Live Jazz: The Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars at Royce Hall

When I last saw the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars, they were opening the 52nd MJF before a raucous Friday night crowd, the hour allotted to them not nearly enough to hold all their collective talents. Seven months later, in the more restrained environment of UCLA’s Royce Hall, I caught up with them again. Though the atmosphere is different, their current extended tour has given them the chance to explore the nuances of their interconnected skills, a prevailing theme at Friday’s performance presented by UCLA Live.
As super groups go, this version of the Monterey All-Stars is pretty impressive. You could make a strong argument for Russell Malone, Regina Carter and Kurt Elling to be in the top handful of performers on their instruments (or voice), and when you add Kenny Barron’s compositional skills to his piano artistry, the combination is hard to beat. Kiyoshi Kitagowa provided steady bass work with some fine soloing, and Johnathan Blake nearly stole the show in several places with some inventive brushwork.

The group led off with McCoy Tyner’s “Effendi,” with lyrics supplied by Kurt Elling. As expected, the opening gave each member a chance to stretch out with extended solos, followed an energetic trading of 8-bar riffs by all four headliners. From that point, the group began to splinter off into various permutations. Regina Carter, providing a sense of decorum, introduced “When I Get Too Old To Dream,” deferring to Elling on a softly swinging vocal while she and Malone provided lilting counterpoints to the melody.

Kenny Barron took over, raising the temperature with the first of his several compositions for the evening, “NY Attitude,” a straight trio number ably abetted by Kitagowa and Blake. Barron and Blake, though separated in years, both have large physiques that belie the dexterity of their playing. Watching Barron in this trio setting, you sometimes have to pinch yourself that the complex chordal riffs you are hearing match up with the seemingly effortless playing reported by your eyes.

Russell Malone returned with a tribute to the late Herb Ellis, a soft, sweet version of Harry Warren’s “An Affair To Remember.” I’ve remarked on these pages before about the magical effect Malone has on a ballad. He explores the choral aspects of the guitar, circling around to the melody and then back out, like a stream meandering around a bend before finding its main current.

Kurt Elling returned, and this time the trio alignment was Malone and bassist Kitagowa, for the Horace Silver/Jon Hendricks tune “Home Cookin’.” They had performed this at Monterey, but now it highlighted the teamwork between the players. They brought home the tune’s sense of humor, both in Elling’s delightful reading and Malone’s nuanced accompaniment.

The first set ended with Kenny Barron’s catchy “Calypso,” another number they performed last September and honed over for months on tour. Regina Carter started out with some staccato riffs, matched by Russell Malone, but it was Kenny Barron taking over on his Caribbean composition, and Johnathan Blake demanding recognition with the first of his startling drum solos.

Kurt Elling brought the group back after intermission with “And We Will Fly,” an Alan Pasqua composition from his Night Moves CD. It had a light, samba-like feel to it, and was delightful in this version, with Russell Malone and Regina Carter adding dimension. Elling, the de facto leader of this group, then introduced the opening line of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-N-Ing,” and the group took off on its most impressive jazz exploration of the night. Elling, fresh off his Grammy, is at the point of his career where he seems to be able to seize the audience almost at will. He then handed the baton to Carter, who let it all hang out with an extended solo that ranged from a quote of “Lady Be Good” to “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” Malone followed, showing off his bluesy side, and Barron did his best to one-up him, the group smoking through this entire piece. Finally, Kitagowa and Blake had an extended interlude, with Blake providing some terrific brush and stick work.

Having shown off one side of her virtuosity, Carter turned to her gospel roots, teaming up with Barron in a stirring duet of “Georgia On My Mind.” Though she hails from Detroit and Barron from Philly, you wouldn’t know it from this achingly beautiful rendition of a tune most associated with Ray Charles.

The group finished with two numbers that had them all involved, another outstanding Barron theme from an unnamed movie, and the familiar “Nature Boy,” which had the audience on its feet through terrific riffs by everyone, and another knockout Blake drum solo. It will be sad to see this tour come to an end, and here’s hoping that MJF Records will be releasing some of their material on CD in the near future.