From every Monterey Jazz Festival stage this year, one name was invoked again and again — with affection, gratitude, and a tinge of sadness.
Since taking over as MJF’s second artistic director in 1992, Tim Jackson has piloted the nation’s longest-running jazz event with a sure hand and a light touch. A calm presence best known to most festivalgoers for his concise introductions on the arena’s mainstage, he’s always seemed to accept rather than revel in his role in the spotlight.
After helming MJF for half of its existence, Jackson got a proper send-off for his concluding, numerically satisfying 33rd year. More than one of the strongest lineups in recent memory, the 66th season manifested the relationships that Jackson has forged over the decades (while also acknowledging the history he’s built on). It was a simultaneous outpouring of exceptional music and heartfelt appreciation for Jackson’s commitment and dedication to the art form and the artists.
Two moments over the weekend encapsulated the festival’s history as a career-fueling opportunity. In a guest appearance with MJF’s always impressive high school Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, 90-year-old saxophonist John Handy returned to the stage where his quintet’s breathtaking 1965 performance resulted in a contract with Columbia Records and a classic live album. Leaning into the ballad “The Nearness of You” on alto sax, Handy rendered the sumptuous melody as one long swoon, buoyed by the younger generation’s supple tide of brass. The orchestra was conducted by Gerald Clayton with some of the same body language deployed by his father, bass great John Clayton, who wrote the arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington standard.
Gerald Clayton was back on the arena stage later Sunday afternoon, holding down the piano chair with tenor saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd, whose epochal 1966 MJF performance was captured on the million-selling Atlantic album Forest Flower, which turned him into a bona fide star. At 85, Lloyd sounded as assured as ever distilling “Bye Bye Blackbird” to its essence, with supple, simmering support from bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott (who both appeared in multiple settings throughout the weekend).
Handy and Lloyd made MJF history at the height of the reign of Jimmy Lyons, who co-founded the festival with San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph Gleason in 1958. Naturally, this year’s programming was built on relationships nurtured during the Jackson era, like Friday’s arena-opening set, “See Me as I Am” by trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard (SFJAZZ’s incoming executive artistic director).
Designed as a career retrospective for Blanchard, the set started with several classic hard-bop tunes representing his formative stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an interlude highlighted by pianist Benny Green’s coiled solo on Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” punctuated by Blanchard’s and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel’s sotto voce horn fills. Kendrick Scott and bassist Christian McBride rounded out the rhythm section, and when the quintet was joined by the Turtle Island Quartet strings, the group gave a majestic performance of “Levees,” a spiritual-like piece from Blanchard’s score for Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke and Blanchard’s album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).
Berkeley trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, an MJF mainstay since he was a member of the Next Generation Orchestra, offered something never seen before at the festival with his commission Isakoso Ara. Designed to showcase the great Malian vocalist Oumou Sangaré, the set seamlessly blended her incantatory Wassoulou songs with a band featuring Logan Richardson on straight alto sax, teenage Oakland trombonist Kazeem Elebute, guitarist Marvin Sewell, electric bassist Reggie Washington, and the indefatigable percussion tandem of drummer Marcus Gilmore and conguero Josh Jones.
While the celebrated Malian keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck’s visa didn’t come through, Mike Aaberg’s thick, rolling chords effectively provided texture and harmonic form. Sangaré brought several other collaborators of her own: Central African Republic backup vocalist Emma Lamadji and Berkeley-based Malian vocalist and ngoni master Mamadou Sidibé, a longtime friend who played a key role on Sangaré’s 2022 album Timbuktu. Akinmusire has said he was looking to create a celebratory piece to get people dancing, and with the announcement of Jackson’s retirement, he doubled his determination to foment joyful release. Mission accomplished.
If Akinmusire helped define the festival’s mood, no artist seized the moment quite like vocalist Samara Joy. She made her MJF debut last year on the West End Stage, sounding glorious and grateful for her sudden ascension. Since then, the 23-year-old has become a sensation, with her Grammy Award for Best New Artist almost overshadowing her Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. If she seemed poised but a little tentative last year, she positively commanded the vast arena now. Whether she was expertly pacing the dramatic arc of “Guess Who I Saw Today” or decanting the luscious melody of “Linger Awhile,” Joy seemed to stand 7 feet tall, an Olympian alighting on stage to share some aural ambrosia.
For fans of jazz vocals, the festival was cornucopian. Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke’s duo set on the West End Stage felt like eavesdropping on two old friends who anticipate each other’s thoughts. I’ve heard Parlato sing Herbie Hancock’s ethereal standard “Butterfly” nearly a dozen times, and she never fails to make it thrilling, but with Loueke’s telegraphic support, the tune fluttered and soared like a migrating monarch.
Parlato’s lighter-than-air vocals contrast starkly with Catherine Russell’s, whose earthy, blues-steeped voice evokes an early-to-mid-20th-century realm where jazz, blues, and R&B were inextricably intertwined. Russell makes vintage tunes sound freshly minted, and her repertoire brims with rarely heard gems, like Tiny Bradshaw’s rollicking “Take the Hands Off the Clock.” Her band, led by guitarist Matt Munisteri, is a marvel of swing, and her young pianist Sean Mason is a cat to watch (he’s back in the area at the SFJAZZ Center on Oct. 7, when the touring production “When You Wish Upon a Star: A Jazz Tribute to 100 Years of Disney” makes its only San Francisco stop).
Loueke, who participated in at least four different sets throughout the weekend, was at his most resourceful with Berkeley-reared flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes, performing their suite A Diaspora Journey. With electric bassist Joshua Crumbly, drummer Savannah Harris, and pianist Chris Pattishall (filling in for Pinderhughes’s older brother, Samora), the set referenced the musical and moral implications of the transatlantic slave trade with a panoply of rhythmic forms. While laced with melancholy, the music was more a celebration of resilience and spiritual resistance.
Jackson has always made a point of drawing heavily from California’s jazz ranks, and the Bay Area’s influential Latin music scene was well represented. Percussionist John Santos’s sextet gave an elegant and far-ranging performance on the Garden Stage, opening with a measured version of Billie Holiday’s tear-stained lament “Don’t Explain.” The pan-Caribbean approach of guitarist Ray Obiedo’s Latin Jazz Project was also an ideal fit for the oak-shaded Garden Stage, with Phil Hawkins’s steelpan work amplifying the sun’s triumph over the persistent marine layer.
Brazilian jazz, a world unto itself, found a fitting home on the West End Stage, with San Francisco vocalist Sandy Cressman’s beautifully realized tribute to Milton Nascimento, “Cantos do Povo.” A family affair with her husband Jeff and daughter Natalie on trombones and her younger daughter Julianna leading several dancers, Cressman’s set captured the expansive nature of Nascimento’s music with its Baroque to bossa to psychedelia range of influences.
Rio-born Santa Cruz vocalist, pianist, and songwriter Claudia Villela, a festival regular, provided one of Sunday’s most consistently enthralling performances, backed by Gary Meek (on flute, tenor sax, and melodica), bassist Gary Brown, drummer Celso Alberti, and guitarist Jeff Buenz. Villela focused on music from her new album Cartas ao Vento, which she recorded in Brazil, and she writes tunes that feel like Brazilian Songbook standards interpreted through a wildly impromptu jazz lens.
Oakland trumpeter Sarah Wilson’s ensemble Brass Tonic played a similarly ecstatic set on the West End Stage, serving up a set of mostly new tunes with an all-star Bay Area sextet featuring saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, drummer Jason Levis, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, trombonist Mara Fox, and guitarist John Schott. With the tunes strung together in a series of seamless set pieces, the music was an overt invitation to dance in your own freaky way.
As the 2023 MFJ artist-in-residence, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin was another ubiquitous presence. A mid-career player who has catapulted to prominence over the past two years, she infused every note over the weekend with the wired energy of someone reveling in the opportunity to show what she can do. Her ripsnorting Garden Stage set with her band Phoenix crackled with energy as she goaded the group. Pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Ivan Taylor, and drummer E.J. Strickland brought the party to Patrice Rushen’s “Jubilation.”
There was so much more. Tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin, still limber at 83, played a stellar Garden Stage set with his quartet: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and the nonpareil rhythm section tandem of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash (who’ve been hired together for dozens of albums and hundreds of gigs).
In one of those festival epiphanies, I happened into MJF’s only remaining indoor venue, the Pacific Jazz Cafe, and caught violinist/vocalist Lucia Micarelli singing a sublime version of “Time After Time” with guitarist Leo Amuedo. My other takeaway was utter delight at pianist Sullivan Fortner’s Garden Stage set. The universally admired New Orleans native has been heard mostly in the Bay Area as Cécile McLorin Salvant’s accompanist in her virtuosic vocal venturing, but his trio with bassist Tyrone Allen and drummer Kayvon Gordon sounded like jazz’s future, present, and past rolled into one timeless continuum.
A third of a century is a good long run in any human endeavor. Tim Jackson is leaving the MJF stage on top — he’s still running Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center — and he’ll be a hard act to follow. A brief chat with his successor, composer Darin Atwater, assuaged some of my anxiety over the transition. It was Atwater’s first time on the fairgrounds, and I’m looking forward to hearing his impressions and plans.