The Monterey Jazz Festival Hits the Road

The eclectic sextet is ready to wow.
The eclectic sextet is ready to wow.

From KRTU to the Kennedy Center, the current mission of jazz institutions is to prove that this genere is alive; that the art form's pulse today is as strong and unwavering as a Jimmy Cobb beat, that Art Blakey Spotify playlists, while enthralling, aren't the alpha and omega of jazz consumption.

The Monterey Jazz Festival is no exception. In the new century, the historic California festival has booked young musicians pushing the art form's commitment to creativity, while carving out headliner space for hit makers and living masters.

Founded in 1958 by radio broadcaster Jimmy Lyons, Monterey quickly became one of the premier jazz festivals in the world — the triple crown, so to speak, is filled out by concerts in Newport, Rhode Island and Montreux, Switzerland. Promising "sophisticated informality," the nonprofit festival also provides $500,000 each year for jazz education and sponsors a sextet of Monterey vets shredding across America.

Imagine if the NBA All-Star starters (plus a sixth man) kept their one-off uniforms and toured the basketball courts of the lower 48. This is the premise of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. A showcase of ridiculous talent and synaptic improvisation, the members of the traveling sextet have each played the summer fest between three and nine times.

By last name alone, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane is the most well-known artist of the bunch. The son of the supreme John and Alice Coltrane, Ravi has maintained the flawless jazz pedigree of his parents. But there's no room for nepotism on the bandstand — since his debut as a leader in 1997, the saxophonist has been one of the premier voices on his instrument. Coltrane's tone is warm and bright, a vehicle for lovely runs and shattering bursts of color. To get a sense of his charisma, spend some time with the 2012 album Spirit Fiction. Rooted in post-bop, Trane and gang pop with vitality, indebted to the staccato storytelling of Thelonious Monk.

To call Nicholas Payton a trumpeter would be in gross negligence of his prolific and varied career. The New Orleans native runs a record label (BMF), held a stint as visiting professor at Tulane University and writes elegantly on the heavily trod intersections of race and music. His 2011 album Bitches features Payton on every instrument, waxing on love from each position on the stage. His new album, Letters, is a double-effort with a tune for each grapheme in the alphabet — the trumpet doesn't even show up until "F for Axel Foley." When he does put his lips to his instrument, Payton is a jaw-dropper. So, next time you're feeling stressed while procrastinating in a bed of Cheeto dust and Netflix queues, think of Nicholas Payton's schedule and get back to work.

A man of many genres, guitarist and singer Raul Midon has the enviable combo of tasteful chops and broad, coffee counter appeal. This is the musician to show your parents if you want to bring them to the Carver on Saturday.

To extend the metaphor of the NBA All-Stars, pianist Gerald Clayton is the Steph Curry of the crew — a young, preternaturally gifted player who makes the impossible look easy. With Clayton in charge as musical director, expect a wide base for the band to build on, from swaths of classical texture to the free, midnight-black sounds of '70s jazz icons like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.

On bass is Joe Sanders, a sharp mind who cuts through tough chord changes like warm butter. A great communicator, Sanders is shaping up to be the Ron Carter of his generation — name a list-topping jazz record from the past decade and there's a good chance Sanders provided the low end.

Rounding out the rhythm section is Justin Brown, a drummer who sounds like a four-armed Goro behind the kit. Known for his work with NPR hunny and fusion-funk bassist Thundercat, Brown treats his unexpected fills like Gandalf treats his appointments, arriving precisely when he means/needs to.