Mechanics Hall swinging as Monterey All-Stars play

California’s 53rd annual Monterey Jazz Festival won’t take place until mid-September, but apparently it’s never too early to advertise that fact. The Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars did just that Monday night at Mechanics Hall, for a crowd of close to 1,000 chilly jazz fans.
The All-Stars —vocalist Kurt Elling, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone, and The Kenny Barron Trio (pianist Barron along with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake)— were worthy representatives of the famed festival. Both Elling and Carter are festival regulars and have served as the event’s Artist-in-Residence, while Barron has been a frequent Monterey guest since he first performed at the festival in the 1960s with Dizzy Gillespie. Malone is a relative newcomer to Monterey, but has logged five appearances at the festival since 1997.

All six all-stars kicked off the concert with a romp on the standard “When I Grow to Old to Dream” before sharing the spotlight for some individual features. Vocalist Elling dominated the proceedings with some superior singing that showed why he won the Best Jazz Vocal Album prize at the Grammy Awards on Jan. 31. Elling sang a captivating version of the standard “Moonlight in Vermont” before branching out into some evocative material that he described as “challenging but swinging.”

Elling sang his own self-penned lyrics to Alan Pasqua’s “And We Will Fly,” a lilting bossa nova. Elsewhere, he intoned “They Speak No Evil,” his own version of tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s jazz classic “Speak No Evil,” with lyrics that Elling adapted from former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s poem, “The City Dark.” It was heady stuff — The first line went, “In the early winter dusk the broken city dark seeps from the tunnels up towers.” — but the crowd was with Elling all the way.

The singer used a similar technique on “What If,” a quirky original by Barron that showed the pianist’s admiration for Thelonious Monk. “What if Jack Kerouac rolled into town and read a bunch of his haikus?” Elling asked the crowd. The vocalist proceeded to do just that, half-singing and half-shouting a bunch of so-called Western haikus from Kerouac’s “Scattered Poems” collection. The audience’s favorite was this one: “In my medicine cabinet, the winter fly has died of old age.”

Not to be outdone, pianist Barron and his trio served up some of their own wide-ranging material. Barron’s frenetic “New York Attitude” was a hard-bop tune taken at a breakneck tempo. Barron unleashed a rapid-fire piano solo that showed why the Los Angeles Times has called Barron “one of the top jazz pianists in the world.” Bassist Kitagawa kept up the pace during his furiously strummed solo, while drummer Blake, a stand-out throughout the concert, offered up a bombastic drum solo that drew some sustained applause from an appreciative crowd.

In contrast, Barron’s “Calypso, Calypso” was a much more relaxed outing designed to reflect the pianist’s love of West Indian and Caribbean music. Barron’s original “Theme Number One” was something else again. Intended as part of the score to “Another Honest Man,” a yet-to-be-released movie, the lyrical composition featured a tender piano improvisation from Barron, one of the best in the business when it comes to playing ballads.

Violinist Carter also used her time in the spotlight to good advantage. She took the poignant “Friendship,” an African folk song with a contemporary jazz arrangement, from her new “Reverse Thread” CD before turning to the music of Billie Holiday for a beautifully rendered version of Lady Day’s “Don’t Explain.” Guitarist Malone got seemingly shortchanged in the features department and got just one song to show his stuff, but he made the most of it by transforming The Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” into an instant jazz classic.

All six of the Monterey Jazz Festival all-stars took the stage for the concert-ender, an out and out jam on the standard, “Nature Boy.” Usually played as a ballad, the song got a complete makeover from the all-stars and earned a standing ovation.