Monday, October 02, 2006

Dave Brubeck @ the Monterey Jazz Festival

Ok, I had planned to get this review done much sooner, but other events took up my time. Now back to Sunday September 17th in Monterey. Dave Brubeck was the featured artist on the Jimmy Lyons stage for that evening's set. I've seen Dave three times now in the past 10 years, all of them at Monterey. This time Dave (now 85) appeared a bit more frail, but his playing was as inventive and joyful as ever. At this point in his life, he most likely doesn't need the money, but he works quite often, and you can tell he enjoys it.

He opened the evening with several tunes from his quartet, with Bobby Milletello, alto sax, Michael Moore (the bass player not the film maker) and Randy Jones on drums. I'm still not wild as Milletello as a foil for Brubeck, though he is a good alto player, but he's flashy in a way that isn't always appealing. I suppose it's a wise move for Dave to have a player like him, rather than a Paul Desmond clone though. The tunes ranged from On the Sunny Side of the Street to a blues to one of Dave's religious works.

After the quartet set, Russel Gloyd came out and Dave introduced his commissioned work "The Cannery Row Suite", inspired by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name. Brubeck told of how MJF director Tim Jackson wanted him to write a larger jazz opera, and how he (Brubeck) finally relented when Jackson said it could be 30 minutes "something more appropriate for a jazz festival." He also apologized for their lack of rehearsal time, though for just a few sections, you wouldn't have known that was an issue. Dave also told a story about his production of "The Real Ambassdors" at Monterey over 40 years earlier with Louis Armstrong. Dave said that in rehearsal he asked Louis to wear a top hat and carry an attache as part of his role in the production. Louis refused. However, when they went on stage, and Louis walked out, there he was with his top hat and attache. As he walked past the piano he told Dave "Am I hammin' it up enough foor you?" At that moment, Dave was handed a fedora, (see picture to the right) to sort of bring things full circle.

Brubeck's composition was a huge hit among the crowd, though as a jazz opera (or operetta) it wasn't all that successful, for that, it would have needed to be much longer. Rather we got to see a little bit of character development through the arias of Doc (Kurt Elling) and Dora (Roberta Gambarini) but not much in the way of actual plot. The bunkhouse group (Chris Brubeck and his band, plus singers from UOP) added a bit of rustic feel to the set, evoking the bunkhouses of Brubeck's California youth on the cattle ranch, and the bawdy Cannery Row of Steinbeck's novel.

The arias for Elling and Gambarini were incredible on their own. Based upon a 12 tone row, they must have been incredibly difficult to sing, yet they didn't sound like it, and Brubeck's melodic gift made what could have been "challenging" music for the listener, quite melodic and beautiful. Gambarini just nailed her parts. They say Sarah Vaughan could have been an opera diva. Gambarini showed a similar ability with her performance, with incredible range, excellent pitch (with all those tough intervals!) and great style and finesse. And she did all of this from memory. (this wasn't some 32 bar ABA form here folks) She's going to be a huge star. Ellling nailed his parts too, though to me wasn't as impressive (perhaps it was we all knew and expected Elling to pull it off, but for a relative unknown like Gambarini, it was more of a surprise).

The suite was punctuated by a reoccuring, and typically Brubeck-esque theme (lyrics for the suite by Dave's longtime wife, Iola) that was part sea chant and part blues. By the end of the suite the crowd was standing (for the entirety of the last number) singing along "Monterey, Monterey, a hell of a place to work and to play!" Indeed.

Oscar Peterson's set and Hank Jones still to follow...


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