The Brothers Comatose, Trombone Shorty, More Shine at 58th Monterey Jazz Festival
Erroll Garner on September 20, 2015
The 58th Monterey Jazz Festival was a cascade of sounds, sights and sensory memories, from big-name performers like Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, to newer names like Commissioned Artist Ambrose Akinmusire, whose composition, “The Forgotten Places,’’ called up everything from his Oakland youth to Glen Deven Ranch, the rustic Big Sur retreat where he woodshedded to create it.
There were too many venues and performances to begin to do justice, but let me begin with my personal favorite – the opening night show, at the Jimmy Lyons Arena, re-creating piano great Errol Garner’s famed “Concert by the Sea,’’ originally performed and recorded 60 years ago.
Introduced by Garner fan and friend Clint Eastwood, the event was produced by Geri Allen -- no mean pianist in her own right -- and featured Jason Moran and relative youngster Christian Sands, a protégé of Dr. Billy Taylor, with guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Victor Lewis and bassist Darek Oles.
Allen, the Director of Jazz Studies at University of Pittsburgh, has also co-produced, with Steve Rosenthal, a Columbia/Legacy 3-CD box set of the original recordings, The Complete Concert By The Sea – Recorded Live in Carmel, California September 19, 1955,’ with archival material uncovered by the Errol Garner Jazz Project and digitally remastered with 11 previously unreleased tracks.
For those unfamiliar with his work, this restores his proper place in the jazz pantheon (after he was mystifyingly left out of Ken Burns’ “Jazz’’ series). The unpretentious and diminutive melodist, who was known for sitting on telephone books to elevate his physical, if not musical, stature during performances and had a habit of humming along to his recordings, Glenn Gould style.
The Arena collective, led by the regal looking devote Allen, did the master proud, with Malone supplying particularly tasty licks on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,’’ and the trio of pianists bringing out the best on tunes like “April in Paris,’’ “It’s All Right with Me’’ and “Mambo Carmel.’’ As Garner says, in a post-concert interview that's also included in the new CD set: “Nothing is really corny if you can find a way to do it.’’ Indeed.
Next up was Chick Corea, accompanied by bass player extraordinaire Christian McBride and drum virtuoso Brian Blade. Corea is ridiculously accomplished, of course, but his sound doesn’t really speak to me, though I did enjoy his rendition of “Alice in Wonderland,’’ the Disney tune that Bill Evans turned into a piece of jazz history. So I skedaddled over to the Garden Stage, which featured the Brothers Comatose, an unlikely group of San Francisco-based newgrass young ‘uns, who rocked the crowd with sprightly performance and fancy fiddling by Phil Brezina, lead guitar and vocals by Ben and Alex Morrison, nice mandolin work from Ryan Avellone, and bass by Gio Benedetti. “In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t play jazz,’’ the boys allowed, but it didn’t stop audience members -- toddlers and aging hippies alike -- to break out dance moves in front of the stage, as the Brothers broke out some choreographed knee bends of their own. It was good stuff. They’re playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass next month, so catch them there if you’re in town.
The Friday Arena finale was “Jaco’s World,’’ a tribute to legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius with an all-star ensemble conducted by Vince Mendoza and featuring veteran “Letterman’’ sideman Will Lee and McBride on bass, former members of Weather Report, vocalists Tierney Sutton (on a killer version of Joni Mitchell’s “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’’) and Sonny Knight (“Fannie Mae,’’ an R&B Pastorius favorite), drummer Peter Erskine, and percussionists Alex Acuna and Manolo Bedrena, who looked on with pride when Jaco’s son, Felix -- no mean bass player in his own right -- took the stage.
I’m not a card-carrying member of the Jaco cult -- Charles Mingus and Ron Carter, among others, might take issue with his self-proclaimed status as “the best bass player ever’’ -- but his bravado was endearing. By the end of the evening, I was sold. The players obviously loved, admired, and respected Pastorius, and wanted to do justice to his extraordinary chops as a leader, genre bender, and advocate for experimentation. “He was our Hendrix,’’ was how the introductory video put it, and it was fitting that the tribute should take place on the same stage where Jimi made his mark.
Church services continued on Saturday, with a blizzard of notes from Trombone Shorty, who first made his mark at the Festival in 2010. “Monterey, we’re back!’’ Shorty (a.k.a. Troy Andrews) shouted, to much love from the crowd on the warm September afternoon, as a group of Festival regulars with multi-colored umbrellas did their own version of line dancing down the aisles. Finishing with a bravura cadenza of an impossibly extended trumpet solo, Shorty had the crowd collectively holding its breath, then releasing it with shouts of approval and excitement. On your feet, Monterey!
In a less showy but equally enjoyable session earlier in the day at Dizzy’s Den, Latin superstar Pete Escovedo and his daughter, the gorgeous and talented Sheila E., sat for a “Blindfold Test’’ with veteran Downbeat magazine scribe Dan Ouellette. (Sunday’s performances included Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra in honor of his 80th birthday, though the man Sheila called “Pops’’ looked spry the day before.)
When the father-daughter duo failed to identify a couple of the musicians, Ouellette called out to the audience to ask if they knew the answers, and one guy stood up to say: “I’m here for Sheila E.’’ No kidding, but the family members couldn’t have been sweeter together, or sharper in their musical assessments.
It’s worth mentioning that the MJF was not the only Northern California institution in the middle of a musical renaissance. The week before, SFJAZZ had mounted a special 50th anniversary concert in honor of Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Music’’ concert at its original venue, Grace Cathedral. I caught pianist Jacky Terrason, who was playing at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on the opening night of the new season.
Bright moments, indeed.
But to me, the weekend’s stellar moment was listening to the simple chords of Garner’s classic concert, under the September stars, taking us away from the problems of a problematic world and into a space where love actually conquers all.
Garner’s most famous tune was not included, in the performance, or the concert, but it might as well have been. Play "Misty" for me – I just can’t get enough of it.