It was business as usual at the Monterey Festival over the weekend. The venerable event celebrated its 38th installment with a characteristic array of music that included everything from Dixieland and be-bop to mainstream and acid jazz.
What was missing was any real sense of innovation. The week before the festival, General Manager Tim Jackson reported that he was pleased with "a programming mix" that included established names John Scofield, Stephane Grappelli, Chick Corea, Lee Ritenour, Toots Thielemans and Bobby McFerrin, such on-the-verge talent as composer/arranger Maria Schneider, singers Kevin Mahogany and Rebecca Paris, young star guitarist Charlie Hunter and veterans Lou Donaldson and Valerie Capers.
But aside from a few isolated moments--avant-gardist Sonny Simmons' brief set, the superb, cutting-edge work of bassist Glenn Moore and singer Nancy King, the edgy young sounds of the Charlie Hunter Trio, and Schneider's world-class big New York band--the festival seemed content to sit on its laurels. The result was a pleasant, if not especially palette-challenging smorgasbord of talent.
In that context, there were a few notable achievements. The first was the inclusion of two female artists-in-residence--Schneider and Paris--an uncommon choice in the still-too-sexist world of jazz.
Schneider, in particular, has the look of a potential break-through major jazz artist. Unfortunately, the festival-commissioned work, "Scenes From Childhood," performed by her band at the Saturday night program, lacked the appeal of her smaller compositions. Overweighted with a distracting and completely unnecessary Theremin, the mini-suite was all texture and very little substance. Schneider and her band were far more effective in a later appearance at a smaller venue. Less pressured by the demands of the commissioned work, the band played Schneider's gorgeous tonal colorations and driving rhythmic passages with the single voice shout that is the hallmark of the finest large jazz ensembles.
Among other attractive appearances: French violinist Grappelli, 87, performing with the elegance and energy that have typified his highly melodic improvisations since his work with Django Reinhardt in the '30s; the Chick Corea quartet's state-of-the-art ability to spring into the future while rooting itself in tradition; guitarist John Scofield's hard-swinging quartet, energized by the presence of tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris and organist Larry Goldings; Thielemans' lyrical renderings of Brazilian music; and Steve Turre's continuing exploration of the jazz potential in sea shells.
Bobby McFerrin, placed in Sunday night's star position, was surprisingly erratic. Backed by a trio identified, inexplicably, as "Bang! Zoom," McFerrin moved from one thing to another, with a bit of solo singing here, some straight-ahead jazz there, spiced with occasional audience-interaction pieces. Brilliant artist that he is, he sold the overflow audience on everything he did. But this was everyday McFerrin, not the cutting edge artist of his solo concerts and his Voicestra outings.
The festival ambience was as colorful as ever, with the extensive grounds filled with food stands, merchandise booths, picnic areas and four different venues. But the perennial sold-out performances resulted in long lines for the smaller arenas. At a few of the crowded Saturday night presentations the waiting standees barely made it through the door by the close of the program.
Still, the Monterey Festival managed to sustain its reputation as the most entertaining, all-in-one-spot jazz gala in the country. G.M. Jackson would be wise, however, to bring some of the adventurous ideas of past festivals to his "programming mix" for future events.