MJF 48 delivered many brands of inspiration.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
When Branford Marsalis walked onstage in Dizzy’s Den late Sunday night and lit up his soprano sax for the “Bourbon Street Parade,” he brought the whole weekend back to its roots. It was a deeply poignant, doubly poignant moment, an appropriately swinging requiem for Marsalis’ hometown, and a touching tribute to the birthplace of jazz.
Branford had jumped in for a closing number with the Doug Wamble Quartet. It was after 11pm, and the 48th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival was drawing to a close. I’d bet that many of the 100-or-so people clapping and stomping and dancing along with the band, like me, had wandered in not expecting anything momentous, just not wanting the weekend to end.
Already we had been enthralled by the big, sweet-faced young bandleader, whose nimble voice and raw, bluesy guitar work evoked jazz at its most basically beautiful. So enthralled, I had jumped up during a short break following a stunning song (I’m still trying to find out what it was) to grab a front row seat. I sat there grinning as Wamble performed an unaccompanied version of the devastatingly clever anti-racism ditty
“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Wamble, who is from Memphis, delivered the showtune (from South Pacific, by Rodgers & Hammerstein) as a soulful, jazzy ballad. Already, the air in the room was buoyant and tender, joyful and ringing with pleasure and meaning. When Branford started blowing, and the band started pumping, and Wamble started singing, “Let’s fly down/let’s drive down/ to New Orleans,” it wasn’t exactly as if Louis Armstrong had reappeared at the Festival, but it was some kind of magic.
~ ~ ~
Wamble plays an ancient Gretsch hollow-bodied jazz guitar. He is clearly a schooled and disciplined musician, yet his style is almost primitive, in the best sense of the word. He urgently slams out chords, picks out melodies with something like violent abandon—it’s a distinctive and impressive and utterly charming approach.
For me, part of the pleasure of his set was the context in which it was presented. This is one of the joys of the Jazz Festival. Over the preceding three days, I had seen and heard a bunch of great guitarists, each with a unique sound. Just five minutes before Wamble had begun to simply blow my mind, I was across the lawn in the Bill Berry Nightclub, listening to John Scofield, a dazzling virtuoso who has mastered every bit of modern guitar technology.
Scofield, MJF’s 2005 Showcase Artist (and, as it happens, Doug Wamble’s teacher at Memphis State for a short time), was all over the Fairgrounds all weekend; Sunday night’s set was with an intimate trio, including his longtime friend and collaborator Steve Swallow. Even in this small setting, Sco was typically electronic and explosive.
I had only managed to catch the end of this set because I had been in the arena, witnessing a similarly explosive performance by the Pat Metheny Trio (& Quartet). Metheny started out playing what appeared to be a 27-stringed cross between a guitar and a zither, and ended on his trusty solid-bodied guitar-synthesizer, which can still astonish, almost 30 years after he first unveiled it.
This was the context in which I heard Wamble, and the context in which all of these players did their work. Nels Cline, playing with Banyan on Friday, did some of the same amazing things he did while touring with the alt-country band Wilco this past Spring, but they sounded fresh in the context of a post-punk-jazz-fusion outfit. And the work of Gray Sargent, who laid out sophisticated progressions behind Tony Bennett on Saturday night, was no doubt enhanced, in our ears, by the fact that he was accompanying a legend for a performance none of us will ever forget, and, for me, by Nels Cline’s work the previous night.
~ ~ ~
This is one way the Festival communicates to its audience. I’ll remember the performances, the bands; I will also remember, in one piece, the bassists: Christian McBride uncorking his lyrical, hypnotic fluidity with Metheny and with his own avant outfit; Eric Rivas, with Marsalis’s quartet Sunday, wrestling with his instrument as though possessed by some poetic force; Mike Watt, with Banyan, all punk-rock intensity. I will remember the drummers and the saxophonists in groups, as if they all performed together, which in a sense they did.
Witnessing these players demonstrate how an individual human can bring his or her own passionate understanding to bear, knowing that this one show, this one night, is important, brings a particular kind of inspiration.
There were many inspiring moments over the weekend. One came Saturday, under the oaks at the Garden Stage. The young soul singer Ledisi was getting toward the end of a performance that had packed the place (everyone walking by stopped and stayed). She had the big crowd get up—she did not have to say it twice. Then she made everyone dance. And then she made everyone—everyone—sing along with her.
Jazz is many things, and so is the Monterey Jazz Festival. This year it was a legendary singer performing the only song he ever wrote; a superstar playing a swinging homage to his favorite place; a few hundred folks learning how to put a little grease on their voices; and a lot more than all that, too.