Just because it says “Jazz Festival” in the name, doesn’t mean jazz only.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
“I don’t have a definition of jazz,” Thelonious Monk once said. “You’re just supposed to know it when you hear it.”
Since its inception, the Monterey Jazz Festival has consciously and subconsciously taken Monk’s words of wisdom to heart, managing to include at least several musicians/bands that wouldn’t fit into the traditional jazz mold every year.
Jefferson Airplane and Muddy Waters played MJF in 1966 and the following year – just a few months after the Monterey Pop Festival – T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Richie Havens and Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin were all part of the weekend’s line-up.
Over the past decade, DJ Logic, Bo Diddley, The Derek Trucks Band, Los Lobos and even the grandfather of American folk music, Pete Seeger, have all performed MJF alongside some of jazz’s most important names.
The trend continues in ’12: Pedal steel-whiz Robert Randolph, frontman of blues-funk-gospel jammers Robert Randolph and the Family Band (1pm Saturday, Jimmy Lyons Arena; 5:30pm Saturday, Garden Stage) estimates he’s performed at a few hundred jazz festivals around the world over the years, and that the incorporation of non-jazz acts into jazz festival line-ups is now commonplace.
“People who come to jazz festivals are hardcore roots people looking for true music of any form to dance to and be uplifted,” he says.
Since his early days of performing in church, moving audiences to their feet has always been a natural task for Randolph. Whether he’s unleashing a 10-minute-plus cover of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or a slick modernized version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way,” seas of booties can’t help but shake to the music.
“There’s a strong sense of joy when I perform live,” Randolph says. “I get the same feeling now as I got from playing in church. Everybody’s together and [the Family Band] is there to uplift so the performances have sort of a church vibe.”
That infectious spirit surrounding the band’s live shows have made them a favorite within the Phish community and mainstays at jam band-centric events like the Mountain Jam Music Festival and High Sierra Music Festival. Randolph feels nothing less than a duty to give people a thoroughly satisfying show.
“People are going through rough times in the world today and they spend their hard-earned money to come see me play and have some sort of escape,” Randolph says. “I like to provide that for them.”
But extensive jams, balls-out live shows and pedal-steel wizardry aren’t Randolph’s only offerings: The Family Band’s 2010 album Walk This Road – produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett – showcases his ability to take old gospel and blues tunes and make them his own.
Before the recording process began, Burnett and Randolph spent hours sitting around listening to recordings of old traditional church tunes and 80-year-old blues, trying to find ones that would be good fits for the album.
“Every once and awhile, we’d come across certain [songs] and I’d say ‘I can make that thing something else,’” Randolph says. “The thing with T-Bone is he lets you be who you are and lets your life experiences help you understand who you are.”
Randolph says he’s applying what he learned from Burnett on the forthcoming LP, with special guest spots from Buddy Guy and Santana. He explains the album thus far as “the Family Band meets old African music” and says a bunch of “rhythmic chants” have been introduced into the music.
“We all just get together in a room and jam and come up with all these new ideas,” Randolph says. “We’ve grown as singers, songwriters and musicians and we’ve got some amazing songs and jams on the [forthcoming release]. Getting out of Warner Bros. has given us a chance to get back to what we were doing in the beginning.”
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (3pm Saturday, Jimmy Lyons Arena) is another one of MJF’s outside-the-jazz-box acts, though one may argue that jazz reveals itself every now and then through the outfit’s collage of funk, soul, rock and smattering of hip-hop (“Supafunkrock”). If there’s anyone that can deliver a live show that rivals Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s, it’s Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews – regardless of his stage name, the cat also plays a mean trumpet. The New York Times hailed him “as so ready for his close-up” in 2010, which was also the first time he played MJF.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue’s high-energy shows are notorious for extending into the wee hours of the night/early morning and often times close with an epic, unplugged rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
The last time the Tremé-bred musician was in Monterey, “Hurricane Season” was on his mind. It’s not an actual manifestation of the devastating storms that New Orleans knows all too well, but an instrumental anthem – from his Grammy-winning Backatown LP – penned just as Katrina was readying to reveal its ugly face to the Big Easy.
“I don’t write songs that remind me of painful events in life,” Shorty says. “I like to let it go. I’ve never done a song about Katrina. I’ve never tried to write anything about that type of experience. It happened, and it’s already painful to think about or talk about, so I just wanted to let it go.”
These days, Shorty is enjoying the success of his most recent release, For True, featuring the single “Do To Me” with special guest Jeff Beck (Warren Haynes, Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz and Rebirth Brass Band also make appearances on the album). The record has been in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart for more than 40 weeks now.
At only 26 years old, Shorty has come nowhere near his peak. When will we know when he reaches it? It’s like Thelonious said: You’ll know it when you hear it.