The Jazzcat

The Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars at Royce Hall

by on Feb.20, 2008, under News

Monterey, one of the most beautiful places in the country and definitely a landmark on the map when it comes to hosting and supporting the best in jazz music. I have been blessed to for several years have a wonderful relationship with the festival, its staff and of course a whole host of the best jazz musicians in the business.

This past year was the 50th anniversary for the Monterey Jazz Festival and not only was the lineup spectacular, they published a wonderful 142 page hardback book commemorating its fifty years and topped it all of by putting together a stellar band to represent their commitment to the music. I had the pleasure of introducing for the first time in Monterey this great group of players who have come together collectively spanning the generations of time to deliver a well rounded taste of jazz music at its finest! Benny Green, Nnenna Freelon, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott, Terence Blanchard and the one and only James Moody have banded together and hit the road for a fifty-four city non-stop tour across the country by bus to share some treasures and the magic of this music.

As the performance began, Tim Jackson the director of the Monterey Jazz Festival delivers a recorded monolog speaking about the festivals commitment to not only jazz but also, jazz education and welcomes the audience to sit back and enjoy. Benny Green is the very gracious spokesman for the band and his humble rapport with the audience makes you want to love the music all the more. All of the cats are suited up tight looking sophisticated and representing the essence of class and style that jazz music has continued to attribute to.

Humor is another attribute and Moody along with Terence have always interjected their personality allowing audiences to laugh with that lightheartedness and feel the human side of the music as well. It also frees up the band to create in an environment that is fun, spacious and fertile for the growth of new ideas.

Notes just roll off of Moody’s horn like a stream flowing up, through and around all of the curves and turns in the music. Kendrick is not a basher but a caresser of skin as his touch allows you to hear and feel the romantic subtleties in his playing. What can you say about Terence Blanchard? The New Orleans is in the mix and you can hear the soul of the city in his sound, which emphasizes telekinetic musical imagery riding on rhythms of high!

Benny has a touch of the blues and an inviting brightness that gives you a warm feeling of sublime kindness and serenity with a delicate touch and mystifying fluidity holding it all together. Benny first performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival back in 1978 with the MJF high school all-star band. Just like everyone in the band, they have all re-visited Monterey re-living special milestones in the music and making new ones along the way. The late great John Lewis, founding member of the world famous MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) was one of the directors of the festival back when Benny first performed and he wrote a tune called, “Monterey Mist”, that was played tonight in honor of those memorable moments. Many songs have been written over the years about Monterey with its scenic beauty, its charm and passion for love and jazz music makes it one of the most sought after travel locations in the world.

Derrick Hodge is so smooth even Terence is on the side groovin’ and snapping his fingers to the lyrical deeds not words. The music is tap dancing and soft shoeing all over the place. The rhythm is so on you can’t help but bop your head, tap you feet and move from side to side while fighting the urge to get up and dance in your seat. 

Nnenna Freelon makes her entrance to a sweet Benny Green introduction. She gives love to the band and talks for a moment about Gerald Wilson, who also performed at Monterey for its 50th anniversary doing a suite that he wrote particularly for the annual celebration. Nnenna wrote some lyrics to one of Gerald’s pieces and calls it “Winter Love”. She paints the picture of two in love in Monterey feeling carefree in the winter with all of the love and romance that the season can bring. This painting I know all too well because this is exactly what happened to my love Hydeus Kiatta and me some years ago. I am sure for many the mere mention on Monterey and love evokes similar emotions.

The players left Nnenna to sing and Derrick a vocal and bass duet on the (composer’s name) tune, “Skylark”. Nnenna commands the sound and Derrick plays the bass, the body and the soul! If you thought that Nnenna was the only vocalist in the band then think again. James Moody is up to bat but not before acknowledging his son and grandson in the audience; a gesture that I am sure his grandson will never forget! The multi-talented Moody, who is always in the mood for love, delivers his humorous, flirtatious, yodel delivery as he sings ‘Benny’s From Heaven”. The story of a man who goes off to war for three years only to return to his love and a brand new baby boy named Benny who’s untimely arrival causes one to wonder!

Kendrick writes some very beautiful compositions and in the second set, Nnenna comes back to sing one of his pieces called, “Journey”. What is interesting about this sextet is that it can morph into many different configurations and still produce great sound. The section performed Clare Fisher’s, “Peninsula’ with some sweet, soft tempos incorporated with some marvelous style changes.

Terence was nominated for a Grammy for his album “ A Tale of God’s Will” that captured the images of emotions and devastation left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On the main stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival this last year, those images were the backdrop to the music providing dual stimulation to the political, social, mental, physical issues and implications of an American Government and its peoples cry for help. We all know what the response was. The group performed two of those pieces which Terence and Derrick also scored for the Spike Lee documentary, “When the Levies Broke”. The music leaves us all in a trance and feeling the human pain of our fellow Americans. Tragedies in America history always bond the people of the world together through support, spirit and in this case through healing historic jazz music.

I would ask that you buy this music, watch the documentary, feel the pain of your brothers and sisters and take all of the trivial things in your life and LET THEM GO! Call those close and who should be close to you and forgive them, love them. Health and happiness are precious entities and all that really matters in the end. Don’t’ let another tragedy, sickness, death, accident, earthquake, tsunami or whatever happen before you have your chance to share love! Use the music to bridge the gap and bring you closer!

The MJF 50 ends the evening with a little Duke Ellington, a duet by Nnenna Freelon and James Moody, “Squeeze Me”. The equation 2(SCAT) + 4/4(SWING) = MJF50

LeRoy Downs

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