Since its inception in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival has been known for presenting the cream of world class talent. Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a specially assembled All-Star band gave the capacity crowd a taste of what’s made the Monterey Festival so beloved, with a powerhouse show that featured two sets of consistently excellent music that extended nearly two full hours.
It was a truly co-operative venture, even though the glorious and delightful vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and sterling bassist/music director Christian McBride were ostensibly the band’s co-leaders.
The sets were staggered to both maximize the various configurations and also give everyone a chance for a break within the lengthy sets. Each one would begin with Bridgewater and the full combo, then shift into various units within the full band that also included saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Benny Green, and drummer Lewis Nash.
The show’s pace and sensibility offered a welcome change in mood from what we usually encounter in many jazz and classical concerts. Bridgewater, McBride and company not only seemed thrilled about playing together but displayed a sense of humor with each other during songs.
Sometimes they also playfully interacted with the audience (early in the first set Bridgewater and McBride attempted to “country up” a Billie Holiday tune, then thought better of it). Plus they announced almost every number they performed either before or after, even sometimes providing origin details and other things many bands seem unwilling to provide.
In short, it was both a high caliber set of performances and genuine entertainment anyone could enjoy, regardless of their musical knowledge and sophistication. Despite now being in her sixties and a veteran of the jazz vocal circuit since the ’70s, Bridgewater can still belt out the blues with anyone, and remains a master of scatting in a way that’s completely musical rather than gimmicky.
McBride’s huge tone and impeccable bass technique was especially at its best on the tune “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” But his accompaniment, time and solos were rich and imaginative the entire evening, as were those of Green and Nash.
Green’s flamboyant playing style – which often included fast licks, swirling phrases and multiple melodic fragments constructed within breakneck solos – generated frequent applause and response. Nash also had some remarkable moments, and proved to be equally formidable as a soloist with either sticks or brushes.
The Potter/Akinmusire front line sounded polished and cohesive, as if they had been playing together for years rather than weeks. They smoothly played the heads and transitions to difficult pieces like Bobby Hutcherson’s “Mr. B’s Poem” and Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty,” the evening’s finale, then each would segue off into their own charged spotlight moments.
Potter didn’t play any soprano, but his animated tenor work was inspired and versatile. Some songs he would play in smooth, almost understated fashion, while on others he would become energized and intense, moving into the upper register, or delivering sharp bursts and honks to punctuate transitions and endings.
Still, while the instrumentalists were excellent, it was Bridgewater who ultimately stole the show. The Grammy and Tony-winning actress (and current host of NPR’s “Jazzset) had many spectacular moments, but the biggest was when she did “God Bless The Child,” calling her version “A gospel blues.”
With Green supplying the chordal framework and McBride the striding bass accompaniment, she began slowly, then gradually accelerated her volume and intensity until she turned what’s already a gritty testimonial into a hallelujah chorus, wrapping it with a fiery emphasis on the closing “The child that’s got it own” in a sizzling fashion, and generating yet another standing ovation.
Another highpoint was a poignant rendition of Thad Jones’ “A Child is Born,” another tune she’s done often over the years. Bridgewater turned more serious on this one, toning down a notch the quips and exchanges from front-row types
Near the end, McBride talked about how much the band had enjoyed being in Nashville, how wonderful they found the city and expressed a hope that the individual members could someday return with their own bands as well as the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour getting a second run in Music City.
No one who was there Friday night would be the least bit upset to see and hear this band again; it was the closest many will ever get to enjoying the magic that makes the Monterey Jazz Festival one of the world’s most memorable.