Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Monterey Jazz Festival, Day 1-- Extravagant Expectations Not Met

(Credit: Fast Atmosphere)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival, which is probably the foremost jazz performance event in the U.S. Black and white video clips of a young Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker playing to a packed Monterey County Fairgrounds Arena are right up there with those clips of Louis Armstrong in Paris Blues and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show as one of the classic motion picture artifacts in the history of American music.

There’s a catch to all the hype, though: Monterey’s reputation has been built up so much over the years that one can lose track of the fact that a trip to the festival, like any other festival experience, will also have its share of drawbacks.

First of all, the venue just doesn’t scream “You’re walking on sacred ground, here!” like one might think it would. It might just be an attempt toward modesty on the part of the Monterey County Fair (owners of the property), but it looks like the Monterey County Fairgrounds, which has played host to not just the Monterey Jazz Festival but also the equally renowned Monterey Pop Festival, has not been renovated since it was first established in 1937. The archaic design of the grounds shoves the Arena (the main venue) off to the left of the main entrance and squeezes the rest of the eight venues, as well as vending booths and other facilities, to the point of a breathing-room-only situation for the huge mass of fans that came for the 50th anniversary festival.

Second, there was a factor that was beyond any human control-- the rain. With the first occurrence of rain at the festival since 1994, there wasn’t only a constant distraction from the enjoyment of the acts playing in the outdoor Gardent Stage and Arena, but also from the acts playing inside halls such as Dizzy's Den and the Night Club, as more and more people scrambled in to simply get inside and avoid having to face the elements any longer.

Third, the music, at least on Friday, just didn’t have the magnificent quality that might be expected by those who would decide to journey to Monterey. Sure, it’s not as if the Festival planned a night full of outfits fresh from their first few open-mic night gigs, but at the same time, there weren’t any “Gee-Whiz!!” moments. The brass extravaganza outfit Bonerama came the closest out of anybody to providing such moments, with their funky interpretation of “Crosstown Traffic” and a section in which frontman Mark Mullins filtered his trombone through a wah-wah pedal, but it wasn’t something likely to be remembered for the rest of one's life.

Likewise, the Berklee-Monterey Quartet, composed of a group of students from the Berklee College of Music, had top-notch musicianship going for them, but there just wasn’t anything noteworthy about their set besides that. Same went for John McLaughlin and his Fourth Dimension band. McLaughlin spent the whole time he was on stage playing what seemed to be bits and pieces from some “Flight Of The Bumblebee”-esque melody template, and not doing much else. No one needs to be reminded that McLaughlin has phenomenal technique, and there wasn’t nearly as much excitement, interest or awe inspired from watching his set on Friday as there would be from witnessing revisiting of his material from the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Guitar Trio (w/ Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola) days.

While the type of audience that the Festival caters to might have an inclination towards musicianship a bit more than other musical demographics, there was nevertheless a complete lack of events on Friday night that would really go on to stick in the mind. Overall, the result from Monterey's 50th first night was a net positive, but it just did not equate to the near-religious experience that one might think it would.

-- By Ross Moody

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