A day at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Until this year, I’ve never been to the Monterey Jazz Festival. One of the premiere events on the jazz calendar, one would think I’d have been all up inside it by now. Sadly, such is not the case. This year, opportunity dropped the festival in my lap when a friend passed along comp tickets to the grounds for Saturday. I had two tickets, but no companion to accompany me. So when I entered, I left the other ticket at the front gate and told the ticket taker to please give it to anyone who was trying to get in. I hope someone got a pleasant surprise at the gate.

I got to see both acts that stood out for me on the calendar that day: veteran pianist Larry Vuckovich and his Vince Guaraldi Quintet and young piano maestro Joey Alexander and his trio. An established veteran and a new voice. My day at Monterey consisted of contrasts between young and old.

Arriving about 40 minutes before Mr. Vuckovich’s show, I hurried to take care of bodily needs, restroom and food. While chowing down on a quick lunch, a charming, elderly black couple joined me at my table. Can we sit here? Of course! They wore matching outfits of white and purple. He was 82, she was 80. They lived within half a mile of the festival, they said, but originally hailed from Alabama. Needless to say, this was not their first time to Monterey Jazz, but they bubbled with infectious enthusiasm, their world still full of wonder and fun. They laughed and joked about their slowness, but kept on moving. We have many friends that can’t anymore, they said, so we’re staying active for as long as we can. Their spirit filled my soul. Thinking back on them, I’m reminded of a tune 80-something Alberta Hunter liked to perform:

I’m having a good time
Please don’t blame me
I’m knocking myself out
Don’t try to tame me

Larry Vuckovich

I love hearing legends tell stories from their long careers. Mr. Vuckovich, who will turn 80 this December, talked quite fondly of his teacher and mentor, Bay Area legend Vince Guaraldi. Mr. Vuckovich displayed a great ability for sounding like his mentor while also showing how he grew from what he learned, informing his playing with his own life’s journey.

In his group were Josh Workman, guitar, Jeff Chambers, bass, Leon Joyce, drums, and John Santos, percussion. Messrs. Workman and Vuckovich traded melodies seamlessly, finishing each other’s thoughts, conducting a conversation in music. Jeff Chambers played a mean bass — with a bow during the seminal “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” — and I loved Leon Joyce’s range, from the gentlest brush strokes to the most rapid fire rolls. John Santos showed off his chops most prominently on a tune towards the end of the set, an unreleased Guaraldi composition that Mr. Vuckovich has in his own personal library.

Larry Vuckovich started the set by announcing that there is more to Vince Guaraldi than Peanuts music, though he did play one of the Peanuts classics, “Christmas Time is Here.” But it was wonderful to hear such a full range of Guaraldi music, from Peanuts to bossa nova, to avant-garde. And most of all, it was a joy to finally see Mr. Vuckovich in person, after enjoying him on the radio for so long. He smiled throughout the performance as he blithely went from his grand piano to an electric keyboard set to sound like a vibraphone. His set was a total joy.

*    *    *

Between my main sets, I perused the grounds. I ran into and had a nice chat with Greg Bridges of KCSM, Jazz 91. Ironically, he was to introduce Joey Alexander, my next stop. I listened a bit to Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles. Their music had me wiggling a bit and kept the packed house at the Garden Stage popping. Then I ran into a well dressed brother named Albert Neal selling his first novel, Ill at Ease, which he self-published. I enjoyed our chance encounter and he gave me ideas on how to move forward with my own work.

After a quick dinner — some delicious vegan Cajun food — I scurried back to the Garden Stage to find that basically no one left after the Funk Apostles set. Not a seat to be found anywhere. Oh well. My back probably needed the relief brought from standing. I had a good view of the stage, minus the usual crowds passing by. I waited for the arrival of the young master pianist from Indonesia.

Joey Alexander

Comparisons to Mozart seem obvious, but I can’t push them out of my mind. At age 8, Mr. Alexander played for Herbie Hancock while the jazz legend visited Jakarta as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. His words of praise inspired Mr. Alexander to continue his jazz studies. At age 9, he won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest in Ukraine. Wynton Marsalis saw Mr. Alexander on YouTube after a friend recommended he check him out. He subsequently helped to arrange the young master’s debut in the US. Mr. Alexander and his family have since moved to New York City.

He learned to play Thelonious Monk by ear when he was 6. Let that settle in for a minute.

So this young titan, now 13, walked on stage with his trio, bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. They started to play. We sat rapt. The melodic harmonies he explored would honor a veteran with years under the belt. And his rhythmic prowess was scary. Left and right hands showed complete independence. Technically brilliant, but also very emotional. He sometimes stood as he played. I thought of Brad Mehldau a bit, another intense performer with a highly intellectual bent, only to discover that Mehldau is one of Mr. Alexander’s influences.

Chemistry existed between all the musicians, as if they had been playing together for decades. I look forward to studying the CD, which I purchased, to get more into their sound.

In another example of the day’s theme, the young and the old, I saw another set of ears and eyes getting into Mr. Alexander, nodding approvingly with what he heard. Quincy Jones sat visibly in the wings, stage right. This year’s Monterey Jazz Festival honored the master musician for his jazz work on A & M Records. Mr. Jones has a long history of seeking out, discovering, and inspiring new talent, so it was not surprising to find him checking out Mr. Alexander. I found watching him reacting to the young maestro nearly as entertaining as the show itself.

I can’t wait to see what Mr. Alexander will do in the future. Nor can I wait to go to Monterey again. I expect if Joey Alexander performs at MJF again, it will be on the main stage. Better start saving up for it.

Addendum

I bought Mr. Alexander’s album Countdown and listened to his take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” In a word, stunning. I don’t recall how old Strayhorn was when he wrote this world-weary tune — he was a teen when he wrote the similarly world-weary “Lush Life” — but just as Strayhorn wrote tunes years beyond his age, so, too, has Mr. Alexander delicately interpreted this jazz standard with the soul of an old master. Buy his album, if you can’t see him live any time soon. And keep your eyes and ears open. I have no doubt that the best is yet to come.

© 2016, gar. All rights reserved.


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