Live Review

Monterey Jazz Magic: Quincy Jones, Clint Eastwood and Guitar Master Bill Frisell

Quincy Jones on September 19, 2016

59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival

The 59 th Monterey Jazz Festival was an island of sanity in a sea of pain.

The headliner for opening night in The Arena was Mr. Quincy Jones (“Q’’ to those of you in the know, and to the fans in his enormous extended family), in a tribute emceed by bass great Christian McBride, about to play four concerts Thursday-Sunday at the SFJAZZ Festival, where he is Resident Artistic Director and accompanied by a big band conducted by John Clayton including flautist extraordinaire Hubert Laws and veteran pianist Dave Grusin, with too many other greats to mention.

Oh yeah, they were joined by guest vocalist Valerie Simpson, who has not lost a step since her peak Ashford and Simpson days,, thrilling the crowd with her masterful rendition of “What’s Going On,’’ in a Quncy arrangement. Harmonica wizard Gregoire Maret joined the group, paying homage to the late Toots Thielemans, whose stature Quincy likened to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, on Ray Brown’s tune, “Brown Bossa.’’

The concert was introduced by jazz buff Eastwood in his customary laconic style: “Here’s the band.’’ And the unusual programming featured seven tunes Jones recorded for the A&M label: “Walking In Space,’’ (1969); “Gula Matari’’ (1970) and “Smackwater Jack” (1971), along with lighthearted, but always swinging renditions of his other tunes, including the theme from the TV show “Ironside.” 

Coaxed on stage (it didn’t take much prompting) to conduct the band, and Ms. Simpson, in a finale  of his classic composition,“Killer Joe,’’  Quincy shook his head at those who had accused him in the past of selling out. “That’s b.s,’’ he said, reminding the crowd – not that they needed it – that whether you call it “rebop, bebop or hiphop, it’s all music."

Beautiful show, beautiful man, great career – and still going strong! (And it must be said that Laws, no babe in the woods himself, almost stole the night, flying high as McBride and the band beamed with pride).

Too much to begin to cover, and time and space are limited, so let’s just hit a few of the other high spots. 

Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, returning to MJF for the first time since 2014, accompanied by piano phenom Aaron Diehl, combined cabaret, jazz and folk sounds with an ambitious rendering of “John Henry’’ that recalled Nina Simone, and an assured handling of standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’’  reminscent of Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. But she’s definitely her own woman: a talent worth watching.

And I’d be remiss not to mention veteran pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi’s tasty appearance at the Nightclub, with lovely reimaginings of the Ellington/Strayhorn classic “Sophisticated Lady’’ and three “Porgy and Bess’’ pieces. Akiyoshi gently observed that she felt Gershwin was transposing his own Jewish-American background into the troubles of Catfish Row. 'Nuff said.

The next day, Quincy and Eastwood engaged in dialogue (okay, Quincy did almost all of the talking) at Dizzy’s Den, named for the late, great John Birks Gillespie.

The man has seen everything and known everyone, from Nelson Mandela to Miles Davis, Michael Jackson and George Burns (he repeated one of the comic’s mildly racy jokes the night before). Lightly moderated by jazz historian Ashley Kahn, Quincy was off to the races, talking about a career that included a stint with Lionel Hampton at the Trianon Ballroom in Seattle, playing with Billie Holiday when he was only 14, trying to get Michael Jackson to make his sound more “smelly’’ (MJ didn’t like the word funk, apparently), war stories about Elvis and Colonel Parker and the bet he made with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in London over whether the band would make it in the States.

(They were doubtful, after a so-so gig in Paris, apparently, and were shocked to be greeted by 50,000 fans when they arrived in New York)

“Ringo called me at the Warwick Hotel and asked me to take them to the Apollo,’’ Jones recalled, letting them off the hook of the $100 wager. 

Clint chatted a bit about his jazz scores, including his insistence that Charlie Parker’s own recordings be used on “Bird,’ and his tough negotiations to get Roberta Flack's version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'' for "Play Misty For Me.'' (It cost him a grand total of $1,000).  The two old  friends reminisced about the days when an underage Eastwood used to sneak into jazz clubs in Oakland. Say what you will about Eastwood’s political stances, he’s a down jazz lover who probably takes more pleasure in that aspect of his career than his film feats – they showed a clip of his interview with Ray Charles a week before his death.

As Quincy joked, Clint has good “DNA’ – he’s damn near African.”

 On Sunday, drummer Tommy Igoe and the Groove Conspiracy rocked jazzy versions of “The Music of Steely Dan’’ at the Garden Stage, accompanied by trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Drew Zingg (formerly of the Becker-Fagan group) and former Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay.

Three days of music are not for the faint of heart, though, and I was feeling grumpy after sitting through the saxophone discordancies of Donny McCaslin Sunday night. But it was worth the wait to see Bill Frisell. On purely musical terms, it was the clear highlight of the festival, and one of the most elevated listening experiences of my life.

Billed as a “Guitar in the Space Age’’ session, Frisell was accompanied by Greg Leicsz on pedal steel, Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

After working the sound check out, Frisell, always the modest master, coming to work wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt and slacks, settled into a minor mode. As the tune unfolded, you realized he was covering “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’’ I almost did, and Hank would surely have approved. Papa don’t preach, and neither does Bill,  but the implicit message was clear as he and the quartet hit ominous reverbs on “Masters of War.’” A version of “Turn Turn Turn’’ recalled Pete Seeger’s well-received appearance at MJF a few years back and the interplay between Foristell and bassist Scherer on Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life’’ was something to behold.

After a tasty version of the Kinks “Tired of Waiting,’’ set to a waltzy rhythm and a lyrical “Danny Boy,’’ there seemed like left for Bill, or the band, to say. But they said it.

Closing with “America The Beautiful,’’ the lyrics about the promise –unfulfilled though they may be – of this land – echoed in the night. An orange moon (but no orange-haired personage, thank God) emerged. Leaving, it was back to the world of war and rumors of wars But the music promised something different, and better.