Although the 56th annual Monterey Jazz Festival roster features an impressive lineup of pre-eminent jazz instrumentalists— Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Dave Holland, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club—it’s perhaps the vocalists who will be the shining stars this time out.
“There was no preconceived notion to present singers per se,” says MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson. “Certainly I understand that vocalists play a role in any major festival. They can provide that crossover element that helps reach a broad audience.”
And stars they are, each with a history of genre-crossing hit recordings: George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” “On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night,” and “Turn Your Love Around;” Diana Krall’s “The Look of Love,” Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and the phenomenal new talent Gregory Porter. Despite mainstream success, all have great mutual respect for their peers in the jazz community of the past and present.
Great vocalists have been a staple of the world’s longest continuously running jazz festival in the world since 1958, when Billie Holiday graced the stage. The list is long and stellar and includes: Joe Williams, Big Mama Thornton, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Etta James, Aaron Neville, Esperanza Spalding, Carmen McRae, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong and Susan Tedeschi. Even Huey Lewis and the News put in an appearance.
True, 10-time Grammy-winning Benson also belongs in the aforementioned list of phenomenal instrumentalists for his masterful guitar work, but it wasn’t until his smooth and soulful vocals came to the forefront of the mix that he reached a mass audience.
In June, Benson released Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole on the Concord Jazz label. Featuring 13 tracks that were made famous by the legendary crooner, the set showcases the influence that Cole has had on Benson—indeed, the CD opens with a recording of an 8-year old Benson (as “Lil’ George Benson) singing “Mona Lisa” while accompanying himself on ukulele. The similarities between the two performers’ careers are remarkable in that both were highly regarded instrumentalists before shooting to stardom as vocalists.
“What had happened was [Cole’s] wife, Maria, said, ‘Nat, they’re asking you to stop singing and to just play,’” Benson said in an interview with NPR’s Walter Ray Watson. “‘If they’re asking you to make the choice, then don’t play. Sing.’” Benson performs Saturday afternoon on the Jimmy Lyons Stage.
A MASTERFUL SINGER
Those who dismiss Bobby McFerrin as just the guy who sang “Don’t Worry Be Happy”— the 1988 novelty hit that made him a household name—are missing out on one of the most talented and prolific vocal talents of our time. A visit to YouTube bears that out: look for his performance of “Ave Maria,” for example. His voice is a highly trained and finely tuned instrument that seems capable of about any style of music. McFerrin’s latest release, spirityouall, is a joyful retelling of Americana. “This project embraces Bobby’s folk, rock, and blues influences,” his website reveals, “without abandoning his fearless improvisational approach or his never-ending exploration of the human voice.” The singer opens the Saturday night lineup on the Jimmy Lyons Stage.
It’s not often that a performer makes the leap to arena artist after just one Monterey Jazz Festival appearance. In fact, Festival Marketing Associate Timothy Orr can’t think of a single time that’s happened. “We don’t typically present an artist two years in a row,” Tim Jackson says. “But Gregory gave such a powerful performance on the nightclub stage last year. He clearly grabbed everyone in that room by the throat.”
It’s quite likely that when Gregory Porter hits the boards of the Jimmy Lyons Stage to close Friday night’s show, those in attendance will be witnessing history. Porter, a native Californian, originally had his eyes set on an athletic career and attended San Diego State University on a football scholarship. Lucky for jazz fans, at the urging of his mentor Kamau Kenyatta and other musicians, he eventually opted for a musical career—after a detour into musical theater with a role in Broadway’s Tony-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Two albums and one Grammy nomination later, he’s looking ahead to a very bright career indeed.
And in common with Benson, Porter cites Nat King Cole—in the form of his mother’s record collection—among his important influences. In fact, his first experience in the recording studio was when he was invited to sing on Hubert Laws’ Remembers the Unforgettable Nat “King” Cole in 1998. Don’t miss the chance experience this talented vocalist, one who is certain to become a household name in the coming years.
One of the best bargains in music is the Full Weekend Grounds Pass. $125 buys admission to two-and-a-half full days of music on three stages, plus films, lectures and more. Monterey Jazz Festival arena seats were still available at press time.
Visit www.montereyjazzfestival.org for more information and to purchase tickets.