With all the changes the Monterey Jazz Festival has had to deal with in the past few years, it was a relief to experience the festival with some sense of normalcy. The event’s footprint returned to the entire fairgrounds after last year’s truncated version and there was close to the same amount of music presented as there was pre-pandemic.
The festival organization took the opportunity as it regrouped to introduce some other new aspects to the festival, some a bit controversial and others welcomed and appreciated. But the music as always took center stage. And there were some exceptional performances.
For someone who enjoys new music as well as the deep well of historical jazz styles still being practiced, I found the festival as a whole to be the perfect mix. There’s always been a certain amount of new talent being brought to the mix and artistic director Tim Jackson has been very creative in developing programs that are unique to Monterey. But this year was another level of new groups being introduced to festival attendees.
The talk I was hearing was more about the pros and cons of the new West End stage and the cost of food, rather than any questioning of the lineup. These are kind of strange days for festival regulars for any number of reasons, but all the confusion about what will happen next with the venues will get shaken out as the organization tackles the issues and works out the kinks. Everyone is doing their best to keep people safe, while at the same time delivering a great festival experience.
According to Festival Executive Director Colleen Bailey, both Saturday and Sunday were sold out, with a near-capacity crowd on Friday. That’s 4,800 tickets in the arena and 1,600 on the grounds for a full house. The capacity has reduced in size over the past several years, for the obvious reasons tied to the pandemic, but also because of a renewed attention to fire marshal concerns. So in essence the Jazz Fest has become a more intimate concert experience and that’s kind of cool.
Bailey also said the feedback about the new Premier Club was very positive, citing the two celebrity chefs and new wines that were introduced. As well, the lawn seating at the back of the arena was a great choice for young families to sit together with a lower price as a bonus.
The two early sets Friday evening at The West End Stage with Akira Tana & Otonowa and Samara Joy were really a sweet way to get the party rolling. The sun was shining and the mood was high. The singer Joy, had a buzz going on about her beautiful vocal talents and with that extra interest, a crowd filled the grassy area to experience her debut set at the Jazz Fest. Early Saturday afternoon at the Jimmy Lyons stage, Butcher Brown got started with some very cool groove-oriented jazz, but at their early set, there was only a sparse audience.
I was reminded of the Acid Jazz bands of the early ’90s, with the group’s hard-driving backbeat, an electric organ creating a whirling underpinning to the music but also stepping in for a solo on occasion. The bass was heavy and thumping and for a time it was all about the rhythm section. The saxophonist brought a warm tone to the proceedings. The crowd responded with loud cheers.
My observation Saturday, when the arena was technically sold out, was that in the afternoon a lot of people moved around from stage to stage rather than filling up the arena. During Las Cafetera’s high-energy set there was a good half to maybe two-thirds capacity in the arena, while Terrie Odabi on the Garden Stage drew an overflow crowd to that intimate venue. Also down at the West End stage, there was a good-sized crowd for Butcher Brown’s second appearance.
Although there are no longer two different afternoon and evening programs, there is a 60-minute break during the dinner hour in contrast to the 30-minute standard between other sets. The highly anticipated performance by “A Moodswing Reunion,” with saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, pulled everyone together at the start of the Saturday evening section to fill the arena for their sublime set of beautifully performed jazz improvisation. The quartet’s set and the Friday night Chucho Valdés performance of “La Creacion” with the Yoruband Orchestra directed by Hilario Duran and John Beasley were my two favorite experiences of the first two days.
I would also add that The Bad Plus, in its new formation with guitarist Ben Monder and saxophonist Chris Speed, founding members drummer David King and bassist Reid Anderson, were another top-tier act I really enjoyed. Their sound has always been progressive with elements of rock and pop, originally coming from a power piano trio lineup, but with guitar and saxophone instead of piano, the sound was another step towards the edge, but without taking it too far out.
Artemis was another highlight of the Saturday lineup, with six powerhouse women jazz players to enjoy. Pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Allison Miller, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, and bassist Noriko Ueda wowed the Lyons Stage audience with their skills and passionate playing.
While there were a lot of acts I didn’t catch, or others that were just quick hits, I can say Veronica Swift was one I was very grateful to have experienced. She really knocked it out of the park with her Saturday Jimmy Lyons Stage appearance. The first few songs were jazz tunes that showed off her sweet-sounding vocals, but later in the set, she transitioned to more of a rock & roll attitude, bringing out the keyboardist from Blood Sweat and Tears to perform one of that band’s songs and then featuring her guitarist in a Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock version of a Duke Ellington song. She was decked out in a black sequin bodysuit with long sleeves. And those sleeves with the dangling silver gray tassels that nearly reached the stage! Wow! She’s a dynamic performer with a beautiful voice. Her song “You’re The Dangerous Type” was a hard-swinging upbeat tune with some athletic scatting.
Next year, it is anticipated that the festival will continue to normalize its activities, increase the number of venues, and invite more people to come. In my opinion, with improvements to the seating options at the West End Stage, it would be a good solution to several of the problems that plague the limited space in the two fairgrounds buildings previously known as Dizzy’s Den and The Nightclub. As Jackson stated before the festival, nothing is set in stone. It’s a transitional trial and error period and in the next couple of years, a new and improved Jazz Fest will emerge in full force.
Come back Thursday to read a complete wrap-up of the festival in my column in the GO! section.