Festivals today are a huge business. As events like Coachella, Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Outside Lands pop up in cities around the country it is hard to imagine these outdoor shows as descendants of 1969's seminal Woodstock Music & Art Fair. One of the most memorable moments of Woodstock was Jimi Hendrix's iconic performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," but before amazing audiences at Max Yasgur's upstate New York farm, Hendrix set his guitar on fire two years earlier at the Monterey Pop Festival. If the Monterey Pop Festival was the precursor to Woodstock, then the Monterey Jazz Festival is the outdoor concert pioneer. In its 57th year, the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) brought together something old and something new to the 30,000 plus people in attendance.
Spread out among eight stages, concertgoers were treated to three days of mind-blowing music from around the world, starting with the Brazilian sounds of Santa Cruz's own SambaDá. Dressed in all white, SambaDá got the enthusiastic crowd on its feet with blasts of funk and samba. By the end of their hour long set, the experienced MJF alumni were ready to get the party underway. On the main arena stage, a.k.a. the Jimmy Lyon's stage (named after the jazz radio broadcaster and MJF founder), Grammy Award winning Houston native, Robert Glasper demonstrated the contemporary sounds of his Black Radio Experiment. As he dropped beats big enough to be measured on the richter scale, Glasper played a medley of songs which included a remixed version of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day." MJF 2014's first night ended with a lively performance by another Grammy award winning artist, renowned pianist, Herbie Hancock. Bringing it back old school with his white Keytar, Hancock got people grooving and swaying in their seats. "We just love this festival," Hancock exclaimed before leading audience members on a sonic journey through his classic hit, "Watermelon Man."
For the next two days of the festival, the Jimmy Lyon's stage played host to hotbed of burgeoning acts including Davina & The Vagabonds, Bill Childs, Marcus Miller, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, as well as The Charles Lloyd Quartet. This stage also housed the festival's most provocative and mind-bending performances. Booker T. Jones, best known as the frontman for Booker T. & The M.G.'s, showed true grit during a romping performance of his acclaimed hit, "Green Onions." Performing on stage with his son, bassist Ted Jones, Booker T. payed tribute to Jimi Hendrix as he covered "Hey Joe," which earned him a standing ovation.
Almost 44 years to the day of Jimi Hendrix's death, the memory of his 1967 performance in Monterey still resonates with locals. Following in his footsteps, Gary Clark Jr. hit the stage, reminding folks how the sheer power of guitar can make performances legendary. As the western Texas native began his set, it was apparent that the stoic sea of baby boomers were unfamiliar with his sound. Arms folded, the audience looked like it was waiting for something big to happen, and during GCJ's third song, it did. The paradigm shift occurred during the bluesy "When My Train Pulls In," off his debut album, Blak and Blu. Reminiscent of an outlaw walking into an old bar saloon from the wild west, Gary Clark Jr.'s slinky guitar riffs and soulful voice got people in the crowd nodding their heads. But it was his vicious guitar solo, filled with sliding sounds and colorful distortions, that woke everybody up. The song only lasted for eight minutes, but that was enough time to make everyone who saw him on stage a believer. The rest of set was met with cheers and standing ovations. "That was awesome!" said one fan after the set ended. As Gary Clark Jr. sealed his place in the MJF history books, another first time act brought the crowd a different kind of boom.
Known as the house band on NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Roots dropped the lyrical hammer as they taught the crowd a thing or two about hip hop. Led by founding members Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the Philadelphia natives gave an energetic performance filled with classic songs as well as tracks off their most recent album, " And Then You Shoot Your Cousin." Black Thought showing no signs of slowing down, despite being in the game for over two decades, as he jumped around the stage during Kool and The Gang's "Jungle Boogie." From Curtis Mayfield to Guns'N'Roses, The Roots moved from genre to genre like a game of musical hopscotch. Booker T.'s "Mannish Boy" also found its way into The Roots' repertoire, the second time that day Questlove paid homage to Booker T. The first time came during an intimate performance by the Philadelphia Experiment, which consists of ?uestlove on drums, Uri Caine on keyboard, and Christian McBride (sporting a Philadelphia Eagles jersey) on upright bass. The Roots' performance showed that despite all the success on the Tonight Show, this band has a lot more music for us to chew on.
Although the Jimmy Lyon's stage showcased the more established talent, the outside Garden stage is where the actual party took place. People were dancing, blowing bubbles, and camping out in front of the stage, which was a nice contrast to the more formalized set up of the other stage. Some highlights from the Garden stage include Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, the Harold Lopez Nussa Trio, Red Baraat, and Ana Popovic. While Brooklyn-based Red Baraat used their North India bhangra rhythms to get the people out of their seats, Memphis-based Serbian blues guitarist and singer Ana Popovic stole the show. The sultry blond sounded less like Rayna Jaymes, and more like Joe Satriani or Derek Trucks with the way she handled that axe. It was essentially a guitar solo clinic, and by the end of her hour and half long set, the crowd expressed their appreciation via hoots and hollers.
The best thing about the world of music is that people can be students and teachers simultaneously, and at the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival this was true of everybody in attendance. As one of the longest consecutively running jazz festivals, MJF is home to people who have a musical palette the size of California. Even though these people have been listening to jazz since the festival began 57 years ago, they can still discover up and coming artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Ana Popovic. On the flipside, these same fans can give young listeners a crash course about the greatness of legends such as Booker T. Jones and Herbie Hancock. This festival brings together crowds of all ages for the sole purpose of music appreciation, and it is that motto which keeps the festival business alive today. No matter your age or whether you like jazz, rock, blues, and/or hip hop, there is always room for you at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Review by Sam Frank, 2014