The Monterey Jazz Festival: A spontaneous block party



By Perry Tannenbaum

This past Tuesday, the Arts & Science Council did an “Update Lunch” at the Gantt Center, announcing that its annual fund drive was slightly ahead of the pace needed to make its cautious 2010 goal of $7.5 mil. Mingling between arts groups and corporate heavyweights is part of the raison d’être of such gatherings, so it was appropriate that we all queued up on a buffet line where jambalaya and red-beans-and-rice were served. And of course, as we were gathered at Charlotte’s Afro-Am Cultural Center chowing down on Nawlins foodies, it wasn’t surprising that the theme for the luncheon was jazz, complete with pointed references from the podium to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker.

Nor had it been surprising that, on the previous Friday, the Monterey Jazz Festival had nearly sold out the new Knight Theater. This was the biggest jazz event in Charlotte since Wynton Marsalis brought the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Belk Theater late in 2001, and it was happening at the end of Black History Month during the CIAA Tournament, the most spontaneous block party we got.

So what was surprising? Just that Charlotte Observer, located less than a block from the Knight, did not send a soul to cover the event or review the music – after devoting barely an inch of print space to notify their readers of the concert. Just how be-Knighted is that? Normally, a city’s daily newspaper is at the vanguard of hipness. Here they pathetically trail behind the NC Blumenthal PAC, which had the acumen to schedule Monterey Jazz at the perfect moment, and the masses, who had the smarts to snap up the tickets with or without pre-publicity.

My apologies to the headliners – vocalist Kurt Elling, pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Russell Malone, and violinist Regina Carter – who may have opened their Saturday morning newspapers expecting to find a review of their work. Kurt, you were sensational. You now own “Nature Boy” as far as I’m concerned, and your riffs on Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” were among the most inventive and electrifying scatting I’ve heard. As for your homage to the great Johnny Hartman sessions with Trane, your “You Are Too Beautiful” found a groove of its own.

Kenny, I loved all your originals, but “Calypso” was decisively my favorite, probably because it brought out the best in everybody right before intermission – particularly Carter, who tossed in little snatches of “Jeepers Creepers” and “Swinging on a Star” while trading fours with Malone. Your two solos on “Don’t Explain” beautifully explored the depths of the great Billie Holiday tune and again drew the best from Carter.

Regina, you need to let your hair down and frisk more often! When you do, on “Nature Boy” and the other tunes I’ve just named, you are a queenly jazz presence. When you rely on too many quotes, as on “When I Grow Too Old,” or when you simply switch to autopilot (“And We Will Fly”), your peers upstage you. But all was forgiven when you lost yourself in the final cadenza of “Don’t Explain.” Special.

Russell, you are so cool. Joe Pass had to be gazing down and smiling when you did your solo version of “Unchained Melody.” But I think you excel a little more than Joe in playing with others, giving as good as you get – or better – when trading fours with Carter or Barron, introducing the melody on Barron’s “Theme #1,” or simply drenching Elling’s encore, “All Right, OK, You Win,” in the blues.

Please tell the Monterey folk that we want more. I guarantee that the Blumenthal schedulers know they struck gold with your sextet (shout-outs to bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake for their fine solos) during CIAA weekend. We’re embarrassed that Charlotte Observer didn’t give you the respect and coverage you deserve, but maybe if you come back next year, they’ll get a clue!

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