Ninety miles is the distance from the southern tip of Florida to Cuba. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton bridges it in a single note. Unreal. Late Sunday, he performed this trick -- repeatedly -- at the Monterey Jazz Festival: played one looooong note, squeezed and moaned and shouted like a blues prayer against the backdrop of a lit-up Cuban-Puerto Rican rhythm section.
Known as Ninety Miles, the band was bridging distances, consolidating a tradition, and it was all being funneled through Payton's trumpet. Co-led by Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez, this sextet left its audience vibrating like a tuning fork in the venue known as Dizzy's Den, one of eight festival stages. For this listener, it was the best performance of the festival, exhilarating and exhausting; one of those "thank God for music" events.
The 55th annual Monterey festival was a strong one, maybe most notable for its giving expression to a new generation of players. They may not be famous -- yet. But they are coming into their prime and advancing this tradition. Among them are the four members of the Ninety Miles rhythm section: drummer Henry Cole and bassist Ricardo Rodriguez (from Puerto Rico), conguero Mauricio Hererra (from Cuba) and pianist Zaccai Curtis (he's just from Connecticut). These combustion experts stoked fires for Sánchez and Payton, master players at midcareer.
I'm afraid there's not time or space to review many of the dozens of performances at Monterey, which attracted crowds similar to last year's: about 38,000 revolutions of the turnstile at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. But here are a few of my favorites from this rich musical weekend.
Sunday. Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell. Their duet performance was wide-open and inspired. Old friends, the drummer and guitarist played "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and DeJohnette began pounding on his tom-toms, a pouncing tiger. A Malian folk anthem turned into a march across the desert -- you could taste the sand. There was rockabilly, blues, electric Miles distortion, twanging Americana; everything became everything, and DeJohnette kept hunting through his kit for new timbres. He's 70, still fascinated. As he said in a public interview earlier in the day, he is "in the library of cosmic ideas" while playing the drums.
Saturday. Trumpeter Christian Scott, who packed the Night Club, is coming into his powers, big-time, at age 29. His music is full of the swirl, spirit and striving of '60s jazz, but with new flavors. Fed by guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Jamire Williams, the band sounded at times like Radiohead in Africa, under the spell of Coltrane's rushing spirit, with Scott pointing his horn toward the heavens and straining after big, ecstatic tangles of notes, a man on a search. Wild, free and full of the blues.
Saturday. Pianist Gerald Clayton, 28, playing with his trio (Joe Sanders, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums) in the Coffee House Gallery. His tune "Sunny Day Go" was spacious and often very quiet, lit up with neon detail and a super-sharp rhythmic sense, including a touch of Keith Jarrett's funkiness. Wing-tipped Gilmore -- Roy Haynes' grandson -- was the secret weapon, never overplaying, opening up the music, prodding it, picking his moves, like a basketball player with unexplainable court sense.
Saturday. Singer Catherine Russell was a charmer on the Garden Stage, delivering classic blues and swing tunes with relaxed authenticity. Daughter of Luis Russell -- he was Louis Armstrong's music director -- she is a woman with roots; you hear echoes of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. And Bessie Smith: Russell sang "Kitchen Man" with salacious swagger, and the audience responded. Couples were laughing, embracing and dancing under the stars.
Saturday. Tony Bennett, 86, still lunges after those high notes like a kid jumping to grab apples off a high branch. He's a man in love with the art of song: "They All Laughed," "Steppin' Out With My Baby," "Sing You Sinners," "But Beautiful." In the Arena, he sang them all, phrasing with beauty, exuding style. And is there anything better than hearing Bennett sing "The Way You Look Tonight"?
Friday. Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez kissed his fingertips; then his band's performance in the Night Club took off with a blast of positive energy. Like the Beatles or samba, this music just felt incredibly good. Great melodies. Joyous vocal harmonies, worked out in three and four parts, tight as a drumhead. This is inventive and accessible pop music that threatens to grab an audience far beyond the Cuban restaurant on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan where this foursome regularly performs.
Friday. Ambrose Akinmusire -- 30-year-old Oakland native, new trumpet master -- played a set with his quintet that felt like slow deep breaths, or swimming underwater. His tunes have weight and wisdom. They don't travel predictable pathways, nor do his improvised lines, which skip, somersault and follow their own Ambrose-ian logic. His duet in Dizzy's Den with pianist Sam Harris was one of the saddest and prettiest things I've heard in a long while, speaking to the inevitable passage of time.
Friday. Vocalist Gregory Porter performed in the Night Club for an adoring crowd. If you love a singer who sinks roots into spirituals and '60s soul, into ballads and Blakey and the African-American tradition generally, and who does it with charm and understatement, and communicates to his audience so genuinely that it talks back at him -- "Kill it, brother!" -- then you're likely to fall for this young singer. With his kinetic band, he played until after midnight and blew me away.