Monterey Jazz Festival 2011: Fast Footwork And East Bay Voices

Sep 18, 2011
Originally published on September 21, 2011 3:47 pm

The town of Monterey, California, has reinvented itself several times. It was once a capital city when California was Spanish territory, and even when Mexico became independent. It was an important fishing town, as chronicled in the novels of John Steinbeck. And these days, tourism helps drive the local economy, with attractions like a world-famous aquarium, world-class golf clubs nearby like Pebble Beach, and the world's oldest continuously-running jazz festival.

I've been roaming the Monterey County Fairgrounds for the 54th annual Monterey Jazz Festival all weekend. So from the shadow of the Jimmy Lyons Stage, I spoke with Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about four of the shows I've been checking out.

An Afternoon In Treme

If you've seen any of HBO's Treme, you know that just about every other scene features prominent New Orleans musicians. So it was only a matter of time before we saw a traveling Treme-themed revue. A Night In Treme — An Afternoon In Treme, as it played out on Saturday — is essentially a diplomatic mission for New Orleans culture, with the city's musical canon featured prominently by a rotating cast of brass bands and guest soloists. Indeed, the city has no shortage of natural showmen who enjoy playing ambassador; the Saturday lineup featured Soul Rebels Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Terence Blanchard and Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk. And New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, who plays trombonist Antoine Batiste on Treme, was the ideal emcee to exhort the Arena crowd of several thousand to its feet.

Geri Allen And Timeline

Speaking of jazz and dancing, the piano player Geri Allen has an engaging take on the connection therein. She's got a newish band called Timeline: a jazz piano trio, plus a tap dancer who effectively acts as a second percussionist. Allen grew up in the Detroit area, and she says she remembers artists who combined live jazz and dance when she was growing up. So she brought it back with this band. Timeline put out a live album last year, so the Monterey Jazz Festival not only invited her to play the Arena stage in 2011: It commissioned a new piece, a tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. "The Dazzler" premiered on Saturday night to encouraging cheers, especially for hoofer Maurice Chestnut.

Sarah Wilson Quintet

Any time you have a jazz festival anywhere, it's fun to explore the side stages and check out some bands you haven't heard of. For some at the Coffee House Gallery — the most intimate room at Monterey — trumpeter Sarah Wilson was a positive new discovery. Her tunes seem to leave room for her band to be creative and maybe even a little messy, even when they're not soloing. She sings, too, with a curious voice — it's not at all typical of jazz singers. It's somewhat plain, and doesn't sound trained, which you can take or leave in itself. I liked that it gave her a singer-songwriter, almost country-rock dimension in her composing.

John Santos Sextet Feat. Rico Pabón

Being a California event, the Monterey Jazz Festival makes a special effort to feature musicians from the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area. Indeed, the aforementioned Sarah Wilson now lives in the East Bay — where hand percussionist John Santos has long been an anchor of the Latin jazz scene. For his sextet's Monterey show, Santos invited Puerto Rican rapper Rico Pabón to join in, reprising and expanding on his role on Santos' new Filosofía Caribeña, Vol. 1. Pabón grew up in a family of salsa musicians, so he found his way in here with rhythmic understanding and aggression. Sometimes these hip-hop-meets-jazz things are in general less than inspiring, but when they get it right, it gives literal voice to the social commentary that's often embedded within instrumental jazz.

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RAZ: Time now for our regular music feature. and today, we're going to Monterey, California, the site of one of the biggest, longest-running and most respected jazz festivals in the country.


RAZ: It's the 54th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. It's happening right now, and you're listening to the Scott Colley Trio, just one of the 500 acts that have played the festival this weekend. NPR music's jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon is there. And, Patrick, I love this track, by the way. Talk to me about some of the other music you've been hearing there this weekend.

PATRICK JARENWATTANANON: Well, you know, yesterday afternoon, I saw this show which filled the arena with 5,000 or so people and most of them were on their feet dancing. So if you've been following the HBO series "Treme," you know, that it uses a lot of actual New Orleans musicians there.

RAZ: Right. Right.

JARENWATTANANON: And so, you know, some folks had the smart idea to bring that show on tour.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah, yeah. So they gathered up a brass band and, you know, some feature New Orleans soloists, you know, some people who have been in the show, and they've been crisscrossing the country off and on for the last few months. Here's a little taste of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Let's get the party (unintelligible). Me got fire, can't put it out now. Make fire water's gonna make me shout. I'm goin' down an-a get my squaw. Me might buy a brand new car. Me whole tribe be havin' fun gonn' get down till the morning come.

RAZ: I'm sure you had a great time. Were you - I hope you were dancing too man.

JARENWATTANANON: Well, my reaction was perhaps a little bit muted, hanging out in the back, but I did enjoy watching, you know, this whole crowd bake in the sun and sort of bliss out. You know, this "Treme" tour is kind of a diplomatic mission for New Orleans' culture. And, you know, the New Orleans Canon is a large part of the set list. That's actually a song associated with Professor Longhair, "Big Chief."

So you're hearing the trumpeter Kermit Ruffins somewhere in the mix here. There's also a whole bunch of other folks, whoever could make this particular gig. The Soul Rebels Brass Band is the core of this group, also Ivan Neville's group Dumpstaphunk. They all made it on stage together, and they actually called up Terence Blanchard to be a last-minute sub when somebody else couldn't make it.

And of course, the introduction you hear is from Wendell Pierce. He is the guy who plays Antoine Batiste on "Treme," the kind of broke, salty trombonist, which makes him kind of the perfect emcee for all this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go, big chief. Go, big chief. (Unintelligible).

RAZ: Music from the New Orleans review billed "An Afternoon in Treme" from the Monterey Jazz Festival. That's a live recording. Patrick, what else have you been checking out there?

JARENWATTANANON: Last night, I caught a little bit of the piano player Geri Allen's performance. So she's got this kind of new band. It's called Timeline. It's a jazz piano trio. That's, you know, piano, bass and drums, and she also adds a tap dancer as essentially a second percussionist.

RAZ: Wow.

JARENWATTANANON: So here's a taste of a piece they played. It's an ode to the drummer Philly Joe Jones.


RAZ: That's a pretty efficient use of percussion. Just bring a tap dancer on stage, right?

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah. You know, that actually goes back a ways. It hasn't actually really been prominent terribly recently. But Geri Allen, in an interview, said that she grew up in the Detroit area and she remembers back then there were people who mixed jazz and dance when she was growing up, so she decided to bring it back here. And the crowd, of course, loved, you know, being able to see that spectacle, experience, you know, especially when the drummer, his name is Kassa Overall, had a few exchanges with the tap dancer Maurice Chestnut.


RAZ: That's part of Geri Allen's performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival last night. I wish I could've seen that, Patrick. It sounds amazing. I'm speaking with NPR music's jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon. He is there at the festival writing for A Blog Supreme. You can find that at our website, nprmusic.org. And he's also recording a few of the concerts there.

Patrick, give me a sense of perspective. How many - you're talking about 5,000 people watching one show. How big is the whole festival? I mean, what are we talking here?

JARENWATTANANON: Around 40,000 people come through the entire weekend. And that's actually overall eight stages and all three days, you know? So a lot of them do end up sticking to the main arena just to see the headliners, you know, like Huey Lewis and the News played yesterday and, you know, any time you have a...

RAZ: Wait. Hold on, hold on, hold on. Huey Lewis? "Power of Love" Huey Lewis?

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah. The "Power of Love" Huey Lewis, you know.

RAZ: Isn't that a little weird?

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes these days, they'll book musicians who aren't necessarily jazz to fill in those time spots. I guess it's kind of hip to be square these days.

RAZ: Ah-hah. Mm-hmm.

JARENWATTANANON: Anyway, as I was saying, any time you have a jazz festival anywhere, I think it's fun to explore the side stages and check out some of the bands that you haven't heard. So most of the people who I talked to who were at the Sarah Wilson show, she's a trumpeter, were pleasantly surprised.


RAZ: There's a lot going on here, Patrick. It's almost has that sort of Balkan tempo but you've got the violin, that squiggly guitar, the bass.

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah. I mean, I quite like the way she writes tunes. She kind of leaves a lot of room for her band to play around what's written. And it's maybe even a little bit messy, even when they're not soloing, but I kind of like that vibe. This one's a tune called "Go," and it's dedicated to her trumpet teacher of many years. She's a woman named Laurie Frink.

She actually sings, too, and she's got this kind of a curious voice. It's not at all a typical jazz singer's voice. You know, it's kind of plain, and it's not particularly well-trained. But, you know, you can take it or leave it for what it is, but I kind of like that. It gives her a kind of a singer/songwriter vibe, especially, you know, in her writing. You know, it kind of has a country-rock tilt to some of those songs too.


SARAH WILSON: (Singing) I can see quite clearly that my (unintelligible) is kind of blurry. To really view the picture now, rebuild the cracks somehow.

RAZ: That's the Sarah Wilson Quintet performing yesterday at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Patrick Jarenwattananon is there. Patrick, I wonder since this is a Central or Northern California event, is there a lot of music from local bands?

JARENWATTANANON: There is, in fact. The festival makes a special effort to book those artists, especially because, you know, a lot of the jazz business in the U.S. is centered along the East Coast and specifically New York City. The Oakland-based John Santos played on Friday.


RICO PABON: All of my people so freak-o, don't know many (unintelligible). That's why we blend in, (unintelligible) everybody shout wapa(ph) and we don't know what it means. It's what (unintelligible) scream (unintelligible) island and Queens, nah.

RAZ: I love this. Is John Santos the rapper or the percussionist?

JARENWATTANANON: John Santos is the percussionist. He actually invited the spoken word artist emcee Rico Pabon to join his sextet at Monterey. So Rico Pabon is this rapper who actually grew up in a family of salsa musicians, so he can really find his way in here.

You know, sometimes these hip-hop meets jazz things are kind of less than inspiring but, you know, when they get it right, I think it really does give, kind of a literal voice to the, I don't know, social commentary that's often imbedded within instrumental jazz. And this particular performance had a lot to do with, you know, Puerto Rican and Latino pride in their heritage. And I think it actually worked and sounded good too.

RAZ: John Santos performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. NPR music's jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon is at the festival. He's covering it at A Blog Supreme. That's npr.org/blogsupreme. And later this week, you can find some of those performances posted at our website, nprmusic.org. Patrick, thanks so much.

JARENWATTANANON: Always a pleasure, Guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.