MJF All-Stars show needs more improvisational fire

If followers of music lore were expecting the hot-blooded spirit of jazz festival legends such as Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie to wash over the Berklee Performance Center stage during Thursday’s Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour all-star concert, they had set their sights too high.
While the heavyweights gathered are legitimate stars — violinist Regina Carter, pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Russell Malone and singer (and recent Grammy winner) Kurt Elling — none of them are prone to tear-the-roof-off pyrotechnics.

That’s fine. Except that over a two-set show, the foursome, plus bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, seemed content to stick to arrangements and a program that left little room to break loose.

Too bad. When two of jazz’s greatest string improvisers, Carter and Malone, are standing within feet of each other and trade hardly a phrase, maybe it’s time to call an audible.

Not that there weren’t inspired moments and exchanges. Elling’s scat singing served as a launching pad for quick and poignant Carter violin responses. Barron and Carter were also locked into each other’s playing, never more so than on a soulful duet of “Georgia on My Mind,” which segued briefly into an equally powerful “Amazing Grace.”

A pair of Barron originals — a hard-bopping “New York Attitude,” a bright “Calypso” — helped turn the heat up. A virtuosic Malone solo ballad made the hall feel like an intimate club for a few exhilarating minutes.

Elling’s graceful, understated vocals blended neatly with his band mates’ understated accompaniment. So much so, in fact, that by the time of the closer — a lanky, let-loose cover of “Nature Boy” — it had become clear that less understatement and more punch would have represented Dizzy, Sonny and Monterey much more memorably.