55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival wows, leaves enthusiasts craving more
Festivals come and go, but for 55 years the Monterey Jazz Festival has maintained a level of excellence that sets the bar for all others. What makes MJF so unique is that from top-down—from organizers to the people guarding the gate—everyone is incredibly positive, sunny and happy to be there. Maestro Timothy Orr runs the event with the slightly manic energy one can expect from someone with so much on his plate—and yet, he always takes the time to make patrons feel like they’re getting special treatment. This overall upbeat tone creates an incomparable ambience of camaraderie and fellowship.
The only challenging aspect of MJF is choosing which musical acts to see—with competing line-ups, it can be a futile mad rush to catch all the performances. Over the years, I have learned to arrive early and reserve seats at the outdoor, intimate Garden Stage, and this year was no exception. True, by doing this you might miss out on some of the amazing arena acts, but amazing acts are plentiful at MJF.
This year, The Blues Broads won over the audience at The Garden Stage on Saturday, Sept. 22. Take four women who each have a unique sound, combine them with a kick-ass band, and you have the breakfast of champions for a day filled with music. It’s difficult to isolate individuals worthy of comment—when everyone onstage is brilliant—but vocalist Dorothy Morrison, the original voice on the gospel classic “Oh Happy Day,” wowed with her soul sister bravado. One side-player, pianist/saxophonist Deanna Bogart, practically stole the show with her Patti Smith/CBGB no-nonsense rock and roll spirit.
Later that day, Robert Randolph and The Family Band turned expectations inside out and upside down. Randolph, by his own account, uses his pedal steel guitar (emblazoned with his name) to channel the Holy Spirit. It’s less pretentious sounding when you realize that African-American Pentecostal churches use the “Sacred Steel” for similar purposes. His funk family band, complete with cousins, takes a simple melody, a whisper of a theme, and stretches and contorts it until it becomes like sonic taffy—at which point, they keep playing for another 20 minutes until the audience is mesmerized. To top it off, at one point during the set, 40 of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s desperate housewives climbed on to the stage (“No guys,” chimed Randolph) and put on a dance party best described as “1 Percenters Gone Wild.”
On Sunday, Sept. 23, the Cal State Northridge Big Band, which features almost 20 horn players, performed amazing arrangements and wild solos—a much-loved exhibition of the next generation of jazz musicians and a festival highlight.
Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir demonstrated a tremendous amount of courage on stage Sunday when the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, which had been flying overhead as part of the nearby air show, flew so low over the Garden Stage that audience members could feel the boom in their genes. Rather than play through the deafening sound like many other bands did, the a cappella group (accompanied by our own Tammi Brown) set down its acoustic instruments and kept the audience focused, laughing and attentive.
All in all, from the mellow jazz soundscapes of Kyle Eastwood, to the wild educational antics of the Banana Slug String Band, to the diva jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, the 2012 MJF packed a punch.
Photos by Jessica Abramson