The Monterey Jazz Festival on tour swung into Philadelphia April 8 for a concert night to remember, with veteran headliners Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling in concert with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Christian Sands, bassist Yashushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn. Musical director Sands orchestrated a concert that was so musically distinct and radiant with ensemble energy that this Philly audience was on their feet with lusty applause six times during the performance.
The MJF sextet opened with raucous version of “Too Close For Comfort” Bridgewater and Elling made the Sinatra standard a romp for their vocal chemistry, flirty, antagonistic, and scatting up and down the scales. . They are both jazz belters, like a Broadway stage veteran they reserve it for when it counts and their vocal chemistry and sense of fun is magic right out of the gate. especially when back up by percussive alchemists Sands, Penn and Nakamura and Benjamin’s sax solos.
Among the many highlights in this near two-hour concert.
Elling solos on a comic number about being on the road and making sure to “Call Her Today” or text his spouse. The novelty number turns into a vocal tour with regional accents from Manhattan snark to West Coast cool and even a few lyrics this side of the Smokeys.
Christian Sands assured the Lakecia Benjamin would be taking promised “taking the roof off” and she did just that with her composition “Trane” to honor Philly’s legendary jazz couple John and Alice Coltrane. Benjamin’s blazing flights of breathless staccato lines and lush as Benjamin channels John Coltrane’s lush sound. And laced in is universal clarity of Alice Coltrane’s cosmic harmony. By the middle of Benjamin’s solo, the audience was already on its feet and cheering.
Christian Sands slowed things down a bit and quoted lines from Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ and Rono ala Turk’ and told of his experience of being a 13-year-old pianist already playing in a club (with his mother’s approval) and , and in one performance he played bits of Dave Brubeck. A friend of Brubeck approach Christian and asked if he would like to meet one of him. And he did three weeks later when he spent the day with Brubeck, where they played piano together. Sands then played the tune learned from Brubeck that day- “Strange Meadowlark” in an intimate and warm homage to Brubeck.
Dee Dee Bridgewater has performed at Monterey Jazz Festival seven times and recalled her first appearance in 1973 where she was walking through the raceway and saw a man coming toward her, his horn in tow, and she realized it was the great trumpeter Thad Jones told the audience that her first performance at MJF was in 1973, where she met Jones and he told her that one day they would be working together and 20 years later, that dream came true.
Bridgewater introduced her number by admitting that she might not do it complete justice, since it was composed by two jazz legends, She reminisced about her friendship with Chick Corea, who died in 2021. Bridgewater said in preparing for the concert she was determined to deliver on Corea’s seminal hit ‘Spain’ first made famous by Al Jarreau who wrote the lyrics. She of course didn’t have to worry, her interpretive artistry on this classic pure gold.
Kurt Elling mused on the generational camaraderie of jazz musicians and the gift of being able to honor the legacies of the music and be part of defining the future path along the way. Elling honored Wayne Shorter and spoke of their collaborations and then launching into “A Remark You Made” Shorter’s soulful jazz ballad composed with his Weather Report alum Joe Zawinul. Elling’s warmth and intimacy backed up by Penn, Nakamura and Sands whispering accompaniment.
The finale was their barn burning rendition of Gene McDaniels 60s protest song “Compared to What” made famous in versions by Les McCann and Roberta Flack. Now still shaking the rafters in the concert hall by the MJF troubadours.
Elling and Bridgewater trading off verses and turning up the heat with every line. Nakamura lighting into a thrilling bass solo framed by Penn’s concussive drumbeats and by Sands on electric keyboard ala 70s fusion at its best Benjamin weighing with a rap lyric in a call and response with the audience. Meanwhile Bridgewater and Elling belting out ‘Trying to make it Real’ and belting out ‘Real’ for 16 or so bars. Monterey Jazz Festival ensemble made it real and more on this night- This was a Philly jazz night to remember and savor.