Left to Right: Yasushi Nakamura, Melissa Aldana, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Christian Sands, Bria Skonberg, Jamison Ross
In brief: The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour presents six outstanding young musicians, and with its diverse roster placing the women upfront, also makes a positive statement on the state (and future) of the music.
On any given night one might find Cécile McLorin Salvant , Bria Skonberg, Melissa Aldana, Christian Sands, Yasushi Nakamura, or Jamison Ross fronting their own band in one of the world’s premier jazz clubs. To celebrate its 60th Anniversary, the Monterey Jazz Festival brought them together and sent them on the road, performing as a sextet and in smaller combinations. On paper, putting this all-star mix of youth, talent, and diversity on the road must have looked like a fantastic opportunity to present jazz’s next generation to a wide audience. On stage, the results are even better, delivering serious chops for diehard jazz enthusiasts, pure musical entertainment for casual fans, and an enticing, accessible introduction to America’s indigenous art form for the musically curious.
Going in, I thought the immense talents of vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant might have dominated the evening to no ill effect. So I was surprised she left the stage after singing a couple of songs — a marvelous rendition of her own “Fog,” followed by Betty Carter’s “I Can’t Help It,” which she began as a duet with Nakamura before letting the rest of the band join in. The latter highlighted Aldana’s smooth tenor sax and Sands’ rollicking, barrelhouse-tinged piano.
With Salvant off the stage, the spotlight turned to Aldana and her composition “Elsewhere,” which featured Sands, Nakamura, and Ross backing her through a flight of free jazz that eventually came down onto solid enough ground that Skonberg could step in for a well-placed solo to bring to a close. Next came Ross’s turn up front, and the drummer/vocalist delivered an homage to drummer/vocalist Grady Tate with a warm version of “Sack Full of Dreams.”
Aldana and Skonberg exited, leaving the stage to the trio of men. Sands then asked the audience if there were any classical music fans in the house (there were). Then he asked if there were any opera fans (yes, even more). The pianist and music director for the evening then provided the backstory for Puccini’s aria “E lucevan le stelle,“ from Tosca before launching into their rendition of it. For the first minute, maybe more, only a few random notes bore any relation to the tune’s melody or felt even remotely recognizable. Then the aria suddenly bloomed into the hall, with Sands absolutely nailing its soaring drama, complete with vibrato. More improvisation followed, including what truly sounded like snippets of England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” but I’m sure what I was hearing was just some kind of absurd coincidence.
Salvant, Skonberg, and Aldana return to the stage, and Salvant sings something I can’t quite recognize that she describes as “two weeks old and five years old,” and has a Cole Porter vibe to it (comments are open, folks), followed by the ballad “Moon Song,” with an intro featuring Aldana. Salvant departs again and the group plays Sands’ “Fight for Freedom",” which gives everyone a workout but as far as I could tell the track needs a new title — there’s no struggle in the music.
Skonberg then takes center stage and without saying as much, let’s the audience know she’s been holding out until now. Launching into Valaida Snow’s "High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm," she quickly gets the audience involved in the tune’s call-and-response “Ho-ho-ho”, and comes close to stealing the show. She didn’t - there was way too much of an honestly felt collaborative vibe taking place, but she nevertheless made a case for herself as a triple threat on vocals, trumpet, and as show-woman.
When it came time for Nakamura’s turn in the spotlight, he unleashed the night’s biggest unexpected gift, a funky Lee Morgan-style groover called “Yasugaloo,” essentially a vamp that let him and Sands let loose with crowd-pleasing results near the end of the nearly two-hour set.
Salvant began the encore, a capella and without a microphone before everyone else joined her, winding up an evening that stood out not only for its musical excellence and sense of adventure, but for the statement it made by bringing these particular talents together as the faces of today’s jazz artists.
Very highly recommended. ★★★★★
It continues through April 14th, See dates/venues below.
March 22: State College, Pa. / Penn State University, Eisenhower Auditorium
March 23: Philadelphia, Pa. / Kimmell Center, Verizon Hall
March 24: East Lansing, Mich. / Michigan State University, Wharton Center for Performing Arts, Cobb Great Hall
March 26: Omaha, Neb. / Holland Performing Arts Center, Kiewit Concert Hall
March 28: Baton Rouge, La. / Manship Theatre at the Shaw Center for the Arts
March 29: Meridian, Miss. / Mississippi State University, Riley Center
March 30: Memphis, Tenn. / Germantown Performing Arts Center
March 31: Fayetteville, Ark. / Walton Arts Center, Baum Walker Hall
April 2: Portland, Ore. / Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
April 3: Berkeley, Calif. / University of California Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall
April 4: Rohnert Park, Calif. / Sonoma State University, Weill Hall at Green Music Center
April 5: Los Angeles, Calif. / Walt Disney Concert Hall
April 7: Seattle, Wash. / Moore Theatre
April 8: Santa Barbara, Calif. / University of California Santa Barbara, Campbell Hall
April 9: Mesa, Ariz. / Mesa Arts Center, Ikeda Theater
April 11: Calgary, Alberta, Canada / Jack Singer Concert Hall
April 12: Chicago, Ill. / Chicago Symphony Center
April 13: Notre Dame, Ind. / University of Notre Dame, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center
April 14: Ann Arbor, Mich. / University of Michigan, Michigan Theater