Monterey Jazz Fest 2016

September 16-18 saw some of the world’s best jazz musicians playing in Monterey, with Wayne Shorter, Kamasi Washington (!!!), Gregory Porter, Joshua Redman, and Branford Marsalis  all playing in the main arena for an incredibly stacked lineup.
Buuut I didn’t see any of them, partially because my student ticket ($22 for a full day) didn’t cover the main arena (not bitter), but mostly because my attention was totally focused on Ibrahim Maalouf and Elena Pinderhughes, the former being my favorite trumpet player, and the latter being a flute player and vocalist who tours with my second favorite trumpet player (Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah), and who is a phenomenal musician in her own right.


I sped down from Santa Cruz late in the afternoon, having had to stay in town for the most of the day, and got to Monterey just in time for Ibrahim’s show. I had to go back to Santa Cruz immediately after, despite having an all-day ticket; and it was absolutely worth the time and money. Ibrahim performed his jazz combo’s rendition of Alf Leila wa Leila (1001 Arabian Nights), one of the most famous Arabic music classics by Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. Everything about the song makes it a cornerstone of Arabic culture: the singer, the style, the literary reference. Ibrahim, who currently lives in France but is originally from Lebanon, put a modern spin on his take of the song, parting it into four-movements (it’s originally an hour long). The version he played was a fusion of jazz, rock, and traditional Arabic music, including a cadenza where the rest of the band cut out and Ibrahim and spun the themes through Baroque, bebop, and even a hip-hop breakdown. He’s even able to hit the quarter tones in the Arabic maqqams because he added a fourth valve to his trumpet. The full song is on Youtube (minus the hip-hop).

After the performance I slipped backstage to meet him; he’s only in the United States once or twice a year and I had to hi. Despite clearly being tired (and probably not in the mood to meet fans), he was really nice and talked with me for a bit. Since my father’s from Lebanon I asked him about his roots; it turns out he’s from a village barely ten minutes (walking, not driving) away from where my dad grew up. Which of course made me want to ask a million more questions, but soon after I let him be and headed back to Santa Cruz.


The next day I came back with a bunch of housemates for a fuller day at the jazz fest, with the ultimate goal of seeing Elena Pinderhughes’s evening performance. We relaxed, ate good food, and enjoyed being some of the few people under 50 at the event. I’ve never seen so many happy drunks in my life. Maybe the key to drinking is just experience; on the shuttle over I sat with an elderly lady who was drunk out of her mind and forgot everything I said ten seconds later, but was laughing the entire bus ride, and totally thrilled by Davina’s performance.

Me and my friends sprawled on the grass in front of the Garden Stage while the Montclair Women’s Big Band and the Tommy Igoe Groove Conspiracy played. Right when the sun began to set it was time for Elena Pinderhughes and her band.

Every musician on stage was phenomenal. The drummer (Corey Fonville) and guitarist (Gabe Schnider) both were with Christian Scott for Complex’s Complex City Cypher, (featuring A$AP Ferg, Wiki, Your Old Droog) – one of my favorite modern jazz and hip hop collaborations. I hadn’t heard the bassist, Josh Crumbly, before, but his playing was so lyrical, both in solos and his regular bass lines. And the piano player was none other than Elena’s older brother, Samora Pinderhughes; together, he and Elena composed most of the songs they performed that evening.  And the songs were beautiful: Elena switched between playing flute and singing, and in both cases she had a warm, gentle, flowing sound that still carried a ton of emotional power. Something about the way the music itself – definitely jazz, but definitely different than any kind of jazz I’d ever heard before – would effortlessly shift from tranquil and introspective to explosive, energetic, and complicated in a way that perfectly suited her playing made it impossible to look away. I was completely invested and absorbed, which is really rare for me; despite being a musician and loving listening to music, I tend to get really restless at concerts. I had no desire to leave at any point in time during this one.

But my attention was shaken from time to time by a red-faced gray-haired man, lying on his back front and center and less than five feet away from the stage, who was completely passed out except for an occasional eruption of hacking and coughing.  It was so rare that he would wake up that we weren’t even annoyed, but we had the hardest time keeping our laughter in. I mean, it was to the point that the first few times it happened we thought he might need medical attention. I can’t imagine the band didn’t notice; but they didn’t show it if they did.

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