Monterey and the “festival on tour” format were made for each other. This edition, a celebration of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 55th year, featured six musicians whose collective experience covers very nearly the entire range of great music played over that more than half a century, and whose leader, bassist Christian McBride, can stand comfortably astride the wide range of styles that period encompasses. The leader came out first, along with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, to engage in a little opening badinage before settling in to a graceful duet on the Billie Holiday song “My Mother’s Son-in-Law.” Bridgewater, who was in fine form and spirits, upbraided the attentive Lobero audience for failing to recognize “Eleanora Fagan” as Holiday’s birth name, but forgave us just a moment later when she shared the fact that the first Monterey Jazz Festival, at which Holiday was a featured performer, was also one of Lady Day’s last concerts. Holiday’s spirit was woven through much of the evening’s music, and her repertoire provided the group with some of their most memorable high points.
After their duet, Bridgewater and McBride introduced the rest of the band — drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Benny Green, saxophonist Chris Potter, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Then it was off to the races with a jaunty hard bop number by Horace Silver called “Filthy McNasty” that gave the young tyro Akinmusire a little room to step out. He’s a fascinating player, and not obviously derivative of any of the usual trumpet influences. Closer to Booker Little or Clifford Brown than Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie in tone, he darts in and out of passages marked by dissonance, modality, and smears without ever losing the pulse. Akinmusire just turned 30, and it is a great pleasure to witness such an original talent at this early stage of development.
Chris Potter, on the other hand, could not be more in his prime, as he amply demonstrated on his original composition “Fear of Flying.” Passionate, imaginative, and knowing, with every solo Potter crystallizes all that’s most compelling about the creative lineage of the tenor saxophone. The Thad Jones composition “A Child Is Born” gave both Bridgewater and pianist Benny Green chances to shine. There is a special rapport between these two that sparkles with wit and intensity.
A charging, straight-ahead Bobby Hutcherson tune called “Highway 1” took the group swinging hard into intermission. When they came back, and after Green offered a splendid solo improvisation, they came back with power. The unquestioned highlight for this listener was an unforgettable version of “God Bless the Child,” another song associated with Holiday, but that on this night Bridgewater claimed as her own. Her fiercely dramatic, over-the-top entrance on the very first verse drove the band to its most impressive feats of improvisation. Green’s piano solo on this number, full of rhythmic tricks and surprises, so delighted Bridgewater that she gasped and laughed out loud at the sheer chutzpah of the thing. The finale was an extended version of the standard “All of Me,” and the encore, which only came after much clapping, stomping, and whistling from an understandably worked up crowd, was the splendid and slinky Dave Brubeck composition “Theme from ‘Mr. Broadway’.” At 55, it’s nice to see the Monterey Jazz Festival looking (and sounding) so good.