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The Monterey Quartet

Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival

(Monterey Jazz Festival; US: 25 Aug 2009; UK: 24 Aug 2009)

Ode to the Modern Jazz Music, Verily

O, Monterey Quartet!  How splendidly you play your jazz instruments!  I listen to you with wonder and some exhaustion.  I thrill to your skill… and maybe I stop listening just a little bit.


O, modern jazz music!  You contain a barrel full of notes, don’t you?  Those who play you must have consummate skill and imagination with which to zip those many notes around like a Superball thrown in a racquetball court by Sandy Koufax.  And watching those notes whiz out into the air is dazzling!  Modern jazz music, I am impressed (and intimidated) by you!


O, Dave Holland, you are the leader of the band, and yet you are a bass player, and that’s unusual.  You anchor the band like a wise man with a subtle English accent.  And you announce the songs during this live concert recording in said accent, making everything seem just a little more like Masterpiece Theatre.  And you play a cool-looking acoustic bass that has a very resonant sound.  On your composition “Step To It” you get things grooving with a funky, octave-laced bass vamp that locks into a hip melody.  And your two-and-a-half minute bass introduction to “Veil of Tears” is not boring, which is—praise be!—unusual for bass solos.


And, truly, O, Chris Potter, your righteous tenor saxophone is an insistent and lyrical wonder that combines keening urgency and a true sense of surprise.  Will it displease you, Chris Potter, if I mention that you seem like a player with a nice wide Michael Brecker streak—particularly the way you are able to bring every solo to an ecstatic climax?  I mean this as high praise.  And you seem to play with everyone these days without allowing even one appearance to seem perfunctory.  And your jazz compositions are surprising and angular, with a sense of great energy.  “Minotaur” gets its Latin groove on and it lets you move around the notes with muscular herky-jerky-ness.  And “Ask Me Why” closes the recording with a nervously fun note.  Chris Potter, I sing your praises.


O, Gonzalo Rubalcaba!  I tend to think of you as a fleet-fingered Cuban with a tendency to over-ornament your jazz playing.  But, sir, you prove me wrong here.  For isn’t your tune “Otra Mirada” a lovely ballad with a set of intriguing harmonies?  And do I not hear something marvelous and abstract about your playing, where you seem to be thinking through your improvisations with real intelligence, despite your prodigious technique?  Mr. Rubalcaba, I have wronged you in my heart in the past.


And then, truly, there is Eric Harland!  The least known member of this all-star band, put together just for this festival but since become big in its own right.  How embarrassed I am, Eric Harland, that I did not know more about you, as your tunes for this jazz festival concert may be the most interesting of the session.  “Maiden”, sir, is an elegant ballad.  O, “Maiden”, how can it be that you were written by a drummer when you are so delicate and stately, barely needing drums to make your point at all?  And that you give both Rubalcaba and Potter their best, most honest features of the concert?  Eric Harland, let your talent ring.


And yet, Monterey Quartet, would I be terribly remiss in noting, despite all this acclaim and genuine praise, that there is something not quite riveting about your live recording at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival?  I fear this heresy, but, pray, read on.


Though each tune, listened to in isolation, has impressive skill and merit, something about the whole of this recording does not quite cohere.  Believe me, impressive Monterey Quartet, I am loathe to mention this, but still it nags at my critical cortex.  Perhaps it is the varied composing credits (all four of you, two tunes each: very democratic!), or perhaps it is the fact that you were formed as a “one off” band that had not played together for a long time when this recording was made.  Or perhaps the precise mix of musical personalities here is not entirely complementary.  Honestly, with both Chris Potter and Gonzalo Rubalcabo sending fireworks up to the sky, there is not much room left for others to find ways to dazzle.


Or maybe, Monterey Quartet, my real beef is not with you, for you are skilled and impressive and artful in nearly all respects.  Maybe—and may God strike me down for even uttering this—the problem is that modern jazz, with its webs of complexly improvised notes-notes-notes, is just weary-making after a while.  And when played with exceptional skill but too little sense of connection to the vernacular language of the culture, it just turns into so much jibber-jabber.


O, jazz.  I like you so much.  But every once in a while, even at (no, particularly at) your skillful best, what you need most of all is just something less dazzling and something more simple and direct.  This recording, verily, is one of those moments.

Rating:

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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