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Celebrating 50 years of jazz.

Byline: Peter Landsdowne


WORCESTER - Mention the words "jazz festival" and most New England jazz fans automatically think of the Newport Jazz Festival, which got its start in 1954. Four years later, another jazz festival launched when the first Monterey Jazz Festival was held in 1958 in Monterey, Calif. Tuesday night at Mechanics Hall, the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Band helped several hundred jazz fans who braved inclement weather celebrate both the Monterey landmark and the latest entry in yet another jazz festival - the city's 13th annual Mass Jazz Festival, which is being presented by Music Worcester as part of the 148th Worcester Music Festival.

A recorded announcement from Monterey's manager Tim Jackson served to introduce the all-star band: tenor saxophonist and flutist James Moody, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, pianist Benny Green, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, and guest vocalist Nnenna Freelon. It should be noted that Moody, Blanchard, Green and Freelon are all bandleaders in their own right and have strong ties to the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Acting as music director for the evening, pianist Green counted off a romp on Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 classic "Bebop," a nod to Gillespie's show-stopping duet with fellow trumpeter Louis Armstrong that was a highlight of the first Monterey Jazz Festival. "Bebop" also introduced Moody, who began one of several stints with Gillespie in the bop era of the late 1940s. The 82-year-old tenor saxophonist was in rare form on his horn as he blew exquisitely phrased solos on this and the subsequent tune, vibraphonist Milt Jackson's seldom-heard "Monterey Mist," which Green picked to honor pianist John Lewis, the Monterey festival's first music director and vibraphonist Jackson's cohort in the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Freelon kept the Monterey connection going on "Winter Love," during which she sang her own lyrics written to match a section from bandleader Gerald Wilson's "Suite for Monterey." Moody trotted out his flute for an atmospheric solo. In contrast, Freelon's jazzy outing on the standard "Skylark" had bassist Hodge's deep-toned strumming as the song's only accompaniment. She was less successful in her interpretation of the lyrics to drummer Scott's "Journey," which didn't seem to resonate with a crowd that seemed more in the mood for Moody's "jazz is entertainment" schtick on "Pennies from Heaven," which the irascible Moody transformed into "Benny's from Heaven," a vocal spoof on pianist Green's allegedly dubious origins.

Pianist Green countered with his updated arrangement of the standard "Time After Time," which had the horns playing the familiar melody over a jazz-rock rhythm. The horns also dominated Green's boppish original "Central Park South," with Moody serving up a passionate tenor saxophone and the stalwart Blanchard, another Monterey veteran perhaps best known as the composer for most of director Spike Lee's movies, blowing a fiery trumpet solo that was equal parts Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. Not to be outdone, Green trimmed down to a trio for a thoughtful, restrained interpretation of composer Clare Fischer's lilting samba "Pensativa."

The talented trumpeter Blanchard dominated the concert's second half with two selections from his Grammy-winning "A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina)" album. Blanchard, a New Orleans native who had to evacuate to Los Angeles during Katrina, recorded the work with a large jazz ensemble, but Tuesday night, he was on his own with just the rhythm section for accompaniment on "Levees" and "Funeral Dirge," two originals inspired in part by director Lee's documentary on Katrina's aftermath. The slow and mournful "Levees" featured a heartfelt trumpet solo that echoed quotes from St. James Infirmary" and "Amazing Grace."

It was Blanchard's doleful trumpet solo and drummer Scott's march beat that started off the evocative "Funeral Dirge." In jazz lore, the music was supposedly born by the musicians "jazzing it up" on the way back from a funeral. Blanchard pulled out all the stops for this section of the dirge, punctuating his fervent trumpet exclamations with some piercing high notes that spurred the crowd into a standing ovation. The encore featured all of the musicians and Freelon on a jaunty "Just Squeeze Me" that gave Moody a chance to mug and trade scat-singing solos with Freelon. Blanchard squeezed out some clever half-valve phrases on his trumpet before jumping on one note that Moody augmented with some honking tenor saxophone riffs that elicited another standing ovation. Viva Monterey! May you have 50 more years.


CUTLINE: Nnenna Freelon performs at Mechanics Hall during the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour.

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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Concert review
Date:Feb 28, 2008
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