In a word: Extraordinary

Monterey Jazz Festival, 2009
Many view anything with the term “All-Stars” in it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and no wonder. If you’ve regularly watched baseball’s All Stars game, it often seems like most of the players are phoning it in. So it’s no surprise if the audience was holding their breath with some trepidation, waiting to see if this All-Star “play-off” would be any good.

In a word: extraordinary. These stellar musicians combined to create something that was far more than the sum of its parts. It reminds you of what “all-stars” truly can mean: an opportunity to see musicians perfectly on top of their game band together for a performance that is propulsive and perfectly synchronized. Every song they performed sparked and sizzled with energy.

The name players in this all-star band are vocalist Kurt Elling, guitarist Russell Malone, legendary pianist Kenny Barron, and the standout violinist Regina Carter, and there was not one way in which any of their performances fell short. Everything was perfectly aligned, and the band showed how they could stretch, playing everything from 1930s countrified jazz to the more modern “What If,” which in their hands was edgy, dangerous and a little threatening.

Though the all-stars were amazing, the two other members of Kenny Barron’s trio – drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa – deserve lauds for their performances as well. It would be no surprise if a newcomer unfamiliar with the jazz scene assumed that Blake and Kitagawa were more of the featured names on the MJF/52 All-Stars bill. They played exceptionally, and the other performers were generous in giving them time in the spotlight.

Regina Carter was unquestionably the performer that truly sent this set into the stratosphere. Where many violin performances always seem edged with sorrow, in Carter’s hands the violin becomes an instrument of joy. The violin is often said to be the instrument that is closest to the human voice, and Carter proved that statement. At times, it seemed as if Elling was singing a duet with her violin.

The MJF/52 All-Stars play again Saturday night at 8pm in Dizzy’s Den. If you’ve been considering attending the Monterey Jazz Festival and needed one more good reason, this is that reason. If you’re in San Francisco, get in your car and drive down now. If you’re on the East Coast, you still have a few minutes to get to the airport and hop on the next flight to Monterey. Tonight’s show will be a can’t-miss event.