Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Monterey honors its roots in 50th anniversary festival

In the hip bebop jazz world of the 1950s, a new cool jazz culture was forming in California. Musicians like Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton led bands that embodied the new style out of San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it was somewhere in between--Monterey, Calif.--that became the place most closely identified with that school of jazz.

Opening October 3, 1958, the first Monterey Jazz Festival brought together luminaries from New York like Louis Armstrong and Billy Holiday with Brubeck and others from the West coast. Last week, the festival celebrated 50 years in the same location in a blowout festival that broke attendance records and brought back many old favorites.

Among those who had been at both the first and the fiftiest Monterey festivals were Brubeck, the epitome of West coast jazz, saxophone legend Sonny Rollins, vocalist Ernestine Anderson and comedian Mort Sahl.

For the first time ever, the festival sold out of all arena and grounds tickets before the opening night. The festival reported that 45,000 people attended the three-day event at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, in the same location since the beginning.

The weekend got off to a soggy start, when a rare September rainstorm doused the grounds. Umbrellas went up in the fairgrounds arena, while John McLaughlin and Isaac Delgado carried on. Many fans made for the two main covered venues, The Nightclub, where artists like Jim Hall, Terence Blanchard and Anthony Wilson were playing their first of several festival sets, and Dizzy's Den, where New Orleans night was underway with the great brass band Bonerama and Ivan Nevelle's group Dumpstaphunk.

The excursion to New Orleans was one of several subthemes in the program meant to expand the festival's appeal beyond pure jazz. Saturday afternoon was blues day, with British blues rocker James Hunter, the Otis Taylor Band, and Latin rockers Los Lobos taking over the arena. Sunday had a family day theme with an emphasis on young talent.

On the main stage, the theme was ensemble playing and special collaborations. Guitarist Jim Hall was the featured soloist with the Brubeck Quartet. Kenny Burrell was special guest with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Opening the Sunday night program, the MJF All-Stars featured vocalist Nnenna Freelon.

Overshadowed in all the festival highlights was an exuberant set by another jazz legend, Ornette Coleman, playing in an unusual three bass ensemble. That left all the highs for Coleman's saxophone and violin. With the violin, it was an electric swing band, not unlike a Bela Fleck and perfectly accessible.

The two big headliners were Diana Krall on Saturday and Sonny Rollins on Sunday. This was this first time back for Krall in seven years, and one of her first performances since recently having twins. She pleased the crowd with her stylish piano and vocal chops, and with a mini three-song Nat King Cole tribute.

Sonny Rollins closed the festival on Sunday night and he did not disappoint. He's still a hip cat with his shades and beard, and he still delivered that richly lyrical tone from his saxophone that makes him instantly recognizable.

Two special compositions were showcased. The festival's commissioned work was Gerald Wilson's song suite "Monterey Moods," which he performed in the arena Saturday night with his orchestra and special guest Kenny Burrell.

The second, by 2007 MJF artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard, was a moving "Requiem for Katrina," his search for the soul of his home city, performed with his quintet and a jazz chamber orchestra. After the solemn tone of the Katrina suite, I was glad Blanchard ended with an upbeat "Congo Square," celebrating the birth of jazz in New Orleans.

The festival introduced several innovations in its layout this year. A new dance tent dubbed Lyons Lounge became the ninth program venue, with DJ Logic and Vinnie Esparza working the turntables. Another new feature named for the festival founder was Lyons Lane with informational displays about the history of the festival.

In addition to lots of great music, the festival included a focus on jazz films and on panel discussions with figures associated with the festival. Comedian Mort Sahl, who emceed in 1957, was featured as in a staged interview format. Filmmakers Clint Eastwood and John Sayles sat on a panel to discuss jazz in movies. Eastwood, who has been associated with MJF for many years, was also honored with the presentation of an honorary doctorate from Berklee School of Music.

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