My Monterey got off to an auspicious start with not one but two revelations. The first was Roberto Fonseca, who performed on the Garden Stage as the sun set Friday. I knew the Cuban pianist by name and reputation but had never heard him live. The results were impressive, as Fonseca and his group specialize in a brand of piano jazz that effortlessly infuses Latin influences into the genre’s tried and true traditions. The result is a wholly personal brand of jazz, uplifting and invigorating, familiar and yet unique. Here’s an artist I want to hear more from.
I will say the same about Gregory Porter, who kicked off the evening’s Arena lineup. Porter’s jazz-soul sound ideally suits his husky, expressive vocals. Moreover, in both his singing and between-song patter, he came across as a deeply soulful person, someone who has experienced much – good, bad and indifferent – and come out the other side with a truer understanding of human nature and life’s priorities. Porter is warm, funny, sincere and a top-notch performer.
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra followed with a set marked by its customary virtuosity and a festival-commissioned tribute to Dave Brubeck. The piece wisely eschewed Brubeck’s most-trafficked themes for nine lesser-known melodies, in the process reminding one and all of the breadth of the pianist-composer’s career. The evening concluded in the Night Club with MJF Artist in Residence Joe Lovano and Us Five, excellent as ever.
Saturday afternoon brought the rain and the Relatives. The Dallas-based vocal group opened the Arena session with a set showcasing a sound that blends gospel and blues touches with a Motown sound markedly reminiscent of classic Temptations. Their matching bright blue suits were a sight to behold.
George Benson followed … and left me cold. The guitarist’s playing was impeccable and his band tight but his set leaned heavily (as it should) on his late ‘70s-early ‘80s pop material. I never cottoned to those hits back then and they certainly were not what I hope to hear on a Saturday afternoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival. My wife and I departed about halfway through for the Night Club to check out the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet. We were, as always, impressed by these young players’ chops and dedication.
As my preview noted, Saturday night presented reach challenges, particularly in the 8 o’clock hour. We opted for the Marc Cary Focus Trio on the Garden Stage and was impressed anew by the keyboardist-composer’s innovative approach to the piano trio. Cary brought along a percussionist who was not only entirely superfluous but a downright distraction at the start of the set before settling into his own groove.
From there, it was on to the Arena and the most satisfying performance of the day (and perhaps the weekend), Prism with Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland. The quartet played a muscular jazz that both readily engaged and challenged the audience. Eubanks in particular shined, repeatedly tearing off long, exciting solos that were by turns thoughtful and ferocious and demonstrated ample rock, blues and fusion influences.
Saturday came to a close in the Coffee House, where the Orrin Evans Trio performed the last of its three sets. The venue is Monterey’s under-appreciated gem, an intimate space that enables audiences to fully take in swing, subtlety and nuance. Evans made the most of the setting with original material that amply rewarded such active listening.
We skipped Sunday afternoon in exchange for a run down the coast and lunch at Nepenthe in Big Sur. Upon reaching the fairgrounds Sunday night, we opted for the Lou Donaldson Quartet in the Night Club and what a pleasure that turned out to be. The saxophonist (above) at 86 seems hardly to have lost a step as he and his crack band turned in a bluesy set dripping with bop, wit and soul. Makes you want to go out and score all his Blue Note classics.
The evening and festival closed with Diana Krall, whose performance reflected the twists and turns her professional interests have taken over the years. There were the standards that first brought her to fame, a touch of the sexiness that helped cement her status and a selection of pop-rock material, including two vintage tracks from the Band, “Whispering Pines” and “Ophelia.”
Krall pulled them all off with equal aplomb and I by no means want her to restrict her tastes and talents. That said, the sheer breadth of the material gave the set a somewhat disjointed vibe.
Want to keep up with the best in Bay Area jazz and blues?
Subscribe to us: Have our jazz Examiner columns sent to your inbox. Click the SUBSCRIBE button on this page. It's free. (And we won't spam you or give out your information.) Bookmark us: http://www.examiner.com/jazz-music-in-oakland/brian-mccoy