Now Playing:


It's no coincidence that the world's longest-running jazz festivals are branded by geography and destination. Newport, the mother of all fests, got its start in 1954. It was the brainchild of impresario George Wein, who understood that jazz on a summer's day was the perfect soundtrack for Rhode Island - bands of musicians, water meets sky, bands of blue horizons.

Wein's model served as a template. In 1958 a West Coast version emerged. Spearheaded by Jimmy Lyons and Ralph Gleason, it had it's own spot, Monterey, where the Pacific Ocean routinely carves its initials into Central California, creating a coastline signature, raw and rugged. Elite artists flocked to the town that year - Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Harry James, among them.

More then 50 years later, Monterey (like Newport) remains a standard-bearer, demonstrating the ways music and location can intoxicate the senses. Such is the backstory for JAZZ.FM91's latest Safari. Thirty-three of the station's faithful channeled Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty and inked their own version of On The Road (minus the peyote socials, one assumes...). Guided by the winds of adventure, they discovered the joys of San Francisco then landed at Monterey's annual surf-meets-redwood classic.

I like to think that their collective thirst tapped ideals beyond music: Spiritual pursuits? Self-actualization? Bottled messages from distant shores?

Could the mecca that gave birth to EST engender thoughts of any other kind? (Can't say for sure, though a side trip through Big Sur and Pfeiffer Beach offered a clue: Jasmine perfumed the air and harmonic convergence ensued, triggering spontaneous renditions of Kumbaya and feelings of supreme wonderfulness. We danced private pathways. Radiant radishes lit the way...)

Ok, back to the Festival. What did this 56th edition of Monterey Jazz offer to the music die-hards among us? Just the usual - a lofty program featuring upteen-plus artists on multiple stages for a weekend of jazz representing a wide array of attitudes and styles. This year's line-up included Wayne Shorter, Diana Krall, Bobby McFerrin, Gregory Porter, Ravi Coltrane, George Benson, Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Orquestra Buena Vista, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and Joe Lovano.

In fact, saxophonist Lovano served as the Artist in Residence, appearing daily in various group configurations. I especially liked hearing his play with the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, a group of students from the famed music school, then his responses to the Downbeat Blindfold test, a one-on-one session auditioning recordings of unidentified saxophonists. The 90-minute interview proved he's a smart, funny, charismatic dude or, as former Blue Note guru Bruce Lundvall used to claim, our generation's answer to Dexter Gordon. (Full disclosure: My producer credits include four records with Lovano.)

As ubiquitous as he was, the weekend belonged to father figure, saxist Shorter. Now in the midst of a year-long tour celebrating his 80th birthday, Shorter is an NEA emeritus who still plays with the verve and passion of a youth. (He's a lot like Sonny Rollins in that regard.) His quartet - pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade - might be the best working band in jazz, with a singular operating system that celebrates intuitive, interactive play. (I heard Wayne say that the group doesn't rehearse much because it always plays music that's new.) After hearing the band live, the group's methods become clear. These guys listen and react, making a beautiful noise that almost always surprises.

Less surprising, yet no less satisfying, was the music of Gregory Porter. Porter is the reigning star in a jazz category desperate for help - Male Vocalists. Though the jazz soundscape plays host to a number of established contributors - Andy Bey, Freddie Cole and Kurt Elling come to mind - few have captured the imagination (and charge cards) of sustainable audiences that enable careers. Male singers with defined styles and winning personas are in short supply.  Enter Porter. The Blue Note label, which just issued his sophomore record, "Liquid Spirit," is betting that he’s the one. I like their chances. The crowd at the Festival's main stage seemed to agree.

Though musicians like Porter and Lovano and Shorter are headliner types, poster boys for major festival programming, Monterey's strength lies in its desire to stay current, to spotlight new artists or those whose music attracts less mainstream appeal - an admirable practice. I saw a number of JAZZ.FM91 donors strolling the grounds and taking in the likes of Uri Caine, Craig Taborn, Orrin Evans, Clare Daly, Lonnie Smith and Carmen Lundy -  stalwart representatives of jazz's accomplished pianists, saxophonists, organists and singers.

Many festivals embrace this smorgasbord approach to programming, yet the Monterey Fest feels contained and focused. Experiencing it fully is a test; the indefatigable win.  In fact, most members of the Jazz Safari seemed to have that Ironman thing. One couple whose endurance stretched limits was Amala and Shanil Jayatilleke. I first met them in New Orleans, where they revealed themselves seasoned, serious travelers. Keeping up with them - then and now - was a challenge. (I'm told they're coming to New York on the next Safari, my hometown, October 25. I'm concerned. Wish me luck...)

At the end of the Monterey weekend, a wealth of snapshots remained: music, food, sun, surf, blue-chip artists chased down by classy Canadians, all in search of wisdom and truth. Add to the mix the inner-trust radio bunch, uber-hosts who exist to provide. Man, if only everyone took care of business as they do.

Serene and secure, I dreamed on, reviewing our stops and eventually thumbing through the back pages of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What better chronicler of life and the human condition - for this place, this moment?  He once declared, “The world is a beautiful place to be born into.” Was he talking about Big Sur? Monterey? The countless bags of kettle corn consumed throughout the weekend? He had to be. If not, I’ll just find another poem. Or, maybe I’ll write one. These Safari jaunts are beginning to win me over.

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Lee Konitz, Savion Glover, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.




The Jazz Messenger

Sign up to receive our weekly e-newsletter, The Jazz Messenger.

Jazz Calendar Login

Forgot your password? Forgot your username?