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Originally published Monday, September 24, 2012 at 1:52 PM

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Monterey Jazz Festival showcases Tony Bennett, Bill Frisell

Impressions of the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held Sept. 21-23, 2012, in Monterey, Calif., which featured everything from a modern commission by Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell to the finger-popping, old school swing of Tony Bennett.

Seattle Times jazz critic

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Concert Review |

Monterey, Calif. — September temperatures in this fog-kissed strip of the California coast always veer wildly from sunscreen afternoons to shivering nights, but the weather during the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival this past weekend — and the music — hit even more extremes than usual.

Stylistically, fans feasted on everything from a lyrical festival commission by Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell to the finger-popping swing of Tony Bennett and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The age spread was impressive, too, from youngsters such as Roosevelt High School pianist and composer Chris McCarthy to octogenarian Bennett and 70-years-young drummer and festival showcase artist Jack DeJohnette.

Of five arena concerts, the scorching (both meanings intended) Saturday afternoon soul service provided by the Robert Randolph Family Band and multitalented New Orleans entertainer Trombone Shorty hit the sweetest spot. If dancing to the slinky curlicues of Randolph's pedal steel guitar qualifies as praising the lord, sign me up. Shorty showed not only instrumental versatility on trombone and trumpet, but cruised effortlessly as a vocalist between Meters-style funk, Motown soul and wound-up-tight shouts, like James Brown.

A close second was Frisell's long, pastoral piece "The Music of Glen Deven Ranch," played by his Big Sur Quintet with rich warmth and accuracy (including Seattle's Eyvind Kang on viola), the "ping" of Frisell's electric guitar riding over lush layers of strings. The piece had an Aaron Copland-like expansiveness, though surprisingly it didn't reference the dark, scary cragginess often associated with Big Sur.

Folks who saw Bennett at Bumbershoot this year will find this unbelievable, but the 86-year-old crooner sounded even better in Monterey.

Bennett has stuck to a stable style. Not so DeJohnette, who reveled like a kid in a candy store with a hard-core avant-garde fusion unit featuring the welcome return of Jerome Harris, playing a hollow-body bass guitar, and the magnificently deconstructive electric guitar of David Fiuczynski.

Young stars this year were 30-year-old festival artist-in-residence Ambrose Akinmusire, who seemed to turn up everywhere with a robust tone, explosive phrasing and wild intervals, and bassist Ben Williams, who led his own group as well as playing with Pat Metheny's Unity Band. (Akinmusire's young tenor sax man, Walter Smith III, is definitely a guy to watch, as well.)

Akinmusire joined the all-star student band, the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, which featured Garfield High School tenor saxophonist Cameron Vohr and played McCarthy's "Something Small," a suspenseful piece that found a rousing climax. McCarthy was awarded the $1,000 Gerald Wilson composition award by Wilson, on stage.

Extra-musical offerings included a marvelously researched and smartly edited new film about women in jazz by Judy Chaikin, "The Girls in the Band."

Inevitably, a large festival has disappointments. The sizzling clave of Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri's big band was sabotaged by sound problems. Melody Gardot, wearing a turban with a Nefertiti-like extension foolishly projected herself as some kind of High Priestess of Hoodoo. And bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, for all her earnest appeal, offered a set of wordy, over-arranged new songs.

Monterey crowds are accustomed to low flyovers by planes landing at the nearby Monterey airport, but this year there was an added overhead distraction. The California International Airshow, held in Salinas, was hosting six F-16 Air Force Thunderbirds — very loud and very low. There were few complaints, however, and many people gave the planes a thumbs up as they passed.

The festival periodically mounts "Monterey on Tour," an all-star show (it will be in Seattle Jan. 13, 2013) that closed the festival, with bassist and musical director Christian McBride, Akinmusire, Bridgewater (totally on her game), pianist Benny Green, drummer Lewis Nash and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. It was striking to hear the members reminisce about their first encounters with the festival, ranging from Bridgewater's appearance in the '70s with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band to Green's recollection of playing when he was a 15-year-old student at Berkeley High School.

The set was living proof of the Monterey Jazz Festival's enduring scope and influence.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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