Assembling one ensemble to cover the Monterey Jazz Festival's stylistic reach is an almost as impossible a task as bottling the giddy excitement reliably generated on the fairgrounds every September. But the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour: 55th Anniversary Celebration, an all-star sextet designed to represent the Monterey experience, comes pretty darn close.
The band's triumphant debut at Monterey's 55th season last summer provided several of the most exhilarating moments in a festival rife with memorable sets. Featuring the uncontrollable Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals, pianist Benny Green, drummer Lewis Nash, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Christian McBride, and Oakland-raised trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the band played an intriguing array of originals and jazz standards in a variety of configurations, including a thrilling high-wire duet between McBride and Bridgewater on "Your Mother's Son In Law."
The band kicks off a 40-city tour across North America with two intimate shows at Kuumbwa on Jan. 10. The band returns to the Bay Area the following week for a Cal Performances concert on Jan. 19 at Zellerbach Hall (which far better reflects the size of venues on the band's itinerary).
The group's instant chemistry stems from the superlative rhythm section of Nash, Green, and band music director McBride. "The fact is it's one of the most swinging rhythm sections I can imagine," says Potter, 42, who returns to the Bay Area for a date at Yoshi's on Feb. 24 to mark the release of a new album on ECM featuring a series of spacious soundscapes inspired by Homer's "The Odyssey."
"A lot of the music I do now isn't in the same vein, but that kind of straight-ahead groove is my roots, and this is the group to do it with. Don't get me wrong. We can and do go in any direction, but one of the interesting things about a band like this is you might see people go in direction they might not explore on their own."
The ties binding the rhythm section run deep. Green met McBride when the bassist was a 17-year-old phenomenon in Philadelphia, and they've been musical confidantes ever since. McBride anchored Green's first trio and has collaborated on many of his recordings over the years.
The pianist first encountered Nash in 1983 when auditioning for a coveted spot with Betty Carter, the late, legendary vocalist and talent scout. He had just turned 20, and "had never played with such a hip drummer," he recalls. "I never felt that kind of lift before."
They both got the gig with Carter, and Nash took the younger pianist under his wing. "He became my first big brother figure on the road and taught me the ropes about getting your rest and trying to eat healthy," Green says.
McBride and Nash share a similarly long and distinguished track record. They're the most recorded bass/drum tandem of the past two decades, with more than 60 joint albums to their credit. One of their early sessions together was on a 1994 album with a frighteningly talented young saxophonist, "Presenting Chris Potter." A ubiquitous presence on the contemporary scene, Nash has performed on more than 400 recordings with an encyclopedic cross section of senior legends, midcareer masters and emerging stars.
"There's a reason why Lewis is the most recorded drummer over the past 25 years," says McBride, 40. "He's such a beautiful, musical player and person, he elevates everyone who plays with him. ... And I've learned as much from Benny Green as any legend. He is easily one of my oldest and dearest friends."
In many ways the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour band represents the event's legacy, as just about every player is connected to Monterey by long-standing ties. Green made his festival debut at 15 in 1978 with the Monterey High School All-Star Big Band, and served as the music director of The Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars, the festival's first touring project. He's the only carry-over from that multigenerational ensemble.
At 62, Bridgewater is the band's oldest member, but she could probably work the rest of the band under the table. She made her Monterey debut in 1973 with the legendary Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and went on to star on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for creating the role of Glinda the Good Witch of the South in "The Wiz." After a long sojourn in Paris, she returned to the States and won Grammy Awards for her tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She's embraced the band because of the security offered by a peerless rhythm section.
"The thing about Benny Green that's fantastic is his sensitivity working with vocalists, how he lays down these interesting harmonic cushions under you," Bridgewater says. "He's got so much soul. And I love watching the musical conversation between Christian and Lewis. They leave space for each other while doing all this crazy stuff. Then Christian will look at me and say don't worry baby, we got your back. For me, it's the cat's meow."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.