Northside SF
The Monterey Jazz Festival
Terrence Blanchard plays “Sketches of Spain” (photo: Courtesy of The Monterey Jazz Festival and photographer Craig Lovell)

Each September on the Monday following the weekend of the Monterey Jazz Festival, I tell myself that it was the best festival ever. And I have been to a lot of Monterey Jazz Festivals – make that about 50. This year marked the 54th Annual. It is the longest continuously operating event of its kind and the greatest confluence of the jazz art and nature’s wonderment (the Monterey Peninsula) to be found anywhere.

Artistically the Monterey Jazz Festival is superb. Artistic director Tim Jackson is a sensitive and creative guy, who since 1992 has been the programming genius behind this world-class event. Jackson not only has deep respect for jazz history and the giants of the art whom he presents thoughtfully, but also an uncanny skill for mixing and matching jazz old-timers with more youthful and progressive artists of many musical persuasions. He takes his job seriously.

On the flip side I believe the board of directors of the nonprofit event (made up of conscientious local citizens) sometimes confuses big with better. Its rationale is the bigger the festival the more revenue it generates, and the more revenue it generates the more it can give away to musical education programs for kids. I am all for the Monterey Jazz Festival’s philanthropic efforts. Nevertheless the festival is world renowned because of the music it presents each year this third weekend in September and not because of money it brings in for jazz education programs or for local area merchants. In this case I believe “bigger” is putting the festival in danger of diminishing the total experience.

In the last several years the festival board apparently has felt the need to increase its already sizable revenue stream. So while Jackson has been creatively putting together jazz performances that have made the festival one of the world’s most artistically distinguished, the board has been adding “products” to the mix to bring in still more cash. Products like “hospitality chalets” – special private tents where corporate patrons can be cosseted and served cooling beverages while watching the performances on a giant screen TV. And something called a “premier access club” with “private hideaways,” a private entrance to the park-like Monterey County Fairgrounds where the festival is held, and private on-site parking.

Further, I have long been of the opinion that the festival sells too many “grounds tickets” to swarms of weekenders who for a modest sum listen to jazz performances on a number of small indoor and outdoor stages, but with no access to the main arena where the headliners perform. I believe these ever-increasing grounds tickets cause a diminishing of the park-like ambience of the setting. And that ends this grouchy diatribe from a long-time booster. Form your own opinion and attend the festival next year.

But let’s talk about this year’s music. Artists chosen by Tim Jackson made the 54th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival a joy. If you missed it you missed some incredible performances. Here are a few highlights:

Hiromi opened this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Courtesy the Monterey Jazz Festival and photographer Craig Lovell)
Tiny, hummingbird-like, single-named Hiromi opened this year’s festival with a powerhouse tsunami of piano dynamics. The 32-year-old, Japanese-born Hiromi moves from original set pieces to wild improvisation. She appears to weigh about 90 pounds soaking wet but hits the keys as hard as Dave Brubeck at his most ham-fisted. “She burned the house down,” said my seatmate, Jeff.

It all started with Bucky Pizzarelli, the New York-based guitar stylist whose command of the great American songbook is phenomenal. Bucky passed on the jazz guitar gene to son John. This year John’s quartet also featured his singing wife, Jessica Molaskey, his brother Martin on bass and – most important – Bucky himself. He’s 85 and hasn’t lost his chops. Hiromi opened the festival with a bang, and the Pizzarelli clan followed. It would be tough to follow, I thought, but they did it admirably. The guitar duet portion of the set was stirring stuff.

Rock icon Huey Lewis took the Saturday afternoon Monterey crowd back to the eighties when rock ’n’ roll was a lot of fun. When he played his big hit “Heart of Rock and Roll” the audience went berserk, sang along with him and generally hammed it up. And isn’t that what you would expect of a hip audience?

The trumpet genius Miles Davis in collaboration with composer-arranger Gil Evans on the 1959–60 studio recording of “Sketches of Spain” represents one of the finest examples of artistry in the jazz canon. Based on the Spanish folk tradition, it’s not really jazz. So OK, what is it? Miles himself said, “It’s music, and I like it.” We do too. At Monterey this year, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, who can do anything with his instrument and do it better than almost anyone, took on “Sketches of Spain” with a large ensemble that performed the original almost note for note. It was searing and sonorous at the same time. Remarkably what had been done in a New York City studio with the usual stops and starts of studio recording was performed on stage at Monterey, live, in real time, and done so beautifully that those who know the work well shivered with appreciation.

One of the few remaining big-time jazz masters, Sonny Rollins, brought his tenor saxophone to Monterey to close this year’s festival. Incredibly Rollins performed at the first Monterey Jazz Festival 54 years ago. His set this year lasted more than an hour and a half, and he is so strong and inventive that he could have gone on forever. The adoring audience wanted him to. Besides vamping on calypso themes, as he likes to do, Rollins did an extended version of the pop song “Wonderful” (everything is extended with Rollins). But the true high point was a Franz Lehar waltz – yes you read that correctly – a Franz Lehar waltz: “Yours is My Heart Alone.” It was a long waltz and it got to the heart of the matter, turning the sometimes-saccharine item into just how many ways Rollins and his saxophone could state and restate the theme. Endlessly. What a glorious way to close this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

Ernest Beyl loves the Monterey Jazz Festival and wants it to be even better. If you attended this year, tell him how you liked it. E-mail:

March 2012
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