Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in September, the Monterey Jazz Festival is determined to keep the party going. The festival started its own record label, Monterey Jazz Festival Records, releasing first a series of historic performances and, just last week, a set from the 2007 festival by a carefully chosen band of all-stars. These same all-stars have been sent on a strenuous 54-date U.S. tour through mid-March, spreading the multigenerational Monterey spirit and making some profound music in unexpected ways.
The jazz legends of the past were represented by the iconic James Moody, 82, who remains a totally assured, fluently boppish force on tenor sax, a splendid flutist and, on the puckishly retitled “Bennies From Heaven,” a funny, life-affirming vocalist-entertainer.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, singer Nnenna Freelon, and pianist-music director Benny Green represented a middle generation of young lions come to maturity. Finally, Blanchard’s rhythm section — bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott — was the youth brigade, steeped in the traditions yet using their instruments with extraordinary subtlety and a multiplicity of techniques.
The repertoire, too, was loaded with significance, making frequent references to performers from Monterey’s past — Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop,” Milt Jackson’s “Monterey Mist,” an excerpt from Gerald Wilson’s “Theme for Monterey” suite with new lyrics by Freelon and titled “Romance (Winter Love).” The prevailing default style was mainstream, for these musicians aren’t out to topple the established musical order.
Yet in the second half of the concert at Royce Hall, some other significant points were made. Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa” was brilliantly played by Green, Hodge and Scott entirely at a pianissimo level — a rarity in jazz and a quiet rebuke to the amplified world around them. Blanchard then joined the trio for excerpts from Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” — a pair of spare, dignified, sometimes emotionally painful dirges, heating up briefly to a stormy protest with Blanchard wailing up high. At last, jazz was roused from its neutrality to express something important in world affairs, and this music made a far greater impact indoors than it would have at an outdoor festival.
Another key point was how well these leaders seem to get along — kidding each other, connecting musically, occasionally stretching the envelope (as on Freelon’s free interpretation of “Skylark” with just Hodge’s bass as support). It’s important to have fun, too.