Saturday, September 17, 2005

Monterey Report Vol 1

The third weekend in September means one thing in California jazz circles - the Monterey Jazz Festival, now in it's 48 year, takes over the senic Monterey County Fairgrounds. It's about a 2-3 hour drive from Fresno (depending on traffic) so I made the trip up highway 152 for Friday night, and drove back home Saturday morning. I'll be headed back for Sunday, so another repot will follow.

First of all, a non musical note. Those who go to Monterey to sample Smokin Jim's fine barbeque - Jim is not there. In fact there seems to be an overall dearth of good barbeque vendors at the Festival - I had to wait in line 1 hour at one of the two vendors (no sign on the booth for some reason - a bad sign indeed, and not listed in the vendors list in the program!) and it was ok, but long on sauce and short on flavor. The actually had run out of ribs! I'll see if the situation has improved by Sunday.

About the music! John Handy opened up the Jimmy Lyons stage on Friday night, reuniting what remains of his famed quintet that played the MJF (and recorded there) 40 years ago. I haven't been a huge John Handy fan, but I enjoyed the set quite a bit, his sound and technique are still excellent, and the music was as fresh as most anything else out there today. Steve Miller (yes, that Steve Miller) joined the band for a few numbers (Nature Boy and St. Louis Blues), but Handy (with his incredible tone and control even in the highest ranges of his instrument) and violinist and harpist Carlos Reyes) were the real stars.

Next I went to the Coffee House stage, where the fare is usually piano trios or other small combos. I find that usually some of the best music I hear at the festival is in this venue. Last year I think it was Lynne Arriale, with a captivating set, in the past Jacky Terrasson, Stefon Harris, Jessica Williams and others that I can't remember right now. This year it was Benny Green and Russell Malone, with a wonderful standards based set. Green and Malone are both virtusosi who know that musicality is paramount, so it's never overpowering. They have a great rapport. I remember hearing them as a trio in 2000 with Christian McBride on bass, and I didn't like it as much. Green and Malone seem to work better (to my ears) in duo format, and they have two wonderful records in this format. Often I'll check out a few tunes of a set and leave to hear something else, not with these guys. Good stuff.

Next it was back to the Main Stage (after a stop at Starbucks) to hear the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. I've always had an affinity for latin jazz and salsa, but since I started filling in once a month for out latin jazz dj Steve Alcala, I've found that I love the music even more. Steve brought this very group to Fresno's Arte Americas last year, and I'm bummed I missed it after hearing their set at Monterey. High powered, very polished salsa and latin jazz, true showmen. It's hard not to move when you're listening to these guys.

The last artist of the evening was the man who I had been waiting for, Sonny Rollins. I've never heard Sonny live before, and have really been looking forward to this. Sonny played with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. Sonny opened up a little tentative (to my ears) but by the end of the hour long set, Rollins was showing everyone why he is considered the greatest living improvisor in jazz. It was a very satisfying set, though I think almost everyone (standing in applase all throughout the last tune) would have loved to see an encore. One complaint people have about Sonny these days is that his band isn't up to level. I didn't find that to be the case, though to be honest, no one is on par with Sonny. Clifton Anderson is probably the worst offender, he's a fine player, it's just that when he's playing, you think "gosh, I'd rather be hearing Sonny or someone else." A couple other things, Sonny likes "Oh Susannah" he quoted it twice on Friday night, and it shows up a couple of times on his new cd, recorded almost four years prior! Also, Bob Cranshaw looks much younger than I thought he would. Bob proves that one can play the electric bass like one would the acoustic bass. I wasn't wild about Sonny's first tune, a one chord vamp, that even the master didn't seem to take anywhere terribly interesting. It was ok, but not my favorite. Also, Sonny plays long solos, but they never SEEM long, if anything you're left wanting more. At the end of the concert, as he thanked the roaring crowd, Sonny pumped his fist in the air. I guess he had a good time too. And as the crowd filed out of the arena (at 12:30am) one fan could be heard shouting to his friends "Sonny Rollins, SONNY ROLLINS, I can't believe it, that was GREAT!"


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