The Jimmy Lyons era of big-band programming is over at Monterey Jazz Fest. So is all the straight-ahead stuff that went with it. For those who associate the word “jazz” with Paul Chambers laying a cool bass ostinato over Jimmy Cobbs’ brushstrokes, this year’s fest would have been an awakening of sorts. The artists featured on Saturday’s lineup were part of that tradition, but conversant in many others — blues, hip-hop, world music, gospel, even noise. This year’s festival included acts like The Nice Guy Trio, Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, Billy Childs with the Kronos Quartet, and Brass, Bows & Beats Hip-Hop Symphony. For a 53-year-old institution, it was adventurous.
Twenty-four-year-old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews was clearly this year’s big, emergent star. The kid can play just about any brass instrument he gets his hands on. During his set at Monterey, he switched from trombone to trumpet, sang, led a seven-piece band, quoted James Brown, Juvenile, Black Eyed Peas, and Sinatra, clapped a second line rhythm, and led rousing versions of the old standbys: “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Down By The Riverside.” His group, Orleans Avenue, bills itself as a Big Easy-style brass band, but it poaches liberally from other regions — for some songs, the drummer played a West Coast backbeat. Shorty ably made himself a festival sex symbol. In the program guide, he posed in a wifebeater, dark sunglasses, and an expression that translated: “Whatever the proposition is, you know, I can hang.”
And as for sex symbols, Shorty wasn’t the only one. Singer Gretchen Parlato took the Night Club stage on Saturday to a packed house. She was slated to perform at 7:30 p.m., but folks were queuing up as early as 6 p.m. By 7, the young vocalist had a line around the block. It was well worth the wait. Parlato won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004, and she’s gradually parlayed that street cred in the years since, cutting an album on ObliqSound and becoming the hot young thing on the New York scene. At Monterey, she performed with her usual quartet: Bay Area native Taylor Eigsti on keys, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Alan Hampton on bass. The set was terrific. Parlato has a relatively small range when compared to many established vocalists. But her phrasing is imaginative. She seems to think like a drummer, vocalizing or clapping out beats, sometimes flowing in and out of time. The band played a few favorites: a Monk ballad, Parlato’s now-famous cover of the SWV song “Weak,” “Doralice,” Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.” Scott alternated between drumsticks, brushes, and playing traps with his hands. On some songs, the band did the verses and solo sections in two different time signatures.
For younger generation jazzheads, those were easily the highlights on Saturday. Not that we don’t appreciate traditional combos — most of us did grew up on Lush Life and Kind of Blue, after all. But it’s refreshing to see musicians with a contemporary sensibility. Trombone Shorty samples all the Top 40 hip-hop riffs we imbibed as teenagers; Parlato wears big, dangly earrings and keeps her hair in a mohawk. Lisa Mezzacappa is a refugee from the punk and metal scenes, who ultimately gravitated to improv.
Granted, this year’s Monterey Jazz Fest did have its glints of nostalgia. Singer Diane Reeves closed out her set with “Misty.”