MONTEREY, Calif. — When Tim Jackson took over the programming of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992, he assured its somewhat conservative patrons that he would introduce artistic changes gradually at the parklike Monterey Fairgrounds.
Jackson has kept his word, but the festival’s 57th edition this past weekend felt like a watershed. Saturday night’s arena headliner was a jazz-influenced hip-hop act, The Roots, which topped a thematic through-line of contemporary African-American music that placed the festival firmly in the present. It was a meaty, satisfying lineup.
With the star power of its current spot on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night TV show, The Roots drew a young, enthusiastic crowd, which danced in the aisles as many older fans exited. It was an exhilarating show, which combined the leaping choreography and zap!-pow! precision of James Brown with the percolating, layered rhythms of an African pop band.
At bottom, jazz is all about the groove, and the Robert Glasper Experiment, with Casey Benjamin’s voice wafting through an electronic Vocoder, nudged the crowd into the zone Saturday afternoon. Herbie Hancock, who delivered the same “greatest hits” set he played at Monterey in 2011 — from “Watermelon Man” to “Rockit” — really came to play this time, drilling down on acoustic piano, two electric keyboards and the slung-like-a-guitar keyboard called the key-tar, and squaring off with atmospheric African guitarist Lionel Loueke.
Several events commemorated the 75th anniversary of New York indie label Blue Note Records, including a memorable duet by Glasper and fellow Texan Jason Moran, who swapped bass and treble duties on the same piano bench in a deliciously abstracted celebration of the first Blue Note recording, by boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, in 1939.
Saturday afternoon, Clark, alternating between a red Gibson and a blond Fender Stratocaster, plied the territory between the ominous Delta groove of John Lee Hooker and the bent notes and distortion of Jimi Hendrix, proving himself an able ballad singer as well.
Sunday, electric bassist and bass clarinetist extraordinaire Marcus Miller played a sad but also celebratory new piece, “Gorée,” named after the notorious slave-shipping island, noting that the music at Monterey was one result of an experience that highlighted “the capacity of human beings to overcome pain and suffering.”
Beyond blues and dance, jazz also arose from black spirituals, and no band working today evokes the meditative sense of music as prayer better than the Brian Blade Fellowship, which transfixed the crowd at the Garden Stage Sunday afternoon. That same woodsy setting also hosted the cheeky vamping of Davina & the Vagabonds, an old-timey group from Minnesota featuring the Bette Midler-meets-Janis Joplin vocals and piano of Davina Sowers.
Other weekend pleasures included the piping sound and refreshingly original concept of Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana; a lush string tribute to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro by pianist Billy Childs; Habaneros, a lively Cuban chamber jazz group comprising a string quartet and clarinet; and reed man Charles Lloyd, whose opening gambit on “What’s New” was an invitation to sweet reverie.
Somewhat disappointing though pleasant enough were pianist Aaron Diehl’s too-trim tribute to Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis and, surprisingly, the festival’s opening set by vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose striking synthesis of Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter has been one of the past year’s delights, but this time came across as contrived musical theater.
Seattle had a brief moment in the spotlight, as Roosevelt High School trumpet player Noah Halpern soloed ably with the swinging Next Generation Jazz Orchestra on Sunday afternoon. The band also backed up festival closer Michael Feinstein for a bubbly and charming, if not altogether convincing tribute (no swagger), to Frank Sinatra.
According to Jackson, attendance reflected the crowd’s continued appreciation of the festival’s new feel — about 90 percent of capacity at the arena and better than last year on the grounds (a separate ticket option).
The audience also got an extra perk — a carpet of fresh, green grass in the arena, which kept down the usual dust.
Note to Jackson: Keep those changes coming.
Paul de Barros: firstname.lastname@example.org