Monterey, California — The 62nd edition of the Monterey Jazz Festival, which wrapped up this past Sunday (Sept. 29), wasn’t one of the best in history, but it was OK, and even an OK Monterey is better than many other jazz festivals at their best.
Jazz festivals have been making an effort lately to include more women band leaders, so it was refreshing that Monterey opened Friday, Sept. 27, with a creative tribute to the great pianist Mary Lou Williams assembled by drummer Allison Miller and bassist Derrick Hodge, this year’s artists-in-residence. The band featured two Seattle women, vocalist Johnaye Kendrick and pianist Carmen Staaf, and some exquisite three-part vocal harmonies by Kendrick, Jean Baylor and rising star Michael Mayo.
Continuing with great women, Diana Krall turned in an extraordinary yet subdued performance Friday notable for its melancholy mood, which climaxed with a spine-shivering version of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me.” Sunday evening, the sassy and savvy young singer Jazzmeia Horn, who can get a little carried away with pyrotechnical scat singing, delivered a grounded set that included a thoughtful “Skylark” and a fierce version of Betty Carter’s “Please Do Something.” The smoky-voiced Brazilian pianist and singer Eliane Elias usually leaves me cold, but she won me over with playful versions of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Só Danço Samba” and her “Chiclete Com Banana.”
Monterey has a gift for catching giants at the height of their powers. Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland (with drummer Nasheet Waits) played with a flow so organic it erased the distinction between “straight-ahead” and “free-improvised” jazz.
Monterey commissions new works every year. Christian McBride’s “Roy Anthony, the Fearless One: In Memory of Roy Hargrove,” a big-band tribute to the great trumpeter, featured McBride’s signature funky beats and a gorgeous, elegiac middle movement with a solo by flutist Steve Wilson.
In the new faces department, Parlour Game offered an alternately witty and winsome, country-tinged set, the highlight of which was violinist Jenny Scheinman’s “Sleep Rider,” a dreamy song about riding her horse to school as a girl. Ex-Seattleite Staaf also performed in this group, dropping strong, two-handed unisons into the mix. San Francisco Bay Area vibraphonist Sasha Berliner’s riveting band offered a raucous, rhythmically diffuse, electronically shimmering soundscape that recalled the energy of Robert Glasper. Both Parlour Game and Berliner appear in the upcoming Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle.
As always, Monterey showcased some of the best high-school talent in its “Next Generation” programs, which this year included the crisp alto saxophonist Veronica Leahy and vigorous pianist Esteban Castro.
One of the great challenges for jazz is finding a young audience, and Monterey’s artistic director Tim Jackson took an admirable gamble that a New Orleans-themed spectacle Saturday afternoon might help. But despite its resplendent feathered costumes, the Mardi Gras Indians band, Cha Wa, turned out to be a boring, one trick pony (mainly chanting), and Tank and the Bangas, with baby-cakes-voiced Tarriona “Tank” Ball at the helm, was like a bizarre mashup of Parliament Funkadelic, The Flaming Lips and Tinker Bell. Most of the crowd deserted the arena to explore smaller venues.
“I was a little disappointed,” said Jackson. “But what are you going to do, the same thing over and over again? We’ve got to get new people, and fresh faces.”
Even the funky, triumphantly energetic nine-piece band Snarky Puppy, a festival favorite, did not attract a youthful crowd, but it is the one new act Monterey’s boomer-heavy audience obviously likes a lot. They also seemed fine with smooth-jazz acts like trumpeter Chris Botti, saxophonist Candy Dulfer and the classic duo of pianist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn, who with the help of funky bassist Marcus Miller revisited their classic album “Double Vision.”
But nevertheless, attendance overall was down, said Jackson. The folks who did come, however, braved the frigid evening air till the end of Snarky Puppy’s set, which capped a festival that will be remembered for some excellent moments but will probably not go down as one of the best in history.