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Before Woodstock, Altamont, the Isle of Wight and other iconic music festivals across all genres, the 1950s were the starting point for three of the greatest still ongoing outdoor music festivals; the Newport Jazz, and, separately, the Newport Folk festivals, and in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival. Held annually on 20 acres in Monterey, California, the list of performers is not only a who’s who of jazz greats, but they have also opened their stages to blues and rock performers. In recognition of their 55th year, this eminent organization has now gone on the road, and a fortunate few cities can experience some of these great musicians without the expense of traveling to the left coast.
We were very fortunate indeed to have escaped by less than 24 hours the icy weather of the previous night where nearly everything was cancelled, and most likely would have caused the cancellation of the Monterey Jazz All-Stars at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. But, luck was on their side for local jazz lovers experienced what may have been the finest, and most varied jazz concert in the Triangle this writer has experienced. Leading the ensemble was bassist Christian McBride, with the ensemble including pianist Benny Green, drummer Lewis Nash, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and special guest, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.
The concert began with a trimmed-down duo of bass and singer, but the fireworks blazed almost immediately. Bridgewater and McBride are larger-than-life personalities, in addition to their consummate and virtuosic musicianship. They began with “My Mother’s Son-in-Law,” a relatively little known number that was done by Billie Holiday. Bridgewater performs as if she is in the presence of longtime friends; kidding and sassing with the audience, but gets down to business once she starts singing. Supported by the nearly unbelievable technique of McBride’s bass work, she also scatted several choruses and revved us up for what was to come. Then the full ensemble came out and performed the Simons and Marks standard “All of Me.” Here we got to hear all of the musicians solo in what was to be just the beginning of a very generous and eclectic evening of musicians at the top of their game, and the summit of the mountain of jazz players.
Bridgewater took a break for a while as the quintet performed an exquisite and transformative arrangement of the Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage” and also Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tango.” These two numbers showed that jazz is not just running up and down scales with incredible chops, but the skill of arranging and re-imagining classic works of other artists and making your interpretation a new composition unto itself while still retaining the framework of the original.
The first half ended and the second half started (after intermission, rare for a jazz concert) featuring the remarkable pianist Benny Green. First, was a beguiling original composition named “Certainly” played by the quintet. Green (who although born in 1963, doesn’t look old enough to drive!), came out and jokingly said that the other guys said he needs to practice. So he played a mesmerizing solo version of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and again showed himself to be able to play in the same exalted circle of such pianists as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner and others. A performance of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One” featured a jaw-dropping solo by Chris Potter and a sensitive and golden-toned workout by Akinmusire. Drummer Nash also shined in an exceptional solo, although his virtuosic yet tasteful use of all elements of his drum kit makes it hard to not key in on him all of the time. But, it was McBride who truly transcended the usual expectations of a jazz bassist. It is probably accurate to say that they probably pluck, instead of play with their bow, at least 95% of the time. McBride played a bowed solo that was like nothing I have ever heard before. It was at the speed of a presto violin piece, although the physics and mechanics of the instrument and its thick strings say that that’s just not possible.
Ms. Bridgewater came back, backed just by the trio, to give a rousing gospel-tinged version of Billie Holiday’s biggest hit, “God Bless the Child.” The Carolina Theatre turned into a church service and by the end people were on their feet, hands raised and shouting “amen!” Then, McBride continued his amazing feats with a pizzicato solo, this time (with just drums) of the beautiful balled “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” by Brooks Bowman.
This was an evening like no other, for die-hard jazz fans or anyone else. Not only was it an eclectic mix of every possible combination you could have of a quintet plus a singer, it was entertaining, funny and a musical joy that I hope will be repeated here next year.