Monterey Jazz Festival is the west coast younger sister of the Newport Jazz Festival. Both were founded a few years apart from one another in the 1950s. Great music has taken place at both festivals over the years. Monterey's festival, however, has prospered (Eric Burdon's "Down in Monterey" immortalized it), while Newport's festival foundered after a riot at Festival Field in Rhode Island that tore its heart out (it moved to New York and eventually returned to Newport years later). Today Monterey is going strong and growing, while Newport survives as a smaller version of itself. Not only does Monterey hold a yearly festival, but it sends its "all stars" on the road. The Celebrity Series of Boston brought six of these musicians to the Berklee Performance Center on February 11 for what turned out to be an evening of inspired and eclectic sounds.
The sextet included Regina Carter, violin; Kurt Elling, vocals; Russell Malone, guitar; Kenny Barron, piano; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass, and Jonathan Blake, drums. If Kurt Elling's name sounds familiar, that's because he was just awarded - on January 31 - a Grammy for his album, "Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman." Yet Elling did not feature selections from this album, and nor did he use the recent accolades to grandstand his talents. In concert he was just another member of the band, sometimes center stage as a featured player, and sometimes adding his voice as a backup. The lack of ego was refreshing, because all the players are accomplished, and all of them are first-rate.
Kenny Barron, the oldest member of the band, contributed several of his own compositions, including a colorful West Indian-inspired piece titled "Calypso." He introduced the piece by saying it originated at a gig in Brooklyn. Each member of the band added color and spice to the piece: Regina Carter's violin wove a teasing melody, while Jonathan Blake's drum kept the castanet/rumba beat steady, a cross between a marching band and a limbo dance rhythm. Russell Malone played an understated guitar, spare, haunting but consistent. And Kurt Elling lent his voice as a sweet, endearing croon, allowing the listener to envision a warm night on an open bandstand near the sea. Barron's other pieces, "New York Attitude," a big-city sounding piece, and "Theme Number One," were also memorable for their originality and warmth, and a splash of humor: "Theme Number One," he explained, was written as "a film project for a film you will probably never see."
Yet, for this listener, it was the duet between Regina Carter and Barron that turned out to be the highpoint of the concert. Carter chose "Georgia on My Mind," a beloved standard made famous by Ray Charles, and, within that tune she added a surprise melody, "Amazing Grace," whispered on the violin near the song's finish. It was like sipping fine wine, wherein one experiences a bouquet along with a blend of tastes and flavors. Her playing is precise and suggestive. She plucks the strings when called upon to do so, she can lay the bow on heavy when a larger, deeper sound is needed, but seems to prefer a more minimalist approach that effectively speaks to the one's imagination and ear. Barron's work compliments hers, he makes the sounds deeper, darker and, sometimes, more playful; together they emerge in sync and inspirational.
Kurt Elling told the audience he enjoys re-writing lyrics and brings the poetry of Rumi and Boston-area poet Robert Pinsky into his songs. The problem is that many of these poetic images are lost in the musical telling, not because they are obtuse but because the other musicians inadvertently drown him out. That was happily not the case with this rendition of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," which featured Regina Carter's violin. She introduced the song by saying it was one of her mother's favorites, originally recorded in 1935 by a young Nat "King" Cole. Elling was also effective on a Monterey-inspired piece, "We Will Fly," that reminded this listener of Eric Burdon's homage to Monterey (originally recorded in 1967).
It is clear that the Monterey Jazz Festival has emerged as the leading jazz diplomat in the United States: outreach programs in California for young people, the "all stars" show the Celebrity Series sponsored here in Boston, and the annual festival are hallmarks of a dedicated artistic mission. Long may they wave, and long may they inspire listeners with the profound talents that just breezed into town, like a warm, sea-sweetened, breeze. â€¨ â€¨