Saturday, October 08, 2005

First-timers, vets shine at Monterey jazz fest

It may have been the Monterey Jazz Festival's 48th birthday this year, but at the three-day jazz extravaganza -- which took place September 16-18 at the county fairgrounds in Monterey, Calif. -- there was a buzz on preparations already in motion for the silver 50th.

A film crew shot footage throughout the weekend, and even fest general manager Tim Jackson admitted he was thinking ahead, saying that the 2007 festival was just around the corner and will be extra special.

This year's gathering proved to be special in its own right, with peak performances scattered throughout the main arena stage and four satellite venues. Highlights included sets by saxophonist John Handy with guest vocalist Steve Miller; pianist Jon Jang's brilliant sextet; sparkplug jazz/R&B vocalist Ledisi; the ever-potent 75-year-old sax giant Sonny Rollins; and a tour de force finale by guitarist Pat Metheny with tenor saxophonist David Sanchez.

The wonder of the fest was Tony Bennett. In his first performance there, he captivated the packed arena. The 79-year-old singer wowed locals with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," then lifted the thick curtain of fog to let the harvest moon shine with his magical saunter through "Fly Me to the Moon."

The biggest surprise was bassist/bandleader Kyle Eastwood, in Dizzy's Den, showing that he had been woodshedding plenty in his Paris home since his last, lackluster festival performance in 1999. He performed funky, bluesy tunes with his electric sextet from his new CD, "Paris Blue," released September 20 by Rendezvous Entertainment.

But top honors went to Carla Bley, another Monterey first-timer who played piano and conducted her big band in her remarkable festival-commissioned piece "The Black Orchid," inspired by her first gig in 1955 at the cocktail lounge space in nearby Pacific Grove. "This is the first time we played this," Bley said backstage, after a show that featured her complex and whimsical arrangements. "It will get better as we take the work on tour to Europe next year. That's when we'll record it. Until then, this will change nightly."

As for arranging the piece, "It didn't fully come together until I got the rhythm feel. That's when the Frankenstein monster got the bolt of lightning and started moving," she said with a laugh.

- By Dan Ouellette

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