Story and photographs by Michael Solomon
The 66th annual Monterey Jazz Festival kicked off in late September with a powerful performance by trumpeter and composer Terrence Blanchard, along with his amazing band that includes Artist-in-Residence Lackecia Benjamin on alto sax, and the vaunted Christian McBride on bass.
Blanchard, who has composed about 50 television and movie scores, set the stage for some great jazz to follow. The performance featured Benjamin playing her sax with such precision and soul that it was reminiscent of predecessors like John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. The notes were sounding in front of an enthusiastic and packed audience. As Artist-in-Residence, Benjamin later played with performers Terri Lynne Carrington and Diana Reeves, as well as with the New Generation Orchestra, which, through a series of nationwide competitions, includes the best high school jazz musicians in the country.
Blanchard was followed by the inimitable and talented 83-year-old Herbie Hancock. The legendary ‘Herbie’ showed off his skills on his personalized clavinet, a small piano-like keyboard worn like a guitar, not to mention his synthesizer, his electric piano and his Steinway Grand.
Saturday’s performances began with Louis Cato, who broke out nationally while appearing regularly on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Cato’s original jazz ballads – along with his uplifting, melodically soulful voice – couple powerfully with beautiful lyrics that express his deep love of family and humanity.
The noted guitarist John Scofield came on next, playing his favorite tunes from the 70s, 80s and 90s, or, as he put it, from the “last century.”
Christian McBride and his five-piece band followed. McBride, a well-known entity at the festival, is reputedly the “busiest man in show business” — often joining other bands onstage to complement their performances.
The incredible West African band Isakoso Ara, featuring Oumou Sangare, treated the crowd to a high-energy performance which showcased the true African roots of American jazz. The New Yorker recently observed of Isakoso that its music “is percussive, danceable, and haunting.”
The Monterey Jazz Festival is believed to be the longest running jazz festival in the world. During the reign of Tim Jackson – the festival’s musical director for the past 32 years — the event emphasized the quality of the musicians, as well as a diversity of styles, genres and genders. It has also highlighted artists of different nationalities.
The festival continues to place a strong emphasis on jazz education while recognizing musical giants from older generations. Such luminaries include Diana Reeves, Charles Lloyd and even the 90-year-old John Handy.
Adding to the luster, this year’s festival featured brilliant performances by the Next Generation Orchestra and the awesome, Grammy-winning artist Samara Joy. Ms. Joy is just two years out of college. Her voice harkens back to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter and Lena Horne. Joy’s family, with deep roots in gospel music, is reflected in both her vocal approach and original lyrics.
The gospel force continued with a Sunday performance of “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” from Tammy L. Hall and the Texas Southern University Choir. Hall was directing as she ushered an appreciative crowd into a stirring world of soul-searching and spiritual beauty. Hall, who’s also a brilliant pianist, turned out to be a talented storyteller, too. She eloquently spoke of the deep connection between gospel and jazz, gospel and soul, gospel and blues, as well as to funk, hip-hop, bluegrass – and even rock’n roll. Hall asserted that gospel essentially birthed all of these musical genres, and itself was generated from African musical culture, and from the suffering and oppression of enslaved African Americans. She titled her sharing, “This is My Sermon.” After she finished, the gospel choir began to sing.
Sunday’s shows featured the New Generation Orchestra with Gerald Clayton conducting, followed by Terri Lynne Carrington and her band, and the New Standards, a talented all-female jazz ensemble. Samara Joy, Charles Lloyd, and the eclectic guitarist and singer, Thundercat, each took the stage, as well. The British pianist and singer Jamie Cullen brought his ten-piece band to round out the evening.
Cullen, with the energy of a young Elvis and the soothing voice of Tony Bennett, got the crowd of 5,000 jazz fans on their feet and dancing wildly out of control. Before it was all over, Cullen had a final signature move – a brief perch atop his Steinway Grand – then a short flight, mike in hand, to the stage below.
For more information about the Monterey Jazz Festival, its education program and scholarships – or to make donations – please visit Montereyjazzfestival.org.