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09.23.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Eric Johnson
Folks is Folks: Pete Seeger got the jazzhounds on their feet Saturday.

A Saturday in Monterey

The Monterey Jazz Festival did it again.

By Eric Johnson


THE STANDING ovation started long before the end of Pete Seeger's appearance at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival. The set had turned into a singalong just about from the start, with the somewhat urbane jazz crowd belting the old folk songs out like so many flannel-clad hippies.

Following a rousing version of the ballad "Guantanamera," complete with a spoken translation of the poet Juan Marti's heart-rending lyric delivered by Seeger's grandson, bandleader Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, the old man stepped forward and told a story in true folkie tradition.

It went back to 1940 and involved his friend Woodie Guthrie. Hard to say how many in the audience saw it coming, but the version of "This Land Is Your Land" that followed had everybody in the big arena up on their feet and singing. For the last verse, Seeger's family band stepped back and it was his thin but somehow still powerful voice that closed the set. The place exploded.

Filing out of the arena, audience members expressed surprise. They might not have expected the virtuosity exhibited by Seeger's band. We don't generally think of folk musicians as accomplished instrumentalists, but the shaggy outfit could play. Seeger himself only showed off his prowess on the banjo for a couple of brief solos, but watching the 90-year-old legend tear it up was a thrill.

Several hours later, in the Coffee House Gallery, another variety of virtuosity was on display. The Peter Erskine-Alan Pasqua Trio, with Darek Oles on bass, offered up a set that started with a couple of supermellow, down-tempo numbers that seemed stripped down to their roots. It was like a lovely music lesson; each solo revealing each player's unique way with melody, harmony and tempo.

On Jerome Kern's "Just the Way You Look Tonight," Pasqua backed into the tune with an almost abstract intro that gently became the familiar melody. Erskine quietly dissected the rhythm into pretty little pieces and then rearranged them. Oles showed himself to be an inventive soloist, finding neat little riffs inside the song.

Meanwhile, out on the Garden Stage, Raul Midon, who came to Monterey billed as a pop artist, was giving another kind of music lesson. The New Mexico-born half-Argentine blind guitarist/singer/songwriter appears to have invented his own way to play the guitar, incorporating flamenco and less-well-known Latin techniques. An intensely charismatic performer, he dazzled the audience with his audacious playing and charmed them with his grace and humor--its own brand of virtuosity.

Over in the Nightclub, it was a blowout party. The organ trio Soulive, which helped debut MJF's first Friday night "New Grooves" event in 2005, was back with its funky, ferociously trippy and yet still-swinging brand of jazz-jam fusion. As in their fist appearance, the trio was powered by the explosive drummer Alan Evans, and showcased the spectacular stylings of his brother, B-3 master Neal Evans. More than at previous festivals, guitarist Eric Krasno showed himself to be the keyboardist's equal when it came to delivering mind-blowing solos.

As always at Monterey it's impossible to see everything, and I chose to depart before one of my favorite guitarists, special guest John Scofield, arrived to sit in. I've seen him a bunch, and I had an appointment in the Arena to see a band I've never seen, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra directed by Wynton Marsalis.

Luckily I arrived early enough to see Dee Dee Bridgewater's finale, which would've blown the roof off the place if the place had a roof. And from the minute the big band arrived onstage, it was more of the same.

Marsalis, of course, can do anything--he'd probably be a household name even if he stuck to his classical repertoire--but here at Monterey, he was clearly doing what he loves to do best. This was huge, powerful, complex, loud jazz music played by some of the best in the land. As a unit, they were tight. And as each player stood to take their solos, they were loose, in the best way.

As the evening drew to a close, Marsalis himself, sitting in the back row, pointed his horn into the sky and blew like crazy.


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