Saturday, September 17, 2011

2011 Monterey Jazz Festival - Opening Night Recap

Friday night’s performances were nothing short of extraordinary. The high points came from two young pianists whose debut festival appearance was in the festival grounds Coffee House venue several years ago.

In recent years, a “local” artist opened the festival on the Garden Stage. This year, the festival’s featured artist, Robert Glasper” opened with his trio. As featured artist, Glasper will appear in several band configurations throughout the weekend. On the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the arena, Hiromi started off the main venue’s activities. Hiromi first appeared in 2006, Glasper in 2007. Since then, a lot has changed for both artists. Both have risen to critical acclaim worldwide, yet, they were unknown to many of the patrons. Both artists are reasonably well known to Bay Area jazz fans, having made multiple appearances at Yoshi’s in San Francisco and Oakland.

Those that opted to pass on either Glasper or Hiromi’s performances because they’ve “seen them before” missed truly spectacular performances. I’m in the “seen them before” category. However, this is Monterey. What you’ve seen before doesn’t count. All artists, from the “young lions” to the well-established legends bring something special to this venue. The veterans must live up to the performances of the past, and somehow, outdo them. The up and coming are motivated to create their own defining “Monterey Moments”.

Glasper stunned the early crowd with a fascinating set that truly demonstrated both his command of the instrument and his unique style. His ability to bend and blend genres takes the listener on a musical thrill ride. His style can go from playfully whimsical to emotionally engaging almost within a phrase. Classical gets merged with gospel, neo-sol gets merged with fusion, jazz and elements of ambient manage to work their way into the mix as well. Trio mate’s bassist Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave on drums have worked with Glasper long enough to make, and sometimes drive these transitions. At one point, he made a distinctly hip-hop groove swing like the classic combos of yesteryear. Then after vamping through that for a moment, the music was off in a completely different direction. What sounds like it might be chaotic, Glasper and his trio make sound totally sensible. Throw in a wonderful sense of melody and harmonics and you have one outstanding set.

Hiromi unveiled her own brand of fireworks on the main stage. With Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips, she literally tore up the stage. This former child prodigy, classically trained, channels the styles and techniques of many legends of jazz piano. While you might credit her youth for her amazingly fast hands and articulation, at some point you must acknowledge the incredible talent she possesses. Hiromi took her audience on a high-speed roller coaster ride, before delivering an amazingly soulful bluesy piece where her prowess at delivering the subtleties she also has tucked away in her bag of tricks. When turned loose on a couple occasions, Phillips provided some amazing drum solos. Jackson has mastered the art of making his electric bass sound like an upright at times. Following the first of several standing ovations during the set, Hiromi appeared emotionally moved by the reception she received. She responded by simply turning up the heat. Another phenomenal set.

The night had many more moments like Carmen Souza in The Night Club, and the much anticipated performance by Richard Bona and Raul Midon, but more of them after tonight’s performance.

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