and post a photo of Delfeayo Marsalis (singing) that I took at the Funky Butt in 2002—and to “catch” that New Orleans flavor: a photo I took of the Preservation Hall sign, and two of street musician Doreen Ketchens (dubbed “Queen Clarinet,” whom those in the know told me was the “best trumpet player in New Orleans,” but refused to play in the clubs), seen here playing in Jackson Square, in front of St. Louis Cathedral (I was also told that musicians came from all over the world just to perform with her).

MJF14 3   MJF14 6

MJF14 4  MJF14 5

At MJF, Delfeayo’s group was holding forth with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when I entered the Night Club, the leader contributing a joyous solo laced with trad slurs and growls, the rhythm section assisted by a hand-clapping standing room only (I was lucky to find a recently vacated seat) audience Delfeayo had engaged at the start with plugs for his birthplace: “If you go to New Orleans, you got to go to that Mardi Gras … and when you’re down there, my Daddy’s gonna tell you what it’s all about … we’re gonna jump and shout; we gonna turn the party out!” If the chat up and licks were familiar, they were still good fun—and “Daddy,” of course, is Delfeayo’s father (and Winton’s, and Branford’s and Jason’s), the pianist whom I felt (and he’s been doing it for years) “stole the show” with his truly tasteful style, which he provided on “Autumn Leaves” and then again on “Nancy,” a handsome close-to-the-melody paraphrase right down to the last “laughing face” grace note on the latter.

The group played “Speak Low” (that fine Kurt Weill tune with lyrics by Ogden Nash), up tempo—but the drummer (whom I hadn’t checked out) struck me as a tad heavy handed, so I was surprised to discover it was Marvin “Smitty” Smith, one of my favorite drummers and whose excellent articles on drum technique I’ve found invaluable (up to the point, that is, of my ongoing shortcomings when it comes to percussion)—but throughout the set, the audience did get “taken down to New Orleans” and the trip was good.

I’d run into guitarist Bruce Forman, about whom I’ve written in the past on a number of occasions (his many fine performances) and whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and we had a good catching up “chat.” I had another of those “conflict of interests” occasions, for I learned that Bruce would be playing with the Tony Monaco Trio in Dizzy’s Den at 7:30, but–because of the many excellent simultaneous offerings at MJF–I’d missed out on hearing pianist Donald Brown play with his trio at the Coffee House Gallery on Saturday night, along with a Saturday afternoon “Conversation” there, “Remembering Two Piano Masters: Mulgrew Miller & James Williams,” featuring Brown, Harold Mabern, and Geoff Keezer. I had to forego Bruce if I was to catch Keezer’s set—and that amazing  pianist offered his customary first-rate fare: clean, well-conceived, fully imaginative lightning-quick runs and engaging dynamics, on tunes written by James Williams (“In the Open Court”) and Mulgrew Miller (“From Day to Day”). Thank you, Geoff, for the homage paid to those two greats in your own performance. After his set, the last line I entered in my notebook was: “God, he’s fast!” Fast and good.

The last set I witnessed on Sunday night was by Eric Harland’s group Voyager. I’d been so impressed by this 2014 Artist-in-Residence’s appearances with Charles Lloyd (twice), but I may have been a bit burnt out by a full weekend of superlative offerings, for while Harland, as a drummer, is a delight to listen to in and of himself (similar in this sense to Brian Blade), and while he had Taylor Eigsti on hand (another fine pianist), I found Chris Turner’s heavily-cliched vocals lacking … something (“Can we sing together?” followed by a nursery rime refrain: “la la la la la la la la,”etc.). I found myself jotting down some uncomplimentary notes throughout this set regarding a phenomenon which, along with all the riches (the top notch performances), I’d experienced that weekend.

I found myself writing about unrelated “increments” of music offered in lieu of meaningful sequence; an OVERKILL of “information” (notes) in place of focused innate feeling vividly expressed; forethoughts and afterthoughts but that significant leap across the synapses, the connecting tissue, the fortunate “in between” (that can be ALL) somehow ignored or left out—so that the attempt to tie things together too often fell back on endless vamps, treading water, stalling for time, repetitious becoming with no end in sight, still searching for a significant story to tell rather than telling it outright or having that story fall in place of its own accord—these efforts so unlike the truly stirring, meaningful music I’d heard from Charles Lloyd (that gorgeous tone of his alone!), Billy Childs, and Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band (fellowship indeed!).

Once again, because of “overlap” in offerings, and my own inability to be in two (or three!) places at the same time (unlike the gifted critic Scott Yanow, who still somehow manages—after all these years–to “take it ALL in”), I missed out on: excellent vocalist Claudia Villela and saxophonist Harvey Wainapel’s “Getz/Gilberto” set; drummer John Hanrahan’s quintet featuring tenor-saxophonist Brian Gephart doing, as Scott would write, “a superior job of performing all of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’” (“earning a standing ovation”); “The remarkable Lisa Fischer [whom I did hear with Billy Childs] perform a soul/R&B set for a packed house”; pianist Aaron Diehl and his quartet paying homage to John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet with the commissioned piece “Three Streams of Expression” (“fully capturing the sound of the MJQ”); pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa (“a passionate player with very impressive technique, a future giant from Cuba who was dazzling with his trio.”). And thanks, Scott, for the quotes!

Thus ended what I felt was one of the most well-rounded, fully engaging weekends of music the Monterey Jazz Festival has offered—and the fare each year is consistently high, thanks to the competent staff and Tim Jackson’s well-proven genius for exceptional programming.

Another jazz fest is coming up soon: the March 6-8 JAM (JazzAge Monterey) 35th Anniversary “Jazz Bash by the Bay” at the Monterey Conference Center. I was fortunate in being asked to be on the Advisory Board for this event (originally known as Dixieland Monterey—now offering a full range of trad jazz, ragtime, swing, zydeco, gypsy jazz, and blues, with more than a taste of truly current licks along the way), and I would like to offer, by way of Bill’s Blog, a three part series of pieces–the first of which will cover the event’s first six years–telling the story of how its remarkable and much welcomed evolution has taken place. So … see you then!

MJF57: The 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival

In anticipation of what may prove to be one of the more memorable offerings, ever, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I ordered Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro CD, advertised, promoted for several months before the September MJF event. My copy arrived a few days before the Saturday night performance in Monterey, and by the time I witnessed that occasion, I think I had fallen in love with and memorized much of the exceptional score. Billy Childs has long been one of my favorite pianists/composers/arrangers, and I have been fortunate to have been present at his 1994 MJF “Concerto for Piano & Jazz Chamber Orchestra”; the original compositions he arranged for vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in 1998; and his 2010 commission piece “Music for Two Quartets,” with the Kronos Quartet.

The original Map to the Treasure CD features no less than ten top vocalists interpreting Childs’ interpretation of Laura Nyro’s songs: Renee Fleming, Becca Stevens, Lisa Fisher, Esperanza Spalding, Rickie Lee Jones, Ledisi, Susan Tedeschi, Shawn Colvin, Dianne Reeves, and Alison Krauss—with instrumentalists Yo-Yo Ma, Brian Blade (drums), Scott Colley (bass), Carl Robbins (harp), Wayne Shorter (soprano saxophone), Chris Potter (tenor sax), Steve Wilson (tenor sax), Chris Botti (trumpet), three violins (Mark Robertson, Jen Chou Fischer, Alyesa Park)), a viola (Luke Maurer) and an extra cello (Vanessa Freebaium-Smith) to flesh out the arrangements Childs and lifelong friend Larry Klum put together. It’s an All-Star cast (to say the least), and Childs brought singers Stevens, Colvin, and Fisher with him to Monterey—each of whom provided a stunning performance, along with Robbins, Colley, and Blade, also on hand, as was trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the Quartet San Francisco.

Billy Childs altered the original order, the sequence of songs for the Saturday night MJF set, and the overall effect of the music seemed seamless to me, one of the most “together,” coherently comprehensive performances I’ve seen and heard at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The first Nyro song, “Confession,” is focused on sexual strife: the paradox of overt sexuality (“Love my lovething … superride inside …”) combined with a confession of innocence retained, the plight of a “virgin” attached to a new “winsome lover.” This blend is embodied in the fine line: “love is surely gospel,” mixed feelings that Becca Stevens portrayed handsomely (poet W.H. Auden said poetry “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”). In “To a Child,” Sevens offered passion alongside vulnerability: the reciprocity of mother and child; Nyro’s homage to her own son, “an elf on speed.”

Next up: “And When I Die” was the first song Laura Nyro wrote (placed last on the CD, midway in the MJF set): the plaintive irony of this minor key piece about beginnings and ends beautifully projected by Shawn Colvin. “Save the Country” was introduced, splendidly, by Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet solo, followed by Colvin’s astutely phrased anthem-rendering (the song originally inspired by the murder of four major American political and civil rights advocates and the Vietnam War): a simple string arrangement backing Colvin’s poignant plea for better days.

On the CD, Renee Fleming renders the opening tune, “New York Tendaberry,” but in her absence at MJF, Billy Childs provided a brilliant solo piano interpretation: clear, clean, very moving lines unfolding with classical precision—an amazing, superb “substitute” for Fleming. Vocalist Lisa Fisher, a crowd favorite, sang “Map to the Treasure” with highly emotional, gospel-laced repeated lines, her phrasing fleshed out with piano/harp fusion and a jazz/chamber ensemble. The set ended with a joyous “Stone Soul Picnic”: free love friendship on a surrey saunter ride to open-field delight. The MJF audience responded to this spontaneous romp with spontaneity of its own: a well-deserved standing ovation. I found the MJF performance as spellbinding as that on the CD: a complete, truly TOTAL enactment on everyone’s part, vocal and instrumental—everything in place and held together by the taste and fine touch of Billy Childs himself.

Here he is; the Map to the Treasure CD; Laura Nyro (from the cover of an LP I have, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession; and a photo from the performance on stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Billy Childs   Billy Childs Laura Nyro CD

Laura Nyro from CD   Billy Childs at MJF

Critic Scott Yanow would later write: “Laura Nyro would have loved what Billy Childs did to her music,” and when people asked me what I thought of the presentation after, I had five words: “Billy Childs is a genius.” I’ll go so far as to say I feel this piece deserves to be placed “up there” with such legendary MJF offerings as Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “The Real Ambassadors,” Charles Mingus’ “Mediations on Integration,” Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues,” Lalo Schfrin’s “Gillespiana,” Gerald Wilson’s “Theme for Monterey,” Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” and more recent commissioned pieces by Maria Schneider (“Scenes from Childhood” and “Willow Lake”), Bill Frisell’s “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” and the pieces by Billy Childs previously cited.

Childs is one of the more “poetic” pianists/composers/arrangersI know of, given his interest in and inclusion of poetry. His I Have Known Rivers CD (1995) pays homage to poets ranging from Langston Hughes (the title poem recited by Wren Brom), Walt Whitman, Rilke, to e.e. cummings—Childs offering an instrumental (solo piano) “reading” of the latter’s “Somewhere I have never traveled,” handsomely, perceptively interpreted right down to its tender last line: “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” This performance may well have augured his brilliant solo interpretation of Nyro’s “New York Tendaberry.”

The Billy Childs’ Quartet performed just after the Map to the Treasure triumph, at 10:45 in Dizzy’s Den. They were ready, “up,” for more of the same, and so was I. Consequently, I did not remain in the main arena for a set by the hip-hop/rap group Roots (house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), although I was curious, enticed by the names of its members alone: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tarig “Black Thought” Trotter, Frank “Knuckles” Walker, “Captain” Kirk Douglas, etc. Critic Scott Yanow called the decision to book Roots “the biggest misfire of the weekend,” citing its “lack of jazz content,” and the group’s appearance did occasion a rush of complaint at the Patron’s Booth, although I talked to a few folks who felt the experience of hearing Roots was a Festival highlight. I suspect this set may have been a “test case” (similar to the  1994 appearance of Ornette Coleman with Prime Time, which set Festival old-timers scurrying to the nearest arena exit, even though Coleman had made his first appearance at the MJF in 1959, just a  year after the event started!)—the Roots’ appearance may have been a “statement” to show that, a gesture to a younger audience, nearly “anything goes” at the MJF. Also, apparently Roots had folks of whatever age up and dancing (at midnight!) and that does not always happen now even on a Saturday afternoon once devoted to the Blues.

Whatever, I had a grand time listening to another set by Childs, more than ably assisted by Brian Blade on drums (a miracle worker whose performance at the previous set was superb—a drummer so good, so inclusive, I feel I just might be able to listen to him play solo for three days, or in the company of another miracle worker I heard on Friday night with Carles Lloyd, Zakir Hussein on tablas); Scott Colley was on bass, and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophone. The group provided a set so tasteful, filled with such a range of forms and sounds that I felt I might be experiencing a blend of Beethhoven’s sonatas and late string quartets (which I love) and any one of my favorite jazz aggregates (too numerous to name, although Wayne Shorter’s term of service with Miles Davis (1964-70), the saxophonist providing half the compositions to some albums, comes to mind, or Shorter’s own quartet of 2000 that featured Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and … who else but Brian blade on drums?!).

Listening, I couldn’t help but think of two lines from the poem “Art Poetique” by Paul Verlain: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encore,/Pas la Couleur, rien ca la nuance!” (“Never the Color, always the Shade,/always the nuance is supreme!”)—for that was the case with this music, incessant nuance coupled with rich meaning and full power, as in Childs’ “Hope, In the Face of Despair,” on which Colley provides his huge sound, Childs his finespun classicism, Wilson handsome lines of invention, and … well, Blade everything he does (from subtle shading to sudden explosion–and always with that Billy Higgins-inherited smile on his face!). Yet the group can turn around and offer another Childs’ composition, “Backward Bop,” filled with hard edge drive—and close with a beautiful “Stay,” a few people rising to go before the tune commenced, prompting Childs to say, “Perhaps you could call it, ‘Go!’”—those couples never to know what they missed by missing this love song that epitomizes “la Nuance encore.”

The Billy Childs Quartet rounded off its Saturday night set in Dizzy’s Den with the addition of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a former Oakland teen who was a member of the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, now a full-fledged pro at age 32 who toured with the Monterey Jazz All-stars in 2013, and was featured earlier in the Map to the Treasure performance. It would be hard to top that set, but I felt this second appearance, of the quartet alone, ranks right “up there’ as well, as a highlight of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

And now I must backtrack from Saturday night performances that stand out to Friday night, opening night. Festival offerings are now so rewardingly “dense” (in that word’s original Latin sense, densus, compact, or “arranged neatly in a small space”), that I seem to spend more time on the grounds (which now sport six venues in all) than I do in the main arena, but I always make it a point to hear Tim Jackson’s opening remarks, and stay to taste the “opening act” on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, whatever that may be—this year, the much touted vocalist Cecile McClorin Salvant.

At 7:30 pm, Tim kept it short and sweet, saying “Welcome! I see you out there and I feel the energy … We have a beautiful weekend of music ahead of us”—heartfelt words, I feel, and once again, as “Artistic Director,” he’d come up with a superb range of performers when it came to programming, variety and surprise—something for everybody! I’ll confess I had a “conflict of interest” with regard to Salvant, because just as she commenced her set, Charles Lloyd and his group Sangam (with percussionists Zakir Hussein, who I’ve already mentioned as a miracle worker alongside Brian Blade, and Eric Harland, 2014 Artist-in-Residence) had commenced their own set down in Dizzy’s Den  (the Festival’s simultaneous “embarrassment of riches” presenting its customary quandary), but I enjoyed what I heard from Cecile McClorin Salvant, a 24-year-old “phenom” at risk of being touted too fiercely prematurely, perhaps, but whose opening tune, “Yesterdays” (a Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach song first sung by Irene Dunne in a show called Roberta in 1933—three years before I was born!—and destined to become a jazz standard), was richly rendered. Salvant drew out (dragged?) the phrasing, as if those yesterdays have gone by quite slowly, in slow-motion perhaps (as they may have, for some), but her range is impressive, from deep cellar notes comfortably rendered to falsetto, the same.

Cecile McClorin Salvant paid homage to predecessors such as Judy Garland (“The Trolley Song”) and Carmen McRae (“Guess Who I Saw Today”), and there-in resided a reservation I do have: I’m not sure she, as competently as the standards have been absorbed and assimilated, has yet, at age 24, decided just who or what she is herself as a singer. She teased the meaning out of each note, testing each, but the approach struck me as mannered, somewhat indecisive, technique not always at one with the “story” at hand, struggling (or still searching) for appropriate effects, theatrical but too close, at times, to parody (the “hiiiigggh starched collar” in “The Trolley Song”), although “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Salvant has a keen sense of drama) came across beautifully, right down to its “surprise” last line: “I saw you!” (that person seen with someone he should not have been seen with).

Not wishing to miss seeing (and hearing) Sangam, I hastened (as much as a somewhat elderly gentleman with a cane can “hasten,” ho ho) down to Dizzy’s Den, took advantage of my Press Pass (although I do know the “crew” there fairly well by now), and went backstage (the Den itself packed) and stood against a wall behind Zakir Hussain, who was seated, lotus style, before  a host of tabla that ranged from a small drum with the circumference of a bagel to a large drum before his lap on which he could alter pitch from resonant basso upward, this drum flanked by medium-sized “squeeze drum” tabla, a total of seven drums embracing and embraced by him in a semi-circle, all of which he maneuvered as if he had the four arms of ego-destroying Shiva, or the six to ten arms of Lord Ganesh, as if Zakir Hussain were several drummers at work and play rather than just one. Across the stage, another drummer just as proficient, Eric Harland, let Zakir show his stuff, and then commenced to show his own on his own terms, on bass drum, toms, snare and cymbals: the two percussionists trading solo time, “team” time, and intermittent response time—this universe of drum talk offered in the service of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, 2014 Showcase Artist, whom I would see in three different settings before the weekend ran out.

Zakir Hussain     Sangam CD

Hussain, Lloyd, Harland

Pictured above are: Zakir Hussain, the Sangam CD cover, and Hussain, Eric Harland and Charles Lloyd taking bows.

Lloyd, a former resident of Big Sur whose playing still bears the tone and overall “flavor” of that generous sequestered place, and displays its range of mood (from sedately meditative to blatantly majestic), made a bed or nest for himself within the ongoing percussive landscape provided by Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different shades of sound (an extended family of sounds) as those that emerged from Hussain’s assortment of tabla: everything from bashful bonks, metallic plonks and hollow gurgles and growls to quicksilver slaps and pats; slicing, belching, burping; sustained purring, melodic sanding and shading, hiccups, stepladder ascents in pitch and sudden or drawn-out declines, bottomless boiling to mountain top squeaks.

Harland would provide his own magic within or alongside that of Hussain: steady wire brush finesse, soccer-skillful bass drum footwork, setting and holding the pace on his ride cymbal, or going all out on the complete kit. Charles Lloyd might sit out and just listen, appreciatively, for a bit, then jump back in, “return” as if emerging from some prolonged mental journey (to, literally, God only know where), return on tenor sax or tarogato (a bright red Hungarian folk instrument with “deep Arata-Magyar origins,” shaped like a wooden soprano sax), or even piano (at which he is also adept): the reunion appropriately sublime or fierce, a celebration, buoyant, liquid, earthy, a joyous reciprocity—inspirational mutual accord. The group’s name, Sangam, suggests confluence, a meeting point or place, a gathering or coming together; triveni sangam in their case: a junction of three rivers that merge and flow as one—a totally free and unimpeded flow—and that is exactly what one hears.

In Steve Lake’s excellent liner note for the CD Sangam, Hussain refers to Lloyd’s “stadium-sized heart,” one that allows both Harland and himself to “canter and gallop,” rather than be restrained or “reined in” like obedient colts. Asking what key he should tune his tabla to (they have pitch) for a particular piece, Lloyd responded, “Oh, just tune to the key of the universe” (which, Hussain claims, is Bb—which is interesting, for that’s the key of the tinnitus I’ve had for twenty-seven years, an “affliction” I shall now look upon with favor, being “in tune” with the universe at large as I am).

The opening night Sangam set in Dizzy’s Den was another very special “right up there” (when it comes to highlight offerings at the Monterey Jazz Festival) event for me, and the last word I was to jot down about it in my notebook was “stupendous.” I have several CDs at home by Charles Lloyd, but was delighted to discover much of Zakir Hussain on YouTube, including an impressive six video documentary called The Speaking Hand, which tells the story of his life from his birth in Mumbai, India; being introduced to tabla by his father, Usted (which means “Master”) Alla Rakha; already touring (a child prodigy) at age eleven; to Hussain’s own present state as an “Usted” himself.

I did manage to catch a portion of Charles Lloyd’s set with excellent pianist Gerald Clayton (this just before the Billy Childs Quartet Saturday night in Dizzy’s Den), and enjoyed their tasteful melodic excursions; and then I heard and saw, on the main arena Jimmy Lyons Stage (as the opening act on Sunday night) a complete set by the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland (again) on drums. Our weekend house guest, Dan Ouellette—who writes for DownBeat and conducts the magazine’s Blindfold Test at the Festival) has high regard for this group—and they proved all he said by way of praise true.

Their set started with a standard, “What’s New?”, and they played it new and short and sweet. Once again, critic Scott Yanow would get the words just right when he later wrote that the group provided a “wide-ranging set that would show that the 76-year old saxophonist is still at the peak of his power.” It was immediately apparent why critics such as Dan Ouellette and Scott Yanow find Lloyd worthy of continued respect and the group itself one of the more admirable (and exciting) aggregates on the scene today. As a pianist myself (of sorts), I could not help but notice, or “hear” right away (as a separate “item,” but perfectly in place with the whole) Jason Moran’s “comping”: tasteful offsetting melodic lines; right hand repetition both heightened and relieved by left hand invention; trills, sudden glisses, full fulgent chords, a percussive approach mixed with abundant nuance; dynamics galore—the whole bag of tricks, a genuine artist’s standard musical “vocabulary” seasoned with a “flavor” strictly his own: one that acts as the perfect complement to Charles Lloyd’s own unique tone composed of soft, meditative passages, overt plaintive wails, and original riffs.

Here’s Charles Lloyd on flute; the cover for the original 1966 Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey; the quartet together; and Jason Moran alone.

Charles Lloyd at MJF Robert Wade photo    Charles Lloyd at Monterey 1966

Charles Lloyd Quartet   Jason Moran

Jason Moran is “weird” in that I don’t know of all that many pianists who can take the fully comprehensive, inclusive approach he does, who can mix such an eclectic outlook or so many disparate “means” so successfully, and yet retain his own singular voice. And the Lloyd/Moran matchup is, in turn, fully agreeable with Reuben Roger’s large-handed sturdy full-bodied bass work (yet he, too, can play “sweet” and soft on solos) and the remarkable drumming (those soccer-agile bass drum kicks at work again) of Eric Harland.

It’s a class act all the way, right down to Charles Lloyd’s seemingly casual, comfortable presence on any stage, large or small—the saxophonist living room “cozy” in his peaked knit hat and loose open-throat shirt, strolling about (when not playing) as Theolonious Monk did, but not intrusively, just offering encouragement “behind the scenes,” granting his sidemen maximum space of their own—then providing variety and surprise because, when he “returns,” comes front stage again (the audience never quite sure just what instrument he may have in hand: tenor sax, red taragato, flute, or maybe just an egg shaker filled with seeds or beads), the reentry will make full use of, “exploit” if you will (in his own serene manner), all of its ingredients—the group’s music so continuous that, no matter what instruments are employed, or even the tunes enacted themselves, the effect will be that of one continuous tune, a “suite,” a celebration of the spirit we all possess but may find ourselves, as audience, too shy or reticent, too hesitant to acknowledge in public—which is not the case at all with Charles Lloyd—and the audience loves it!

Lloyd may suddenly offer an occasional saxophone growl, but it’s as if he were merely clearing his throat in order to continue in the same sweet groove he was entertaining a moment before. Some of the songs offered were identifiable—such as “Forest Flower,” the piece with which Lloyd first established his reputation, or legend, at the MJF in 1966; and “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go),” the familiar spiritual; but if not, they carried Lloyd’s unique instrumental voice, or in the words of writer Andy Gilbert, a sound that soars “into the either, embracing the universe … incandescent.” And then there is the small shuffle dance of joy he may employ, pleased with what his sidemen have just come up with, or perhaps himself. At the close of their set, the Charles Lloyd Quartet (like Billy Childs’ groups before them) was rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Rather than attempt a full survey of the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival’s weekend of music in this single post, I am going to save other favorite performances for the next verbal outing. I made new discoveries, such as pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie and her quintet, and vocalist Youn Sun Nan, along with excellent artists I’ve heard before, such as vocalist Claudia Villela and Harvey Wainapel (tenor sax), Booker T. Jones, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalas and his pianist father, Ellis Marsalas (the Patriarch!), fine pianists Harold Mabern and Geoffry Keezer, and also my buddy Dan Ouellette with his DownBeat Blindfold Test with guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Before I “leave,” I would like, here and now, to focus on one last group which I was eager to hear, live (I had their CDs), and that is drummer Brian Blade (about whom I’ve already raved) and The Fellowship Band, which appeared on the Garden Stage Sunday afternoon. Just as I had been “prepared” to appreciate Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro through CD listening sessions, so I was more than “ready” to appreciate The Fellowship Band by way of the CDs of theirs I have, and also an excellent article by Paul de Barros that appeared in the June issue of DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good.” De Barros makes it clear, from the start, that whereas The Fellowship Band “has not been prolific,” they are “a profoundly important band”—one for whom “fellowship” isn’t just a word, but “a creed.” Blades’ father was a minister in Shreveport, Louisiana, “an imposing man with a stentorian voice” (writes de Barros), a man who “preached at Zion Baptist Church and had a radio ministry.” Brian Blade told the writer: “I’m sure the first voice I heard in the womb was my father’s.” Brian’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, and that vocation provided first-rate nurturing as well.

The difficult arts of truly listening and giving back came naturally to Brian Blade, of whom saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Blade appears on Shorter’s multi-award winning CD Without A Net) says, “He’s like a tailor. He makes the clothes fit the person he’s playing and interacting with.” Blade has returned to his roots in Shreveport in several ways, having moved back to his hometown with his high school sweetheart (and wife) and seven of the ten compositions on The Fellowships Band’s CD Landmarks were recorded there. Blade attended Loyola University in New Orleans with the band’s pianist Jon Cowherd in 1988, playing “duo all the time,” and Cowherd is the main reason the drummer took up composing. The group is fleshed out with Myron Wilson on alto sax and bass clarinet; Melvin Butler on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Chris Thomas on bass. The tunes composed by Blade reveal his interest in word-songs  (an interest similar to that of Billy Childs; Blade himself has performed with Joni Mitchel, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan).

Here’s Brian at the drums, smiling of course; The Fellowship Band together; the cover for the CD Landmarks; and the group on stage.

Brian Blade  Brain Blade and The Fellowship Band

Brian Blade Landmarks  Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band2

I have a strong feeling (which seems in danger of becoming solid belief) that at this time in our peculiar history, this era (no more peculiar, perhaps, than that of any time or era—but it’s ours to experience), the music needs (craves?) meaning, extra-musical meaning or purpose; and I was pleased to find Paul de Barros (responding to a quote from a longtime friend of Brian Blade, pianist Darrell Grant, “I think it is not a coincidence that Brain played the drums in his dad’s church; because music was spirit. That was its function. If you come at music that way, how can you not make it spiritual?”), write: “Blade’s beliefs also drive his urge to make a difference. He holds high ideals for what music can do, calling it ‘a cosmic, healing chemical’ that can ‘fortify our lives.’”

There was fellowship galore within the group on Sunday afternoon at the MJF. You could tell, immediately, just how much they love making music together: a “joyful noise,” both secular and sacred. Their set commenced in a comfortable vein, with tasty piano chords and just a hint of melody, bass clarinet and soprano sax emerging in perfect synchronicity: a handsome entry introduction of a handsome theme, laced with Blade’s subtle drum fill, this performance making it seem as though he were merely taking up where he’d left off the previous evening in the company of Billy Childs’ quartet, trading that tight unison for being perfectly in tune, in touch, with Myron Wilson’s delicious bass clarinet deep timbre and mood. Cowherd offered a fine extended piano solo, his introspective interlude giving way to a smooth ensemble close out.

Brian Blade did not announce the names of the tunes until the close of the set itself (moving directly from one piece into another, the whole presenting itself as a suite, a single song of celebration, as had that of Charles Lloyd’s quartet), but I think this first piece may have been “Landmarks,” title tune on the group’s most recent CD, a tune about which Blade has said, “The word ‘landmark’ seemed to have an arrow attached to it. The idea is that we’re here right now, and we’re passing signs along the way that mark where we are. I like the journey aspect of Landmarks, the trip the songs seem to comprise.”

The next piece, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” is from another CD, Season of Changes, and it has an enriching (not demeaning) mournful quality to it, is a sort of sophisticated blues, and it provided the joy of watching Brian Blade at work, seated behind a set of white pearl (vanilla-silver?) drums, cross hand action, switching arms from east to west, a single deft move executed with ease (it seems—but try it!)—along with his solemn smiling concentration on hi hat. Cowherd switched to a synthesized organ sound for a Gospel-flavored “Shenandoah” (also on the Landmarks CD), bass clarinet and tenor sax meeting in the center of a generous fuzz—the  set’s music blending religious outreach with bebop-flavored finesse to introspective or impressionistic melody: an instrumental conversation containing both solemn and playful import, heartfelt yearning and urging; and then: church was over, seemingly too soon, the set ending with Brian’s adaption of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s tune ‘Highway One” rendered as Blade’s own “King’s Highway.”

Which is a good place for me to end this blog post—with some thoughts on collaboration, musicians working (playing) together for a common purpose or end, an activity characteristic of the groups led by Billy Childs, Charles Lloyd, and Brian Blade which I have focused on, and which I thoroughly enjoyed (cooperation or collaboration not an activity I see much evidence of elsewhere in the world today). As a writer, I find myself spending too much time alone, perhaps, staring at a blank sheet of paper, wondering when the words might arrive, waiting for the right “notes” to fill that empty space with, locked into my own isolated world, overlarge with fragile more than likely “fake” ego (someone out there actually cares!)—and I envy groups such as those I’ve just written about and, hopefully, found the right words for: envy their genuine fellowship, “familyhood,” the love they have for what they are capable of, together, perpetually listening to what each has to say alone and the beauty made when they talk as one.

On occasion, as a sometime musician, I’ve known that togetherness—and there is little else in the world (aside from that of close family and friends) that can match it—and it was a privilege to witness this “phenomenon” (from the Greek “phainomenon”: appearance) in all its acquired meanings: “something impressive or extraordinary”; “a remarkable or exceptional person; prodigy; wonder”; an appearance or immediate object of awareness in experience; Kantianism. a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself”—to have had that experience at the Monterey Jazz Festival on the weekend of September 19-21, 2014.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to return to Paul de Barros’ article in DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good,” in which he said: “As a composer, [Blade] insists the music is ‘not just notes,’ but carries important, even urgent messages. As a person, he prompts unconditional praise.” These two entities—art and a praise-worthy person—do not always coincide or arrive together, and it’s a rare and wonderful thing to behold when they do.

Next blog: more Monterey Jazz Festival.

More Jazz

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:

BillMinor_FrontCover
click on cover to purchase from AMAZON.COM

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:

MST-Bus-1 JAZZ-Shelter  Bill at JAZZ BUS Shelter

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.

Dan    Dan's New Book

http://danouellette.artistshare.com/

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 …

Love Letters Cover
Click on cover to purchase from Historic Sandusky Foundation

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!

Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years

Monterey Jazz Festival cover
Click on Cover to Purchase from AMAZON.COM

In Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, jazz journalist William Minor tells the story of the oldest, continuously performed jazz gathering in the world, the story of forty weekends of jazz that welcomed the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Carmen McRae, Janis Joplin, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman … Photographer and photo editor Bill Wishner has collected more than one hundred fifty rare images of the performers and performances that have highlighted the Festival over nearly half a century. Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years includes a complete listing of all musicians who have performed on the Monterey stages from 1958 to 1997. This is the definitive history of the Festival that defines jazz.