The Independent Ear

Ethan Iverson jazz renaissance man

I was one who admittedly questioned the late 90s/early 21st century seeming media blizzard on behalf of The Bad Plus, the innovative trio for which Ethan Iverson served so splendidly as its original pianist. Subsequent personal sightings of TBP proved that yes, these guys were onto something interesting, all media acclaim aside. Since then I’ve found Iverson to be an eminently reasonable man unencumbered by what might accompany the level of runaway ego or undue hubris that sometimes seems to attach itself to musicians less evolved amidst that initial level of TBP hype. Notably his efforts have included some very productive writing on jazz and related subjects, for JazzTimes magazine and for his own Transitional Technology blog, which you can find at

For the late 2018/early 2019 holiday season Suzan and I spent a lovely time at Umbria Jazz’s great winter event in scenic Orvieto, traditionally held the week after Christmas climaxing New Year’s Day. And what a rewarding experience it was, including an opportunity to observe Ethan Iverson at work on a fairly large scale project.

Umbria Jazz had commissioned Iverson to sort of reimagine the genius pathbreaking pianist Bud Powell and his music. For the occasion Ethan was joined onstage by guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, the superb house rhythm section of bassist Ben Street and the eminently crafty master drummer Lewis Nash. The core band for Ethan’s Bud Powell re-imaginings was the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. For this project Iverson contributed eight original compositions in the spirit of Bud, and arranged seven Powell originals – including his classics “Tempus Fugit,” “Celia,” “Un Poco Loco,” and “Bouncing with Bud,” the inevitable Monk encounter “52nd Street Theme.”

The results of that commissioned work are borne out in one of this writer’s picks in Francis Davis’ annual critic’s poll for 2021’s finest releases, Bud Powell In The 21st Century released on the Sunnyside label. Having an opportunity to hear this project evolve over the course of a week is one of the beauties of a great festival like Umbria Jazz Winter, in the inviting confines of Teatro Mancinelli.

A few weeks ago Ethan Iverson struck again, this revelation was his debut recording for the classic Blue Note label, Every Note is True, this time in trio mode with the auspicious rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and NEA Jazz Master drummer Jack DeJohnette. Clearly some questions were in order for the intrepid Ethan Iverson.

I know you’re somewhat of a historian of this music, so given the hallowed place Blue Note Records holds in the history of recorded jazz, what’s your sense of making your Blue Note debut?

Blue Note is at the top, of course. It’s very odd for me to consider all this – because I can’t believe how lucky I am – but The Bad Plus debuted on Columbia when that label was still a real force for jazz, thanks to Yves Beauvais’s sting at A&R. I love Manfred Eicher and ECM, and the projects I’ve done there were wonderful experiences, perhaps especially the duo session with Mark Turner, where Manfred gave some remarkable feedback in the studio. Most recently I gave my Bud Powell in the 21st Century tape to Francois Zalacain, who holds it down at Sunnyside. God bless Sunnyside too.

The Blue Note catalog is unrivaled. The whole human race loves the classic Blue Note records! But I also really admire Don Was’ conviction that the music doesn’t stop growing. He’s managed to curate a label that does not rest on its laurels, but stays relevant.

You gotta believe in the music more than the career. If you sit around worrying about the career all day, you won’t make the music you need to make. However, leaving The Bad Plus was objectively a career risk. Putting out a record on Blue Note is proof that leaving TBP was the right decision.

The title of this recording – Every Note is True – is one that some might assume carries a message. If so, what would that message be?

It’s a line from the opening song, but also yes, a message, or even a manifesto. One must believe in one’s own musical opinion, there’s simply no other way to do it.

What went into your selecting such a stellar rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass to make this record?

The 2020 pandemic closed many doors, but it opened up a few as well. I had always wanted to play with Jack DeJohnette. Since nobody had any gigs, Jack was free to meet me and Larry Grenadier in the studio for two days.

I had worked with Larry a bit, he’s on my record with Lee Konitz. For many he is the ranking bassist of his generation. The first time I saw Larry play he was extremely young and sounding just great with Joe Henderson at Fat Tuesdays, maybe 1993 or so. Larry is a serious virtuoso, but he believes in the traditional function of the bass.

I first saw Jack DeJohnette live at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis with Keith Jarrett. I believe I was only twelve years old. The experience was so profound I bought a set of drums the very next day. He’s one of the greatest drummers of all time, full stop.

Obviously you have a whole universe of tunes to select from, not to mention your own original compositions. So how did you choose these particular ten tunes for this record?

After leaving The Bad Plus I had a lot more space around my head, and surprised myself by writing a lot more music. Hardly a week has gone by where I don’t think of a melody and write it down. The tunes on Every Note is True are some of the better ones. I selected relatively easy themes that we could learn quickly and record passionately.

Then there’s the opening track, “The More it Changes,” a novelty number with friends, most of whom I didn’t see in person all year but who sent me text messages with their vocal overdub. In the end, one must try to adapt to any circumstance.

As a piano player, who have been your guiding lights?

I know all the jazz pianists, but I love other stuff too. When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material.

Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product.

Sometimes a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it.

To get back to your question, three of my many obvious jazz piano influences are Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, and Mal Waldron.

However, part of what makes me distinctive as a player are frankly European Classical elements. Indeed, I believe no other “jazz” pianist has done exactly what I accomplished in The Bad Plus’ The Rite of Spring, which was merely reading down a score filled with thousands of notes alongside a fierce rhythm section.

In pure musical terms, I play a lot of triads. Most of my peers rarely play pure triads. At the session Jack DeJohnette said to me, “You play a lot of triads. That’s really different.” I responded “Jack, one of the first places where I was so impressed with a pure triad was the ending of your piece “Blue” (Jack recorded that on piano on a Gateway album.). Jack then taught me “Blue” in the studio and it ended up on Every Note is True!

As a musician whose own interviews of fellow artists and whose writing exploits appear to be expanding, how do you balance your roles as musician and as writer?

I feel close to certain heroes who also did historical work. Johannes Brahms collected old scores and oversaw editions of then hard-to-find scores of Francois Couperin and others. Mary Lou Williams assessed the whole canon eloquently, and her “Tree of Jazz” is one of the finest pedagogical tools ever produced. Donald Westlake wrote some truly significant pieces of literary criticism in addition to publishing almost 100 crime novels.

The journals of pre-internet artists often make for great reading. In the internet age, the minute you think of something, you can put it online, for better or for worse. But my public advocacy for music writ large is also my journal. It certainly interacts with my performances and recordings in a very literal way.

So what’s next on Ethan Iverson’s agenda?

Every Note is true was released February 11th, and there were two record release concerts, Feb. 7 in Boston and Feb. 11 in Brooklyn. Jack recommended Nasheet Waits as a sub for the live gigs, which was perfect.

In addition to the trio repertory with Larry and Nasheet, the two concerts featured the 45-minute suite “Ritornello, Sinfonias, and Cadenzas” for eight horns and rhythm section. This was the American premier of a 45-minute suite commissioned last year for the Umbria Jazz Festival. It’s really pretty damn good IMO, I turned 49 on Feb. 11, and – while this is not visible on the surface yet – the rough plan is to spend the next stage of my career in my 50s and in the far future less as a trio pianist and more as a formal composer. Eventually, in retrospect, those concerts may mark the transition.

This coming year I will be playing with the Billy Hart Quartet quite a bit, in a longstanding group with Mark Turner and Ben Street. There’s also work as a composer or arranger with the Mark Morris Dance Group or Dance Heginbotham. Truly I am lucky to have so many wonderful collaborators. From the outside, it might look hopelessly eclectic, but for me it all follows the same thread. Every note is true!

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DC Jazz Festival Permanently Moves its Annual DC JazzFest to Labor Day Weekend

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Javon Jackson’s rootsy exploration

Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, was the final tenor saxophonist in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, his tenure running from 1987 until Blakey’s 1990 ascendence. In addition to Blakey, Javon, who grew up largely in the Denver, CO area, prepped with such NEA Jazz Masters as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Betty Carter, Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Currently director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford’s Hart School of Music, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson Records) is Javon’s 21st. This new release marks a precipitous exploration of one of the root sources of the American music tradition – gospel songs and spirituals, for which he partnered with the great poet Nikki Giovanni.

Would it be fair to refer to this as your “gospel” project?
It’s our project.  I reached out to Nikki and asked her to select 10 spirituals and that would be the material used on my next cd. From there I listened to many renditions of these spirituals from artists that include Jessye Norman, the Moses Hogan Singers, Etta James, and Sweet Honey in The Rock. Great and inspiring music!

What was the genesis of this project?

Nikki’s love for spirituals and our one on one conversations on their history made the way for an “epiphany”, my thought to have her provide the selections that I ultimately recorded.

How did you come to connect Nikki Giovanni to this project?

In my capacity as Professor; Director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, I invited Nikki to the university for a Q&A and discussion with the student body during Black History Month in 2020 regarding her life as poet and scholar.  Also, I suggested to President Gregory Woodward of the University of Hartford that Nikki receive an honorary degree during the visit, which President Woodard arranged and there was a wonderful ceremony.

Given Covid-era restrictions, how did this project come together?

The project was delayed for a year because of Covid, but we eventually found the time in July 2021.

What are the songs on this project and how did you come to select this repertoire?

All of the selections picked by Nikki were very adaptable for a myself and my band, we are a jazz quartet.  I especially enjoyed recording “Wade in the Water”, “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Night Song”  and “I Opened My Mouth the Lord”.

photo by Shaban R . Athuman

Since you come from a jazz perspective and Nikki Giovanni comes from a poetry perspective – two disciplines which have historic connections – what was your sense of the interactions with Nikki Giovanni to realize this project?

She is an artist who loves jazz music and is a Christian.  I come from a family of devout Christians, so that is a part of my ancestral stream.  There wasn’t any conversation between Nikki and myself about how the material would be recorded once I received her choices.  As Nikki sang on “Night Song”, there was actually no conversation on that one either.  She came into the studio, did a practice take for the engineer and then nailed her involvement on the first recorded take!

What was your process for arriving at the music for this project?

I’m very happy to have collaborated to Nikki and greatly appreciate our growing friendship. Nikki selected the music and I don’t know what prompted her to pick these particular pieces. I do know that the spiritual we recorded, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, is one that reminds Nikki of grandmothers and how Nikki always knew that her grandmother was there for her to lean on.

How do you foresee realizing this project onstage?

We have upcoming concerts with Nikki as our special guest and looking forward!!  She will participate as vocalist performing “Night Song”.  She will also be onstage offering poetry for her vast library of original writings that will occur in tandem with the music.  On the CD, “Wade in the Water” is accompanied with Nikki’s poem “A Very Simple Wish”.  It was interpreted beautifully by Dr. Christina Greer, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University.

Given your work at Harrt School of Music and this project, I’m reminded of something Branford Marsalis said about his jazz education work at North Carolina Central University.  He always felt that those incoming students who had experience playing in the church had an advantage – particularly from a rhythm perspective – over those students who did not have that experience.  Have you found that to be the case with your students at Hart?

I agree. I have found that rhythm can be a benefit for those who had experience playing in church. It’s an organic environment where rhythm and emotion are the priorities.

What’s your overall sense of now leading a program which was essentially founded by Jackie McLean, and what do you feel is his ongoing influence on your efforts and on the program in general?

Having known Jackie McLean and what he stood for, it is an honor to be Chair of the program that he created with love, perseverance and sacrifice. He was a musical giant and will live forever!! I’m just trying to do my little part and be a resource and a support system for the young people that I encounter in the program. To teach is to learn and I must stay in a learning mode as well!!

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The Passing of an Ironman

Like many I first discovered Greg Tate’s prose in the weekly Village Voice – in a music writer’s room that also included such significant voices as Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and Robert Christgau.  Greg’s sense of the music was refreshingly inventive while maintaining a colloquial sensibility that made a lot more sense to me than some of the musicological fakery I was experiencing in various jazz prints – thoroughly lacking in the I know music… and you don’t music criticism that was clearly moldy fig-alated.

Fortunately when we began a series of dialogues with African American music writers in these pages to examine the seeming disparity of Black music’s essential provenance in what has become American music on one hand, and the scarcity of Black writing perspectives in the prints on the other, Greg Tate contributed robustly to the dialogue.  Those dialogues have become the currently in-production book Ain’t But a Few of Us, due out 3rd quarter 2022 via Duke University Press – also home to Greg Tate’s work, including Flyboy in the Buttermilk.

When Greg Tate joined the ancestors on December 7th, I reached out to a small cadre of writers, scholars and fellow travelers to remember the man known as Ironman…  

Before I could really comprehend how bright of a lodestar Greg Tate would be for me as a writer and musicologist, I knew that he offered a fresh model for me. He didn’t traffic the either/or path that seemed so prevalent in early-’90s music journalism, when it came to either focusing seriously about jazz or directing that energy toward the nascent hip-hop movement. Greg did both with gusto and so much else, such as R&B and rock music, comic books, literature, visual art, and movies. When his book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, was published, those essays galvanized my imagination the same way that Parliament-Funkadelic’s music or the X-Men comic books did. Tate made me want to be a great writer and chronicler of Black fantastical music and culture.

I foolishly tried to emulate his writing style and failed miserably. That failure was a good thing. It taught me that there was only one Greg Tate; it also taught me to focus on the clarity of my prose and the strengths of my research, arguments and storytelling. Through that failure, I slowly crafted my own both as a writer and DJ.

But even while Greg was this writer star, who also co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and became a noteworthy musician as the leader of Burnt Sugar, he was always approachable. He always made me feel as if I was a member of his creative tribe. And for that alone I will be eternally grateful.

— John Murph

When I interviewed Greg Tate for a Q&A for Publishers Weekly in 2016, he told me that Wayne Shorter and Amiri Baraka were his strongest overall influences. If you look at the vast body of his work, that rings true. Tate downloaded Shorter’s Afro-futuristic, cinematic multiverse approach to music to construct his own Negroidally-nuanced literary narratives, and he stamped Baraka’s poetic passport that docked in ports of call where bebop, Beat poets and Black Fire nationalism dwell. Add all of those aesthetic ingredients with tinges of Sterling Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Sun Ra and the comprehensive constellation of Black, Brown and Beige thought that is Howard University – Tate’s Alma Mater – and you had a writer who, from the time his byline appeared in the Village Voice in 1987, until December 7, when he ascended to a higher plane, sounded like no one but himself.

— Eugene Holley, Jr.


Reading Greg Tate’s imposing prose for the first time was intimidating, slightly disorienting; like encountering the music of Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman after a steady diet of straight ahead swing or seeing Picasso and Dali after assuming that Rembrandt was the final word in visual art. Tate rocked my journalism school-bred world in much the same way that Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion upset the journalistic establishment of the ‘60s and ’70s. This was a fresh new voice. And there was nothing gimmicky about his inventive use of the language, dubbed “slangy erudition” by one wag. As fellow writer Hua Hsu so brilliantly noted in a Sept. 21, 2016 article for The New Yorker: “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon; they were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did, a trans-everything collision of pop stars, filmmakers, subterranean graffiti artists, Ivory Tower theorists, and Tate’s personal buddies, who often came across as the wisest of the bunch.” There was an underlying logic and intelligence to Tate’s writing style that lent authority to even his most experimental forays into criticism. His ideas were always solid, penetrating, insightful. I especially admired the way he made connections between seemingly disparate types of music — how James Brown informed Miles Davis’ electric band of the ‘70s, which in turn was influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jimi Hendrix and maybe even King Crimson to some degree. Tate could always trace the connections — from George Clinton to Romare Bearden to Sun Ra to Michael Jordan to King Sunny Ade to Butch Morris to Chuck D. Tate thought globally. His mind was as expansive as the Grand Canyon and as tight as a JB groove. And his lexicon of hip phrasing and cadence that anticipated/mirrored hip-hop spoke of his playful intellect — part Jean Paul Sarte phenomenology, part Bootsy Collins cartoon mind, part Sun Ra extraterrestrial traveler. We aspiring writers, critics, journalists who read him religiously every week in The Village Voice during the ‘80s stood in awe of his expressive virtuosity. And it was not something that you could copy. There was no template for this style of cultural criticism, this Afro-futurist way of thinking. All one could do was admire the skill, the vision, the daring creativity. As he wrote in 1986: “My mission is clear. The future of Black culture depends that this generation brings forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs [computers] and stay in the Black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural Black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon.”

— Bill Milkowski

“Strange vibrations…from the hardcore…”

That refrain, above, voiced over his original program theme music, is how I first heard Greg “Ironman’ Tate in D.C.   It was the late 70s, when he presented his wonderfully original “Strange Vibrations From the Hardcore”, radio program, on WPFW, radio.  I would begin my 33-year tenure at ‘PFW, as he departed for NY, to begin a masterful writing career with the Village Voice; while also developing his music playing, composing, and conducting skills through his group and Arkestra, Burnt Sugar.  His “Bird flew Miles through Trane, who Jimmy’d the Mothership Connection, exit/exit us”, prose is a poetic, prayer-like refrain that’s now imbedded in my psyche.   I didn’t see Greg too much, once he became a NYker, a nascent NY trip being to an early meeting of his guitarist Vernon Reid co-founded founded Black Rock Coalition organization, with my friend and fellow ‘PFW programmer, Herb Taylor.  Whether concerts here in DC, or there in NY, greetings were always black, warm, and welcome.   ‘PFW had many great avantars, but Greg was the first to truly avant, the funk.  Bird may The final warning words in his epic 1992 epoch tomb, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk – essays on contemporary america”, Fireside/Simon & Schuster: “If we don’t exercise our capacity to love and heal each other by digging deep into our mutual woundedness, then what we’re struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy – and not the salvaging of its victims.”

–Bobby Hill


Greg Tate was a “genius child.”  He was a person moving ahead of his time and telling us where we needed to go.

I was first introduced to his poetry when I judged a poetry contest for DC public school kids in the early seventies. Many of the poems submitted were class assignment work; poems about spring and seasonal changes. Suddenly I picked up a poem that was extremely different and seemed to come straight from Hendrix’s guitar. A blast of difference–setting the work apart from the other poems in my packet. Maybe a few months later I met Greg for the first time. I was introduced to him by our mutual friend Charlene Porter. Charlene might have worked for Greg’s father. She introduced me to Greg Tate in Folio Bookstore on P Street near DuPont Circle.

Looking back through my files I see that I sponsored my first reading for Greg on December 21, 1976 at the WPA. I would sponsor other readings for him on into the 1980s on my Ascension Series; inviting him to read with poets like Alexis DeVeaux and Diane Burns. Greg at the time was hanging out with the cool people at Howard: Calvin Reid, Richard Powell and all those visual artists who were beginning to sketch and paint a new world. Two people Greg admired and loved were Thulani Davis and A.B. Spellman. Greg also came from a cool family. Taters I liked to call them, echoing the words of Boston Red Sox slugger George Scott who called his homers “taters” as they sailed over the Green Monster (Wall) in Fenway Park. A thing of beauty. A new aesthetic – something that is part of much of what Greg Tate taught us during his life. Greg was a seeker and explorer. I laughed when in 1992 he signed his copy of Flyboy in the Buttermilk for me. He wrote: “Ethelbert, the E-Man, thanx for discoverin me.” Looking at these words today makes me feel like an old Columbus. Like Native Americans – Greg was already doing his thing. I just happened to bump into him. The rest is history.

— E. Ethelbert Miller,Writer and literary activist

I was lucky enough to write for the Village Voice when Greg Tate did. My words could not soar up to the territory in which his generally floated, but at least they were printed with the same ink and bound within the same pages. Later on, I got the chance to speak on public panels along with Greg. Again, my banter didn’t bounce like his or echo with similar thuds of deep meaning. Yet the conversations were necessarily raised up to the level of the Flyboy’s game, and I was in that game. Through Greg’s words and his music, in his writing and his playing, via both his swagger and his humility, I learned things about Blackness and being and about being Black that I couldn’t know but needed to understand in order to, say, write about jazz or just to live justly in this world. And I felt inspired to figure out who I was, too. I knew Greg a little but I felt like he knew all about me because that’s how great writers make you feel when you read them. And when I heard and saw him perform with Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, I inhabited, for a little while, a world he imagined into reality. Greg never asked anything of me. But through his own tough and lovely expressions, he demanded that I do the work of research and thinking and listening hard and, only then, find something new and useful and beautiful to say. I can’t do it all the time like Greg did. I’m trying, Greg, I’m trying, man.
— Larry Blumenfeld




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Monterey Jazz Festival Soldiers On

This year’s 64th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was a welcome respite for it’s thirsty audience, two years since the big event had last played the Monterey County Fairgrounds to full capacity.  Like many in the global community of jazz festivals, after resorting to a strictly virtual, pandemic-decreed online presentation in September 2020, MJF was back on hallowed ground in the pastoral Monterey Peninsula, with several decided differences.

The pandemic’s continued presence demanded some unprecedented changes in both it’s physical configuration and it’s performance schedule.  In ordinary times the Monterey County Fairgrounds includes a sprawling midway with it’s big stage – the open air Arena, or Jimmy Lyons Stage on one end of the fairgrounds, and two indoor venues – Dizzy’s Den and The Nightclub – at the other.  In between a typical MJF weekend would also find the outdoor Garden Stage bustling with performances particularly for the customary sun-dappled weekend matinees, the indoor Coffee House Gallery, and a separate facility for viewing the Arena performances simulcast on big screen video.

The fairgrounds midway connecting these venues is typically bristling with food, drink, arts, crafts, and assorted inviting goods at vender booths.  A good friend on his first visit to MJF once declared the whole scene “…like an amusement park for adults!”  Clearly the pandemic, which we are ever-so-slowly distancing ourselves from with the assistance of vaccines, masks, social distancing measures and overall human cautions, continues to be a very real menace to society, but not as potent a factor as it was back when Monterey Jazz Festival 2020 was forced into virtual mode.

In its brave, finely calculated effort at returning to some degree of normalcy, for its 64th annual edition the MJF team developed a sound plan for 2021 presentation: ticket sales were capped at 2500 per the festival’s three days.  Blessed with a robust annual season ticket buyers roster, those limited number of tickets were scooped up mere days after the 2021 festival was announced.  If you know anything about MJF you know it is not only a haven for great, sometimes historic jazz performances, but what has really enabled Monterey Jazz Festival to withstand the vicissitudes of time is its eminently agreeable audience ambiance and the fact that for many MJF audience members there’s a feeling of annual jazz family reunion in the air that September weekend.

Some audience members have been ticket holders nearly since the inception of the event; seats are bequeathed down to succeeding generations; some folks have held the same Arena seat (where all seating is reserved) for decades.  Its just that kind of event, an atmosphere my Dad would refer to as “old home week.”   Joie de vivre rules the day at the Monterey Jazz Festival!

In addition to capping ticket sales at a fraction of the usual capacity, those secondary venues – Dizzy’s Den, the Nightclub, the Garden Stage, the Coffee House Gallery, and the simulcast room were all shuttered.  All performances took place at the Arena (which was sans it’s usual large stationary bleacher section at the rear) and an adjacent open-air courtyard hard by the food & drink vendors.  The fairgrounds were essentially fenced off at half it’s usual footprint.  Though the geography and the audience may have been truncated, the spirit & joy were decidedly on high beam – perhaps even heightened from the normally joyous MJF atmosphere, given the year we missed and what this writer has experienced as this Fall ’21 season’s overarching sense of relief and celebration at our once again slowly but surely gathering as a populace, though preferably with all due health precautions.  As with so many large events this Fall 2021, proof of vaccine or a negative Covid test 72 hours in advance were required for festival entry.

In concert with the reduced venue footprint, MJF wisely limited its usual Friday night/Saturday matinee/Saturday night/Sunday matinee/Sunday night closer sequences to Friday 7:00-10pm; Saturday and Sunday 1:00-6:45pm.  Clearly very few if any of the festival celebrants felt even remotely cheated by the festival’s reduced capacity moves; if anything the annual sense of reunion was ramped up.  Besides those Arena sessions, the Yamaha Courtyard Stage was a lively venue, with fans in constant motion in search of good eats and subsequently camping out at picnic tables to catch continuous sets by guitarist Mimi Fox’s Organ Trio on Friday, followed by Letter One Rising Stars Award 2020 and 2021 recipients, trumpeter and Roy Hargrove protege Giveton Gelin on Saturday, and the striking young alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on Sunday.  (Ironically these two budding firebreathers often work together in Gelin’s frontline!)  Each played what amounted to club sets, the dining, drinking, socializing seen creating a more intimate scene when contrasted with the big stage Arena.

Despite these seeming limitations, the audience clearly had a blast!  The high energy was palpable as friends met up with friends for perhaps the first time in 18+ months, and for many seeing friends for the first time since MJF September ’19!  I heard a number of long timers remark with evident appreciation about how this 2021 pandemic-required reduced scale festival felt like how MJF “used to be,” before it’s modern era venue expansions.

Friday evening opened with Pat Metheny‘s current trio project Side Eye.  With James Francies on keyboards and Joe Dyson on drums, Pat sifted certain of his familiar themes through this new format seamlessly, including the opener “So It May Secretly Begin,” “Bright Size Life,” and a in-these-times appropriate “Better Days Ahead”.  Francies deftly intoned keyboard bass with one hand, his other delivering on his melodic/harmonic responsibilities, his bass hand delivering tonalities very much like a bass guitar as opposed to the familiar synth bass tonality.  About halfway into his program Pat unleashed his “Orchestrion”, a sort of robotic, self actualized percussion section that provided some intriguing visuals once the big screen camera crew zeroed in on that futuristic implement, one which may have given slight pause to any of the percussionists in the house!  On one piece Pat eased some “Song X” sonic textures into the program, recalling his exploits with Ornette Coleman.

Herbie Hancock closed the 2-performance opening evening with Lionel Loueke on guitar and his uncanny wordless ancestral vocal accompaniment, James Genus on bass, and drummer Justin Tyson in his current crew.  But besides the master’s usual sterling keyboard work, sparkling young flutist (and occasional vocalist) Elena Pinderhughes (a grad of MJF’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra program) brought the most intrigue to Herbie’s largely career retrospective program, with a “Chameleon” encore.

The Saturday afternoon/early evening session opened with one of the festival’s revelations, delivered by the young composer/conductor Miho Hazama‘s exceptionally balanced, compositionally rich set.  Her 13-piece M_Unit included a string quartet, which brought significant additional color to her commissioned work the “Exoplanet Suite.”  For Miho’s first West Coast performance, she clearly captured many hearts & minds with her riveting original music and thematically-driven set.

There was one lineup casualty, the cancellation of the East L.A. band Las Cafeteras.  MJF artistic director Tim Jackson quickly asked pianist-composer Gerald Clayton, who directs MJF’s youth band Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, if he could put something together to fill that Saturday 2:30pm slot.  Asked later about that scenario, Gerald told me by email that “When Tim Jackson got the word that Las Cafeteras had to cancel, he asked if I would be willing to put something together.  I made some calls and before long we had the [Gerald Clayton] Experience slated to go.  I spent the following mornings waking up early to write out charts and send music to the cats.  We got together a few hours before our set, rehearsed the tunes and walked on stage.”

The “cats” Clayton called upon were alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins – a ubiquitous MJF ’21 presence courtesy of his 4 Yamaha Courtyard Stage sets and a couple of auspicious “special guest” soloist slots – guitarist Matt Stevens, on hand to play as part of Terri Lyne Carrington‘s Social Science set, bassist Kaveh Rastegar, and the always-enriching drummer Eric Harland.  They proceeded to play a set that belied any sense of the impromptu, particularly delivering a beautiful take on D’Angelo‘s “Africa.” The arrangement clearly demonstrated Clayton’s skills at crafting music supposedly outside the boundaries of jazz expression and making it their own.

Terri Lyne Carrington’s absorbing gender and racial justice project Social Science delivered a typically brilliant, beyond boundaries set, including meditations on such societal vexations as the wait/waiting game gender and racial justice advocates are historically cautioned to play in seeking equitable treatment and redress.  Her band included Stevens on guitar, the resourceful pianist Aaron Parks, Morgan Guerin on bass, DJ Kassa Overall, and the NEA Jazz Master herself on drums.  Vocalist Debo Ray was a significant presence, successfully delivering the powerful lyric contents of the program, with electronic colors and asides from Overall.  They closed with the extraordinary, poem-driven piece “Bells”.

Vocalist Ledisi closed the Saturday session with spirited elan, bringing a measure of 21st century R&B to a hungry audience that soon stormed the grassy space in front of the Arena’s Jimmy Lyon Stage.  Dozens of revelers joyously danced to Ledisi’s infectious vocals, stage presence, and finely complimentary band.

Sunday afternoon opened with Gerald Clayton directing the student Next Gen Jazz Orchestra, which begged additional questions of Clayton (who in making his stage intros, if you closed your eyes you might’ve thought it was his Dad, bassist-conductor John Clayton doing the talking!).  “This was my second year directing the NGJO,” Gerald informed.  “It means very much to me on a personal level, as I have history with the festival’s education program; my first time attending the festival was as a competing high school senior,” confirmed this son of a lifelong jazz educator.  “Besides the personal feeling of having gone “full circle”, this opportunity also allows me to get deeper into education – something that I have always been passionate about.”

Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra is selected by national audition.  “There is an audition process, where the students send in videos of themselves performing a variety of things,” Clayton confirmed.  “Those videos are judged by a group of professional musicians, then handed off to me for the final selection.”  The ever-ready and poised Immanuel Wilkins, who is quickly evolving a personal alto saxophone approach, sat in with the band. But it was left to one of the very promising young NGJO members to provide the highlight, baritone saxophonist Noa Zebley‘s feature on Charles Mingus’ raucous “Moanin'”.  Vocalist Ellah Brown proved quite the charmer on her features.

MJF’s 2021 artist-in-residence was pianist Christian Sands, who conducted live interviews with several festival artists across the weekend, including Clayton and bassist Katie Thiroux on jazz education, and vocalist Kandace Springs.  For his Sunday afternoon set Sands worked with bassist Yasushi Nakamura, the versatile drummer Clarence Penn, and the cunning and original guitarist Marvin Sewell.  Sands broadened his canvas by inviting three of the Next Gen youngsters onstage for his original tune “Be Water.”  Given these hallowed grounds – home of the fabled Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi Hendrix literally exploded on the scene, not to mention 64 years of great jazz – it stood to reason that the audience, many of them boomers, would react well to a rock era reprise.  Sands delivered with his great arrangement of the Steve Winwood classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with scores of audience members mouthing the lyrics to themselves.

Vocalist Kandace Springs continued her upward arc, this time leading a trio that boasted two wonderfully talented young women: bassist-vocalist Caylen Bryant, proud daughter of saxophonist Lance Bryant (as she told the audience), and the precocious drummer Taylor Moore. who informed the audience that she was a Jimmy Cobb protege.  The ever-present Immanuel Wilkins – this year’s MJF co-MVP (along with Clayton) – performed another guest shot, and Kandace warmed the audience with her reprise of the Roberta Flack classic “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

The festival closer left the crowd further energized and thrilled, as George Benson delivered a retrospective of his hits and familiar interpretations, and on the promise he had made to this writer for the program book, of serving up a “George Benson party”.  Dozens caught the spirit, once again rushing the grassy stage front area to luxuriate in the groove of yet another high-spirited day at the Monterey Jazz Festival.



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