It's the art of attending the Monterey Jazz Festival: the art of getting around, surrendering yourself to knowing that you can't hear it all, that if you hear a little of this guy, you'll miss some of that guy. There are eight stages, so, inevitably, you wind up sampling the acts: 20 minutes of A, 30 minutes of B, 15 minutes of C.
It's jazz as dim sum.
The 55th annual festival opened Friday night at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, and my musical meal began with Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band in the venue known as the Night Club. Just ad-libbing during his sound check, Martinez was kind of awesome: a rhythm matrix on the conga drums. He threw in some cool moves, nonchalantly reaching downand back behind his seat to slap at a cajon, adding texture and additional syncopation to the mix. You could see why Sting and Wynton Marsalis enjoy performing with him.
When the show began, it got better.
Martinez -- a slender man in a muscle shirt and cool shades -- kissed his fingertips and the music took off with a joyful blast of energy, positive energy. Like the Beatles or samba, this music just felt incredibly good. Great melodies. Three and four-part vocal harmonies. Liquid bass percolations.
Call it ethnic or Cuban or pan-Caribbean -- electric bassist Alvaro Benavides is Venezuelan; percussionist Jhair Sala is Peruvian; keyboardist Ariacne Trujillo is Cuban -- call it whatever you want. This is inventive and
I got in my 25 minutes, then ran over to Dizzy's Den, where master drummer Jack DeJohnette was about to hold forth with his electric band. It bears some resemblance to the Miles Davis groups in which DeJohnette played 40-plus years ago: listening, you feel immersed in the churn of its rhythms and white noise, its freewheeling energy.
Last month, DeJohnette turned 70, which seems impossible. I was seated in the front row; it was like tumbling through a jet-stream.
As with his other bands in past decades, DeJohnette has collected a bunch of fascinating players: keyboardist George Colligan, doubling on pocket trumpet; guitarist David Fiuczynski, burning the strings off his double-necked instrument; alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a cyclonic player with a carnatic edge to his sound (even though he's from Boulder, Colorado). And on electric bass: DeJohnette's old friend Jerome Harris, who never plays anything you quite expect. (He's a lot like DeJohnette.)
Together they played the drummer's "Ahmad the Terrible," a 30-minute blow-out, tumbling
But enough of Jack; he's the festival's Showcase Artist and will return two more times this weekend (including Saturday night, in a trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride). Now it was time for a taste of pianist Mulgrew Miller, playing with his trio in the Coffee House Gallery, the festival's smallest and best venue. It was packed for Miller, who started with "Jordu," the old Duke Jordan tune.
Gliding, swinging, cruising, be-bopping: Miller was bluesy and elegant, abetted by the snap and stroll of drummer Rodney Green and bassist Ivan Taylor. I heard two originals by Miller, as well: "The Sequel" and "Farewell to Dogma." Nothing took me over the moon; it was a solid mainstream set from one of the finest pianists in jazz, with two young bandmates who are comfortable walking in the tradition.
Next up: singer Jose James, performing outdoors this nippy night on the Garden Stage. He blurs genres -- jazz, hip-hop, soul -- with a caramel baritone voice that's not far removed from Lou Rawls. He's a trained singer: You could hear it in the precision of his intonation and attack, darting in and around drummer Obed Calvaire in their hip-hop prelude to the standard "Save Your Love For Me." There's more where this came from: James has an album coming out soon on Blue Note, titled "No Beginning, No End."
But 15 minutes of James was all there was to be; Ambrose Akinmusire was getting ready to play in Dizzy's Den. He's from Oakland, he's 30, and he is generally regarded as the new voice on trumpet.
His quintet played a set that felt like slow deep breaths, or swimming underwater. Akinmusire's tunes don't travel predictable pathways, nor do his improvised lines, which skip and somersault and follow their own logic. His music is solidly conceived and has a weight and wisdom about it, tinged with melancholy. Friday, over the course of 45 minutes, his compositions seemed to be about the inevitable passage of time; wise music from a young man. His duet with pianist Sam Harris was one of the saddest and prettiest things I've heard in a long while.
It's possible that you're wondering why there's no discuss here of the acts performing in the Arena: Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, vocalist Melody Gardot, Eddie Palmieri's Salsa Orchestra. I didn't see any of them; I didn't want to be in a crowd of thousands. I wanted intimacy.
I wanted to see vocalist Gregory Porter, performing in the Night Club to an adoring audience.
"Kill it, brother."
"I LOVE this song."
Well, let's play Amazon. If you love Jerry Butler or Jimmy Ruffin ("What's Become of the Brokenhearted"), or Art Blakey or old Wayne Shorter ... If you love a singer who taps roots into work songs, spirituals, Coltrane and the African-American tradition, generally, and who does that with charm and understatement and communicates to his audience so genuinely that it talks back at him -- then you're likely to fall for this young singer. His album "Be Good" is becoming a hit. He has "star" written all over him. With his kinetic band, he played until after midnight and blew me away.