I experienced the 45th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival for my first time this year. I have wanted to go since I moved to the Bay Area a few years ago. The festival runs annually from Friday through Sunday on the 3rd weekend in September. This year I decided to go after some serious coaxing from a fellow audiophile to come hear Lizz Wright plus I really needed a vacation. It was more wonderful than I ever could have imagined. In addition to hearing some wonderful music, I learned so much about the music that I love.
We went to the festival without purchasing our tickets in advance in hopes of being able to purchase tickets from people who had extras. Well God truly smiled upon us, for we were able to purchase VIP box seats for all of the Sunday shows. Keep in mind, you cannot purchase VIP box seats. Usually, they are passed down from generation to generation. After that, we lined up tickets for the Friday night shows.
The festival is held on the Monterey County Fairgrounds and there is music everywhere. The Jimmy Lyon’s Stage is the big arena where the festival headliners play. There were three smaller music stages on the grounds – Dizzy’s Den, Night Club, and Garden Stage. In addition, there was the Courtyard Stage, Coffee House Gallery, and the Jazz Theatre.
After checking out the Tower Records store, we went to the Garden Stage to hear the legendary Heath Brothers perform. Percy, Jimmy, and Albert “Tootie” Heath have played with all the great legends of jazz including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. The brothers were absolutely amazing on stage and sounded great. As incredible as their music was their great sense of humor. One of the high points was when Jimmy stopped for a moment to check his heart when he heard the siren of ambulance passing by.
Afterwards, we got Joshua Redman’s autograph and spoke briefly with him. Next, we caught the closing number of Roy Hargrove and RH Factor on the mainstage. We headed over to the Night Club to get our seats for Lizz Wright’s 11pm show. Along the way, I stopped for some peach cobbler. Earlier, I had a seafood combo platter that was quite tasty. Oh, did I get lost in the food? Oh well, back to the music!! We were very early for Lizz Wright and so we got to hear vocalist Roberta Gambarini. As people would leave her performance, we played musical chairs until we had great seats for the Lizz Wright’s upcoming performance.
It was now 11pm and the magic moment we had been waiting for all evening had finally come. Lizz Wright took the stage and held us in a trance for an hour. Her beauty, her presence, her resonant alto voice and her spirit captivated us. She sang some beautiful music and after she was done, you truly wanted more. I could keep going but since I recently wrote a whole blog about her already, I will stop here. When we finally returned from our musical celestial flight that Lizz had taken us on, we attempted to see the second show of Roy Hargrove and RH Factor but it was packed so we strolled back over to the mainstage and saw Joshua Redman’s closing performance. He was very energetic and also played keyboards.
Saturday afternoon at the festival is devoted to Blues and Etta James was the headliner. There were also great acts at the other stages as well. As we arrived in the late afternoon, Etta was closing out with Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and sounded great. We saw a film on the life of bassist Charles Mingus in the Jazz Theater. He was quite outspoken and very devoted to his music. Next, we checked out the festival vendors and got a 5-meat BBQ combo. Tasty!!!
Saturday night, we saw Charlie Haden & American Dream featuring Michael Brecker, Kenny Barron, and the Monterey Jazz Festival Chamber Orchestra. I really enjoyed Kenny Barron on piano and Charlie Haden on bass but overall the music was a little sterile. I have enjoyed Charlie Haden’s music in the past but I was I was getting a little sleepy here.
Next, we saw Maxjazz vocalist, René Marie. She was definitely no sleeper. She was very energetic, soulful, and has a wonderful voice. She performed songs from her “How Can I Keep From Singing?” and “Vertigo” albums including “Afro Blue”, “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”, and “Suzanne.” She closed with a soul-stirring version of “Dixie/Strange Fruit.” Afterwards, I got her autograph and took a picture with her. She was very nice and funny. René will be going back into the studio in November to record her third Maxjazz album. It should be released next year. I know it will be good.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!!! We started out by catching the second half of a conversation on “The Jazz Legacy Of Langston Hughes” featuring Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Randy Weston. He spoke about their friendship and Langston’s love of music especially the Blues. He also told a story about how it was in Langston’s will that he plays at his funeral under the condition that Randy bring a trio. He told how the music was so moving at Langston’s funeral, that people did not know whether to cry or dance. Afterwards, we went backstage, took pictures with him, and got his autograph. This was no easy task because every time we wanted to take his picture, someone would start another great conversation would begin. He is definitely a living history of jazz.
Lunchtime!!! Today’s treat was a yummy Cajun grilled salmon with rice, beans, and plantains. Afterwards, we went to the mainstage to hear the incomparable vocalist Miss Nancy Wilson and legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis. In the 45 years of the festival, neither of them had appeared at Monterey. I had many opportunities in Chicago to see Ramsey perform live, but this was my first seeing him so I was very excited. Nancy was radiant and elegant as ever as she and Ramsey performed songs from their recent release, “Meant to Be.” Songs included were “Peel Me A Grape”, “Moondance”, and “Did I Ever Really Live.” Nancy was in great voice and looked fabulous. She also performed some of her classics including “I’ll Never Marry”, “The Masquerade Is Over”, and “Guess Who Saw Today.” Ramsey’s piano playing with his trio was outstanding, though some of the crowd around us thought his music was a little too sedate for a Sunday afternoon. I was too much in awe to agree. He definitely raised the energy level when he performed a medley of hymns and spirituals that he had played growing up in church. No matter the tempo, I was totally impressed and having great seats just made it that much better. After the show, they ever so briefly signed autographs at the Tower Records store on the festival grounds. Now just as I was moving up closer in line, Ramsey was leaving the signing booth, then as I was moving up front, Nancy signed her last autograph, picked through some CD’s that the staff had recommended and also left the signing booth. You cannot imagine my disappointment especially after standing in line for over 20 minutes. While standing in line, I was chatting with some fellow Nancy lovers and an older gentleman asked me, “How do you know about Nancy Wilson being such a young cat?” I simply told him that my parents played some wonderful music when I was growing up.” Even though I missed out on an autograph, I saw a great show.
I caught the second of half of “My Life As A Heath Brother”, a conversation with the legendary Heath Brothers. They were outspoken and very entertaining. They talked candidly about their lives and their music. While Percy is a purist about the music he listens to, Jimmy and Albert were open to listening to the contemporary artists including hip-hop and rap. Jimmy said “whenever his music was sampled, he got a check and went to the bank.” By the way, Jimmy Heath is the father of James Mtume of the group, Mtume, (c’mon now, you remember “Juicy Fruit”) who has produced some great music over the years as well. They shared stories about working with other musicians over the years even how a young Albert found Milt Jackson’s weed and flushed it down the toilet. This was another example of the living history of jazz and I truly thank my fellow audiophile for introducing me to the Heath Brothers and Randy Weston. After their interview, the brothers hung around for conversation, photos, and autographs. When my friend brought out one of the early Jimmy Heath albums to be signed, Jimmy was in total amazement and walked around the stage showing everyone the album. He was very appreciative as all the brothers were. I will definitely be adding their music to my collection.
Well after have some great steak tacos and surviving some jabanero salsa at dinner, we returned to the mainstage for the evening performances. The Randy Weston Sextet performed featuring Billy Harper on tenor saxophone. The sextet revisited music from “Monterey 66” which was when Randy Weston and his band appeared for the first time at Monterey. The music was very lively, spirited, and filled with beautiful African rhythms. Randy was excellent and the sextet was superb. Another note to self, get some Randy Weston music.
We heard an outstanding performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It was Dave’s night and the quartet were on the mark. Bobby Militello provided some excellent solo work on the tenor saxophone. Featured guests bassist Christian McBride and Dave’s son, trombonist Chris Brubeck joined the quartet later and were a great addition to the set. Next, Clint Eastwood introduced Dave’s wife, Iola and mentioned that they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this year. Iola introduced music selections from “The Real Ambassadors”, a jazz opera tribute to Louis Armstrong which debuted at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. “The Real Ambassadors” was conceived by the Brubecks. The orginal performers included Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan. Tonight’s performers, in addition to the Brubeck Quartet, included Lizz Wright, Roy Hargrove, Byron Stripling, and the vocal trio of Lynn Fiddmont-Linsey, Lamont VanHook, and Fred White. The heavenly trio opened and their vocals and harmonies were sensational. Lizz Wright performed Carmen McRae’s “My One Bad Habit” and she truly shined. Byron Stripling sang and played trumpet in the Louis Armstrong tradition and he was great. Roy Hargrove also had some great trumpet solos. The evening closed with a performance of Brubeck’s signature song, “Take Five” with Wright, Stripling, and the trio on vocals.