MJF/52 All-Stars light up The Arena

The Arena’s second event of the night, one we’ll see in full, is this year’s version of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars supergroup: Kenny Barron on piano, Regina Carter on violin, vocalist Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone on guitar, with Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. As the curtain opens, the band is already playing and Elling is already singing: “My Love, Effendi,” his vocalese spin on the McCoy Tyner tune. He slides from words into scatting, which many in the audience have come to hear (someone yells “Go, Kurt!”).
Throughout the set, Elling acts as unofficial emcee, announcing the group members and occasionally passing the mic to someone else. He and Carter take the spotlight for the lovely old Sigmund Romberg/Oscar Hammerstein song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” after which Carter and Barron play a ballad that acts like a big, gentle, quieting hand on the crowd; it seems that everyone listens and no one wants to miss a single sweet note from Barron’s piano or sigh from Carter’s bow.

Malone is featured next in a quartet with Barron, Kitagawa, and Blake, then the mic goes to Barron, who announces his original composition “What If?” It’s a Monkish tune that opens up midway for an Elling vocalese that begins “What if Jack Kerouac showed up tonight with his pockets full of snippets of ideas?” Then he tosses out several—”Girls running up library steps with shorts on,” “boys smashing dandelions with a stick,” “all day long, wearing a hat that was not on my head,” “drunk as a hoot owl, writing letters by thunderstorm”—and someone in the band responds to each in a playful back-and-forth.

More highlights of this generous set—for which, Elling explains, the group prepared with only two short rehearsals together, “but together we probably have over 300 years of rehearsals, all so we could be ready for you tonight”—include the saucy Jon Hendricks/Horace Silver collaboration “Soul Food,” and Malone’s take on “Time After Time.” After a naughty introduction—something about an older singer who taught him how to treat a ballad like a kiss—Malone does that thing he does: plays guitar so beautifully you could swoon. Backed by Barron, Kitagawa, and Blake, he hands us soft, feathery notes, delicious chords beneath the melody, and an elegant ending.

All four of the All-Stars shine tonight, but it’s Malone who steals my heart.