Tracking the must-sees at the 54th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, from Herbie to Huey to New Orleans’ nicest.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The legendary Billie Holiday headlined the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival back in 1958, along with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet. On a rare recording of her performance that night, the airplanes taking off from the Monterey Airport are audible in the background as Holiday rips through faves like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” and “Good Morning Heartache.”
Not much has changed over the past half-century: You can still hear the planes cruising in the sky above the Fairgrounds and the festival’s lineups have remained just as stellar as they did that night 54 years ago when Holiday’s steamy voice cut through the cool Monterey air.
One of this year’s best bets, An Afternoon in Tremé: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans (1pm Saturday, main arena) brings the spicy sounds of the Big Easy to the Peninsula. Centered around HBO’s hit show Tremé – which chronicles one of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods in the aftermath of Katrina – the showcase includes Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk (also performing Saturday with special guest Greg Errico on the Garden Stage at 5:30pm), Soul Rebels Brass Band (also performing at 3:30pm on the Garden Stage) and Kermit Ruffins with Glen David Andrews, plus special guest emcee and star of Tremé, Wendell Pierce, who will also appear at Dizzy’s Den at 4pm for Jazz on the Screen: A Conversation with Clint Eastwood and Wendell Pierce.
Dumpstaphunk’s thick roots in funk and the music of New Orleans extend both musically and by blood relation to a couple of the masters, the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Their extended jams recall a mash-up of Medeski Martin & Wood, Galactic and even a little JBs-era James Brown.
New Orleans natives Soul Rebels Brass Band – formerly Dejean’s Young Olympia Brass Band – puts a sweet, modern-day twist on traditional New Orleans jazz music. Frontmen Lumar LeBlanc and Derrick Moss blend the sound of old school funeral marches with rowdy brass-fueled party music reminiscent of Rebirth Brass Band.
SRBB’s music recently appeared in the season finale of Tremé and After the Catch on the Discovery Channel and its live album, No Place Like Home, envelopes everything the bandmembers love about their hometown.
Like LeBlanc told jazz writer Theresa Crushshon, “We’ve been all over the world, and we still say there’s no place like home.”
In addition to his musicianship, trumpeter and cofounder of Rebirth Brass Band Kermit Ruffins has been getting props for his acting chops on Tremé – and his impromptu barbecues for the show’s cast and crew.
“The show’s the biggest thing that’s ever going to happen to me in my lifetime,” Ruffins told Tremenews.com, a site dedicated to celebrating and preserving the music of New Orleans. “This is our chance right now to let the world see that New Orleans is still swinging and alive.”
It’s evident the one element these three bands have in common aside from their undying love and ties to New Orleans: the belief that music has been one of the community’s keys to recovering from Katrina’s wrath.
• • •
Here’s some news: Huey Lewis and The News (3pm Saturday, main arena) won’t be as much out of its element at the festival as some diehard jazz enthusiasts may initially think.
The band might be best known for contributing “The Power of Love” to the Back to the Future soundtrack, but with its first release in about nine years, Soulsville, Huey Lewis and The News delves into the music of the legendary Stax record label.
The LP features classics from greats like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and even a reprise of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself.”
“[Soulsville] is one of the most aesthetically sound cover albums of 2010,” writes SoulTracks’ J. Matthew Cobb.
Saturday’s jam-packed day of music fittingly closes with one of the godfathers of jazz: Oscar winner, Grammy Award winner and arguably the greatest and most innovative living jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock (10:50pm Saturday, main arena). Throughout his five-decade career, Hancock’s music has always been ahead of its time. Maiden Voyage is regarded as one of the most influential jazz records of the ’60s and his 1973 Head Hunters album – one of the best-selling jazz-fusion records of all time – took leaps into a future world led by an early version of the synthesizer intermingled with African-inspired poly-rhythms, bass flute and clinking beer bottles. Only 10 years after Head Hunters hit the streets, Hancock’s Future Shock was offering a sneak peek into the future of hip-hop.
Additional renowned headliners performing include seminal sax-master Sonny Rollins (9pm Sunday, main arena), who received the Medal of Arts – the nation’s highest praise for excellence in the arts – from President Barack Obama last March.
Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band, meanwhile, look to hatch an inspired collaboration with four-time Grammy Award winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard (11:10pm Friday, main arena). And the John Pizzarelli Quartet – dubbed the “First Family of Cool” and “von Trapps on Martinis” – teams with his singer/actress wife Jessica Molaskey and his guitar-slinging father Bucky Pizzarelli (9:50pm Friday, main arena) to perform works from his latest recording Rockin’ in Rhythm, featuring 12 classic Duke Ellington tracks.
Monterey Jazz Festival spokesman Tim Orr says the acclaimed event has remained consistently successful, since that first year with Billie Holiday, because it employs a philosophy that’s similar to the music it brings to town.
“Jazz is kind of like an improvisation where you try not to duplicate what you just played and that’s the way [MJF] books itself,” he says. “Other festivals have the same performers year after year as headliners. Our lineup is different every year.”
It’s just the level of excellence that never seems to really shift.
THE MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL happens Friday-Sunday, Sept. 16-18, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Road, Monterey. $66 Friday single day arena; $132 Saturday or Sunday single day arena; $225-$315 three-day arena; $40-$50 single day grounds. $125 three-day grounds. 394-8432.