Herbie Hancock, Monterey Jazz Festival 2011

FEST FEASTING: Just a quick survey of the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) program is enough to telegraph to jazz fans what makes this event such a potent cultural institution, on the West Coast and in the world. For two-and-a-half days, on five stages around the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the MJF manages to offer a compact overview of the Jazz Scene of the Moment, in its multifaceted genres and subgenres.

Of course, there’s nothing like the being there, amid the transient and intermingling sounds, aromas, crowd buzz, and attention-tugging enticements. There and then, on the ground (or the “grounds”), you inevitably bump into small and large aha moments. One of these occurred last Sunday, the final day of the 54th annual MFJ. At the end of a scintillating, hot, and intellectually engaging set by Steve Coleman and Five Elements (featuring drummer Jim Black), Coleman enthused, “If you gotta’ ticket, head on over to hear Sonny Rollins. He’s still doin’ it. Trust me.”

Sure enough, a half hour later, the great 81-year-old Rollins was assuredly “doin’ it,” in an especially robust and passionate 100-minute show, capping off the fest in a prolonged burst of glory. From Coleman’s post-M-Base savvy to Rollins’s life affirmation, this MJF once again was “doin’ it.”

As usual, the large spread of the festival program contained some running themes, including tributes to bygone icons. One telling point of focus was on the slowly expanding tradition of strong female jazz pianist-bandleaders, with the brightest light fixed on veteran Geri Allen. With her band Timeline, Allen gave a commanding dose of her unique sound, with Tyner-esque muscle and inventive odd meters and, for this festival’s annual commissioned piece, the compact suite in tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., “The Dazzler,” featuring her dizzyingly good tap dancer Maurice Chestnut.

Opening the festival in the Arena, neo-fusion-ish keyboardist Hiromi teased the crowd with her subtlety-be-damned energy, while, in the intimate Coffeehouse Gallery, the impressive young Helen Sung wowed with a subtly-be-savored style.

In other tribute news, a common denominator with both Poncho Sanchez’s tribute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and the Vince Mendoza-led big-band tribute to Gil Evans’s Miles Davis work was trumpeter Terence Blanchard, playing the “roles” of Diz and Miles to varying success.

Tenor saxist Chris Potter, a star of last year’s festival with his band Underground, was in his usual luminous form with the wonderful, cordless Scott Colley Trio. (Local note: Both bassist Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez will be at the Lobero as part of the New Gary Burton Quartet on October 11.)

For all the known commodities and star bookings on the Monterey festival grid, part of the charm arrives via the thrill of the unknown, the joy of discovery. To these ears, the most surprising delight was pianist Bill Carrothers, who has been hovering around the secondary tier of respected jazz piano stylists for years, but somehow never dented my consciousness until late Saturday night at the Coffeehouse (a great showcase for the art of the piano trio). Joined by sympathetic allies Bill Stewart on drums and bassist Drew Gress, Carrothers hunched over the keys, in stocking feet, and exercised his own special way with the 88s, “traditional” only on the surface, and inflected with a personal, harmonically adventurous touch.

As Carrothers ended his set with a lustrously introspective rendition of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” right around midnight on Saturday, something akin to an epiphany settled into my formerly addled brain. That song, done in that way, shut out the outside noise of the festival and the world. Great jazz, and great music, is funny that way.

INTERNAL NOTE: Fringe Beat has been living, quietly and otherwise, in Cyberia for the past several months. As of this week, the column will appear monthly in hard copy/old-school newspaper form, with various missives online in between. Onward and upward, online and off.

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