Apologies to Harry Connick Jr., but the real vocal revelation at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sunday was a couple hundred feet south of the main stage.
That would be the outdoor Garden Stage, where Sachal Vasandani showed the magic that can happen when a deep sense of jazz vocal tradition is married to a free creative spirit. With just a few albums to his credit, the Chicago native is quickly building a reputation as the Kurt Elling of his generation — a stylist with solid chops, dramatic flare, a knack for making new material feel comfortable and for making standards feel fresh and alive.
Backed by a supple piano trio, Vasandani breathed new life into several tunes from “Porgy & Bess” and offered riveting renditions of lyrically potent original material such as “Naked As We Came.” The only question at this point would seem to be whether he’ll stick to the jazz circuit or bring his finely tuned dramatic sense to Broadway.
Elsewhere on the side stages Sunday:
- I have a new goal in life: To become just rich enough to hire Dr. Lonnie Smith to play at my retirement party. The organist was an absolute tornado of sound during his evening set on the Nigh Club stage, offering a forceful, hypnotic style of soul-jazz that seemed to take over the listener’s body. Maybe this is what fusion would have sounded like if the Fender Rhodes had been rejected in favor of the inherently groovier Hammond B3. Or how psychedelia might have turned out if the acid had been cut with equal amounts of caffeine. Abetting Smith on numbers such as the swirling, rip-snorting “Beehive” was axe-wielding maniac Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar, whose pyrotechnics kept a grin on the Dr.’s face while inspiring him to new heights of grooviness.
- Could it be that recent medical trauma has been a creative blessing for pianist Fred Hersch? Playing the first of two sets on the intimate Coffee House Gallery stage, the veteran player revealed a new emotional depth to his playing. He’s as technically proficient as ever, but new numbers such a “Whirl,” a lovely evocation of dance and movement, suggested that he’s moved from an intellectual focus to one that comes more from the heart. Absolutely magical.
- It seems like Dianne Reeves works better in a simpler setting that give her more room to explore nuance and dynamic range. Playing with guitarists Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo, the vocalist was pure joy to the ears as she worked her supple voice around an eclectic array of material. Those who only caught her main stage appearance Saturday missed a good chunk of Reeves’ story.
- One of the inherent strengths of the saxophone is that it comes in a variety of pitches, creating harmonic possibilities that have been sadly neglected in the post-Coltrane era of the soloist. Reminding us of what we’re missing was modal jazz combo The Le Boeuf Brothers, whose alto/tenor combo of Remy Le Boeuf and Mike Ruby produced beautiful passages that explored the magic of harmony and tonal depth.
- Not only is Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein a master of organization and targeted schmoozing, he’s a fine piano player. Leading a combo dubbed the Newport All-Stars, Wein dug into standards with charm and and aplomb. Bonus love for hiring Ken Peplowski to remind us how sweet a jazz sound the clarinet can be.
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