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A blog for Seattle music lovers of all stripes, from hip-hop and indie rock to jazz and world music.

September 23, 2013 at 4:52 PM

Vocalists rule at Monterey Jazz Festival

Note: A review of the Monterey Jazz Festival Friday night show went up on SoundPosts Saturday. What follows is a wrapup of the weekend.

George Benson, with bassist Stanley Banks, at the Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday afternoon. (Stuart Brinin)

George Benson, with bassist Stanley Banks, at the Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday afternoon. (Stuart Brinin)

Monterey, Calif. — In an unusual, but by no means unwelcome, twist at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, which ended Sunday, singers upstaged instrumentalists.

That’s likely to happen when you’ve got new sensation Gregory Porter, George Benson, Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, Bobby McFerrin and Diana Krall on the bill.

Porter, who has a burnt-toast baritone so roomy you could set up housekeeping in it, opened the festivities Friday at the main venue, the Jimmy Lyons Stage, with a relaxed, commanding set that touched on lost love, cheating, spirit, belief, the Detroit riots and falling in love too easily, which the crowd promptly did — with him.

The percolating Cuban revue capped Friday with the familiar “Chan Chan” and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” as behatted singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa and Barbarito Torres showed that they have aged well.

Saturday afternoon, Benson dipped into his bag of hits — “Turn Your Love Around,” “This Masquerade,” “In Your Eyes,” Give Me the Night” — and got the sun-drenched crowd up and pulsing like one big, funky heart.

The now gray-bearded and always unpredictable McFerrin, spotted in the crowd at Benson’s set and joined on stage by his daughter Madison, closed the Saturday evening show with haunting program of spirituals in an Americana setting — fiddle mandolin, accordion and, on a gorgeous vocal duet with his versatile drummer Louis Cato, lap steel guitar. McFerrin sang a moving version of Bob Dylan-authored “I Shall Be Released.”

Krall, the weekend finale, performed with a six-piece band reflecting her recent forays into vintage rock, Americana and the Roaring ’20s on the album “Glad Rag Doll,” though she also played a solo segment. Her husky whisper on ballads was breathtaking, especially “Let It Rain,” from 1928, and the Joni Mitchell classic, “A Case of You.” Krall also tipped her hat to Dylan with “Simple Twist of Fate.”

Though pop vocals shone, instrumental jazz bristled all over the five Monterey County Fairgrounds stages. Midcareer giants Dave Douglas (trumpet) and festival artist in residence Joe Lovano (saxophone) burned through two tunes commissioned from the great tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who was on fire Sunday night with his own quartet.

Dulcet baritone saxophonist Claire Daly essayed a set of little-known tunes by Thelonious Monk, pianist Marc Cary brought hip-hop energy to his dense trio, bassist Jasper Høiby of the U.K.-based trio Phronesis (at Jazz Alley Tuesday), thrummed up a storm and Berkeley High School flutist Elena Pinderhughes, playing with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra of students, was dazzling.

The festival honored the late pianist Dave Brubeck, who helped get the festival off the ground 1958, with a fine photographic exhibit, an entertaining panel discussion and a commission by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra that incorporated a tape of Louis Armstrong singing “Summer Song,” from Brubeck’s “The Real Ambassadors,” premiered in Monterey in 1962.

Thanks to heavy rain in the Bay Area on Saturday, attendance was lighter than usual — ironically, it only sprinkled in Monterey proper — but the 56th edition of this magnificent event felt as strong as ever, the explosion of vocals a nice changeup.

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