Roaming from stage to stage Saturday night at the Monterey Jazz Festival, one could see the maturing of a new generation of jazz artists -- reassuring and exciting to witness. And then there was Tony Bennett, 86, still lunging after high notes, like a kid jumping to grab apples off a high branch. He's a man in love with the art of song, and he also believes what he sings: "It's the good life to be free and explore the unknown!"
Singing those words, he was role-modeling for the 6,000 fans who filled the Arena at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, where Bennett closed out the day's events. But the festival, which runs through Sunday, also presented a bunch of 20-somethings, who are coming into the full-bore of expression. With any luck, they'll still be doing it, like Bennett, as octogenarians.
Let's start with trumpeter Christian Scott, 29, who packed the Night Club venue and is coming into his powers, big-time. His music is full of the swirl, spirt and striving of '60s jazz, but with new flavors.
Fed by guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Jamire Williams, the band sounded at times like Radiohead in Africa, under the spell of Coltrane's rushing spirit, with Scott pointing his horn toward the heavens and straining after big ecstatic tangles of notes, a man on a search. The trumpeter -- who recently has taken the African name Christian a Tunde Adjuah -- reminds me more and more of a trumpeter older fans may remember from Gil Evans' band in the
I stayed for most, but not all, of Scott's set, then ran across the fairgrounds -- the festival makes for good exercise -- to catch pianist Gerald Clayton, 28, playing with his trio in the Coffee House Gallery. It, too, was packed with appreciative fans, tuned into his interpretation of "My Shining Hour."
I hadn't seen Clayton in a couple of years, and had the feeling that his playing has moved several steps up the ladder, that he has developed a real confidence and presence as a player -- that he's no longer just a talented young guy. The trio -- -- with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Marcus Gilmore, each in his 20s -- -- seemed constantly suspended at the edge of a surprise.
The pianist's "Sunny Day Go" was spaciously and often very quietly ruminative, and Clayton's playing was filled with vivid detail and a super-sharp rhythmic sense, including a touch of Keith Jarrett's funkiness. Maybe Gilmore -- -- subbing for Clayton's regular drummer, Justin Brown -- -- had something to do with it. He's a wing-tipped percussionist, never overplaying, just opening the music, prodding it, picking his moves, like a basketball player with unexplainable court sense. Whatever it was, these three guys were enjoying a magic hour of music-making.
Outside on the Garden Stage, another crowd was eating up an hour with singer Catherine Russell, 55, who has a couple of careers happening. Pop acts seek her out as a backup singer: Steely Dan, Paul Simon, David Bowie. She also happens to be the daughter of pianist Louis Russell -- Louis Armstrong's music director -- and has built a reputation for delivering prewar blues and swing tunes with relaxed authenticity. That's what she did on the Garden Stage, singing Bessie Smith's "Kitchen Man" with salacious swagger. People responded: laughing, embracing and dancing under the trees.
What a scene, what a festival -- and
In the Arena, drummer Jack DeJohnette, 70, was convening his Special Trio featuring guitarist Pat Metheny and bassist Christian McBride. A big festival event, it was as excellent as you might expect: DeJohnette scrambled and propelled the action, loose-limbed and funky-swinging; Metheny soared through long arcing solos, a storyteller; McBride maintained earthbound virtuoso traction.
The best moments happened during Metheny's "Question and Answer" -- classic tune; sounds gorgeous every time you hear it -- when he ramped up into air-raid siren mode. It's startling, one of his patented sounds, and it settled down the crowd, which, at least in my neck of the Arena, was filled with revelers, sucking up Long Island Ice Teas. In the end, this music seemed to subtle for such a large venue; the three superstars looked faraway. They may as well have been playing on the moon.
I skipped out to hear drummer Antonio Sanchez and Migration, a band that gets simultaneously super-tight and free, with a pair of saxophonists (Donny McCaslin and David Binney), piano (John Escreet) and bass (Matt Brewer). Sanchez is like a junior DeJohnette: everybody wants his sound (including Metheny, his frequent boss) and, mark my word, 30 years from now he will lead a Special Trio in the Arena. On this chilly night, he fusioned through a solo on a tune called "The Minotaur": one could imagine the power of the mythic beast -- half man, half bull -- at the center of the maze.
Let's finish with Tony Bennett: roaming the stage, breaking into a soft-shoe, blowing kisses at the crowd and thanking his musicians.
"Harold Jones, ladies and gentleman, Count Basie's favorite drummer!"
"Gray Sargent, the Puccini of jazz guitar!"
Tony Bennett is gracious, a charmer. And how he loves those songs: "They All Laughed," "Steppin' Out With My Baby," "Sing You Sinners," "But Beautiful," "Just in Time," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and the aforementioned "The Good Life."
He doesn't zero in on the notes as he once did, but his voice remains clear, he phrases with beauty, embodies style and believes the words he sings. And is there anything better than hearing Bennet sing "The Way You Look Tonight"?
Maybe this: He sang "Who Cares?," composed by George and Ira Gershwin in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression. It's still the "most relevant" tune he knows, he said, with a knowing chuckle.
And then he sang:
"Let it rain and thunder,
Let a million firms go under.
I am not concerned with
Stocks and bonds that I've been burned with!
Why should I care?
Life is one long jubilee,
So long as I care for you
And you care for me!"
He's our role model: Tony Bennett.
55th ANNUAL MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL
Performers: Esperanza Spalding, Pat Metheny Unity Band, Jack DeJohnette-Bill Frisell Duo and Dee Dee Bridgewater
Where: Monterey County Fairgrounds, Monterey
Tickets: Daily deals start at $45; single-day Arena tickets are $142 (Saturday, Sunday); discounts available for families and young people; 1-888-248-6499, montereyjazzfestival.org or at gate