Festival Hits the Right Note with Eclectic Jazz

Celebrity jazz concerts are often dreary affairs—museums of dusty music where real jazz goes to die. Think of beige nights at Lincoln Center, the players wearing stiff suits, anxious to showcase their cool virtuosity while neglecting to tell a story with their music. By comparison, Thursday’s performance of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour at the Berklee Perfomance Center, one of 36 nationwide concerts that will take place from February 5 to May 1, was a pleasant surprise. The show, which featured Kenny Barron on piano, Regina Carter on violin, Kurt Elling on vocals, Russell Malone on guitar, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums, featured a beautiful display of some of the best mainstream jazz musicianship on today’s scene. The concert wasn’t hip, and it certainly didn’t draw the young audience the organizers had hoped for, but the atmosphere was upbeat and the musicians, at their best, swung mean and low.
Carter and Elling produced the most interesting sound of the night as they practically interchanged positions, Carter channeling Billie Holiday’s mournfulness with her violin, Elling mimicking the sound of a trumpet. This was obvious on “When I Grow Too Old To Dream,” a 1935 tune which Elling quickly belted out, as if to get the words over with, then carefully leaned into notes, producing a searing, rich sound like an alto saxophone. Carter, on the other hand, rollicked over her melody with a slight glissando. At the same time, her raw, grainy sound evoked the subtle sadness and melodic cry of the human voice, which provided a nice counterpoint to Elling’s precise pitch placement.

Carter’s duet with Barron to “Georgia on My Mind” was one of the high points of the evening. They began with tense, elastic pauses, counterpointed by Barron’s minimalist stride piano underpinning. Carter emerged pure and sonorous, producing a cascading arpeggio of longing notes that caressed the classic tune. Barron interspersed her melody with clear notes, striking the keys to produce an insistent urgency. Barron and Carter weren’t so much in synthesis as symbiosis, each thoughtfully responding to the other in a manner that gripped the entire audience.

Barron himself led an ensemble within an ensemble, performing an original composition, “New York Attitude,” with Kitagawa and Blake. It was pure, muscular, sparkling, straight-ahead jazz—Blake shone throughout the night, but here he produced an especially lively, just ahead-of-the-beat, sound interspersed with snapping rolls and cymbal brushes that propelled the frenetic tune along. Kitagawa, with his calm demeanor and walrus mustache, evoked a Mingus-like sprightliness in his bass playing, switching between slow and fast in a messed-up blues solo. Barron himself remained a steadfast leader throughout, grounding the trio with bluesy riffs and rippling over the higher range of notes in a frenzy.

It wasn’t until his solo piece that Malone fully showed what he was capable of, performing an Alex North tune that perfectly showcased his limpid sound reminiscent of Grant Green, coupled with evocative acoustic guitar skills. Throughout the evening, he steeped the ensemble in 1960s soul jazz chords, but here his gentle, rippling notes hit a new mode. He played with a precise poignancy, spinning out an all-encompassing sound that mesmerized by itself, but otherwise delicately underscored the ensemble’s playing. However, he never completely came into his own on other pieces, oscillating otherwise between soul jazz and more straight-ahead playing without hitting the sweet spots of either modes.

Elling, a lounge lizard with a pink pocket handkerchief and slicked-back hair, unquestionably played the role of entertainer and host throughout the night. He makes a point of arranging poems to transcribed musical improvisations, and he did not disappoint with a version of Robert Pinsky’s “The Broken City” set to Wayne Shorter’s haunting “They Speak No Evil.” His voice, a piercing jet of sound, flew over the jagged melodics, weaving them into a blindingly rapid melody, as Malone and Barron easily grounded him in a modal swing. On the other hand, his rendition of the 13th century mystical poet Rumi’s “I Like The Sunrise,” set to a Von Freeman sax solo, told a melodic story in which his voice fully rounded out, replicating the searing, insistent quality of repeated notes on a saxophone.

With such a group of stellar musicians, the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour is a clear recipe for success—instead of throwing together a few virtuosic performers with overinflated egos, it showcases a clear model for interactive, thoughtful and creative jazz. Though the concert was rather safe, with a ‘high art’ undertone that went against the grain of the music itself, the interplay between the musicians was inspiring and fresh, providing hope for big jazz concerts to come. Let’s hope they swing this hard the next time around.