• Otter Views: It’s Jazz Month

    by Tom Stevens

    To mark Jazz Appreciation Month, I laced up my cool blue walking shoes the other evening and strolled over to the Monterey Conference Center. It was opening night of the Next Generation Jazz Festival, which this year drew 20 student ensembles from as far away as Japan, Boston and Alaska.

    I usually work weekends, so I missed the student performances held Saturday and Sunday at various downtown venues. But the festival also pitches a free Friday night concert by an adult group whose name sounds like a band: The Adjudicators.

    These are professional jazz musicians whose festival gig includes evaluating the bands and coaching the students in their instrumental and vocal specialties. The adjudicators also play a 90-minute concert to open the festival each year. The house fills up fast for that.

    Booking transport, lodging and performance venues for 20 bands and two dozen judges must be crazy-making, especially when cancellations arise. This year, tenor sax titan Joe Lovano had to withdraw at the eleventh hour, but the festival managed to work around that. Nonetheless, when event impresario Paul Contos took the stage, he looked like a man who had juggled fire.

    The festival is about numerous things, but professionalism is up there near the top. Many of the students hope to play professionally one day, and the Friday night concert gave them an idea of how that looks and feels. Any last-minute hassles that might have transpired off-stage were not evident once the house lights dimmed. The show started on time, the sound was excellent, and Contos read through a long list of thank-yous and performer credits mangle-free.

    Then the music started. Up first was the Edmar Colon Quartet, a quicksilver ensemble from Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Scarcely older than its audience, the quartet delivered an uptempo set of standards and originals with fire, humor and panache. Their closer was “Monk-eys,” saxophonist Colon’s tune about swimming Caribbean simians, performed in the style of Thelonious Monk. The whole set was adventurous, brilliant fun. The band also showed jazz’s reach, with players from Puerto Rico, Ireland, Saint Thomas and Oregon.

    The Adjudicators were up next, but they were too numerous to present at once. This was a good thing for the audience, which got to enjoy combos of various sizes and voicings. The arrangement also gave each festival judge some well-deserved limelight, and it gave the students a musical introduction to their weekend evaluators.

    But mostly, it showed the pros at work. It had to be a scramble back stage setting up the various ensembles, agreeing on tunes and arrangements; juggling late arrivals. But as each group took the stage, they looked and sounded as if they had played together for years. For some of them, this was true. Others had scarcely met. The amazing thing was, you couldn’t tell the difference.

    I couldn’t, anyway. As a non-musician, I also couldn’t follow the secret language of signals, looks and nods whereby the players set the music on its glide path or agreed to deviate from it. Equally puzzling to me was the matter of leadership. Each of these musicians could lead and has led other players in all sorts of formats, so who calls the tempo and the tune?

    They might have figured this out backstage, or they might have come to some silent, mutual understanding using the secret language of jazz musicians and bees. Whatever the case, some designee would snap off a count on his or her fingers, launching the whole group into synchronous, glorious, instantaneous flight. How do they do that? How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

    The students doubtless found out over the weekend. As for me, I just leaned forward, closed my eyes, and dug being in a big room full of great players and attentive jazz people. No blenders, no cell phones, no bar dice, no silverware – just 90 minutes of fantastic music.

    The performers may be renowned only in the jazz world, but they have a wealth of collective achievement. Among Friday’s players were university professors, Grammy nominees, text book authors, TV and movie score writers, touring company members and veteran recording artists. How veteran? Bassist Ray “Bulldog” Drummond has taken part in 300 recording sessions; drummer Jeff Hamilton, 200; trumpeter Jeff Jarvis, 100. Pianist (and Monterey festival alumna) Patrice Rushen has 14 recordings under her own name.

    Also appearing Friday were big band trumpeter Bobby Shew, first-call saxophonists Antonio Hart, Joel Frahm and Gary Smulyen, Grammy-nominated guitarist Russell Malone, and an electrifying jazz and scat singer from New Orleans named Kenny Washington. Also squeezing onto the stage were trombonist Dave Eshelman and emcee Paul Contos, who played a limpid, soulful alto flute.

    Walking to PG afterwards, my blue shoes sang “All Blues.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 12, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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