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EARS NEW YORK: Monterey Jazz Safari

Time travel is tough to arrange. Not to mention the challenge of getting air miles credited to your account. So many things to think about: How to pack? Where to eat? With all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of iPhone 6, I was sure Apple had this one covered.

But, until technology steps up, excursions of this kind will remain the province of cunning illusionists or, as the Safari faithful of JAZZ.FM91 just discovered, savvy festival presenters holding passports for transformative travel.

Case in point: This year's Monterey Jazz Festival.

MJF is one of the world's preeminent jazz brands, a bedrock institution and destination, operating since 1958. Like its long-standing kin at Newport and Montreux, it provides world-class music coupled with idyllic surroundings. It flaunts a spiritual union of ocean meets coastline, attracting adventurers who seek answers to the mysteries of life (Or, maybe they just like the view...). In jazz terms, MJF's zap derives from its history, from performances by legendary figures – those have included Dave Brubeck, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

This 57th edition featured a diverse line-up of artists. They exemplify the genre's richness, a rewarding mix of old and new: Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Michael Feinstein, Marcus Miller, Cecil McLorin Salvant, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and Eric Harland (this year's Artist-in-Residence), among others.

Many of their performances were unsurprisingly on point, capturing my imagination and that of the weekend's sizable turn-out: Herbie showcasing his electric side, aided by James Genus, Lionel Loueke and Vinnie Colaiuta; bassist Christian waxing funky with Philly sidekicks Uri Caine and Ahmir Thompson (known, in most circles, as Questlove); pianist Jason Moran, summoning the ghost of Fats Waller; and vocalist Salvant, a new-comer with an old soul, who continues to hold audiences spellbound with her modernized take on tradition.

But the mother ship offering time travel arrived without warning, presenting itself in the form of three separate acts, each a stylistic standard bearer: Billy Childs, Booker T. Jones and Gary Clark Jr.

Pianist Billy Childs's performance was pegged to "Map To The Treasure" (Sony Masterworks), his homage project celebrating the work of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. It featured Scott Colley, Brian Blade and the San Francisco String Quartet, with assistance from vocalists Becca Stevens, Shawn Colvin and Lisa Fischer. Childs's arrangements were subtle yet smart, capturing the poignancy of Nyro, who appeared at Monterey Pop in 1967, that fabled rock festival featuring avatars of the era's new music. It predated Woodstock by two years. Childs's show took me across the decades, a journey he could not have planned for.

Booker T., session keyboardist and architect of the foundational Stax sound, also appeared at Monterey Pop in 1967 (playing behind Otis Redding). Nearly a half-century later, on the same stage, his "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight" sounded fundamental and right - perfect portals for out-of-body transport. A simple truth illuminated the way: Great songs have wings.

The weekend's coup de grace was dealt by Gary Clarke Jr, the holder of some kind of Texas blues crown - a current guitar God. This guy was focused and mean, a scowling matador who prowled the stage with his ax, jabbing guitar solos that had patrons in the front rows ducking for cover. He made me think of heroes Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix; each graced the Monterey stage decades ago. Clark, I'm told, performed on the very spot where Hendrix set fire to his Strat, a soul sacrifice that became emblematic of the times. Man, I was mesmerized, convinced that this was the closest I'll ever come to experiencing the other-worldly buzz of 1967.

As if to protect against the warm and fuzzy seductions of the past, The Roots closed the Festival - a serious slot on the main stage. Ostensibly a hip-hop band led by Questlove, on a roll since linking with talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, its pedigree delves deep into jazz. The members jumped around with attitude, energy and a back-to-the-future reverence new to the arena. T-minus blast off. This was a culture-shock booking, one that challenged the ways and means of Monterey's old guard, who seemed unsure of how to process the moment. They might have started here: An eye-opening milestone, a step into now and a nod to the totemic power of musics possessing shared DNA. MJF was now home to jazz-plus...

That was the beauty of our Jazz Safari at Monterey. The unexpected. The station's jazz lovers, blending into the nearly 40,000 festival attendees, witnessed a happening. Even a grizzled veteran who loves wallowing in the folds of history had to admit: The joys of time travel not withstanding, this year's present was a mighty fine place to be.

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Lee Konitz, Savion Glover, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.




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