I am the
proud owner of a high-end stereo, as I trust many of you that regularly visit Enjoy
the Music.com are as well. While we enjoy searching out new equipment that
will raise the enjoyment of our time spent listening, it is really the love of
music that fuels the journey.
In the classical realm, I find myself searching out concert halls wherever my travels take me. With respect to my jazz yearnings, I eventually felt the tug of attending a jazz festival, and the associated urge to experience the musical magic uninterrupted for a long weekend. I was concerned if doing so would prove as enjoyable as the club and recording experiences that were inspiring the journey.
After all, the setting would not be as intimate as I was accustomed to. The music would not, for the most part, be acoustic (music comes courtesy of a sound reinforcement system). Would it even prove to be as enjoyable as my audio system? I have been to many rock/pop concerts where the sound was truly terrible. I was not sure what to expect from such a happening. Last year I decided to find out.
I made plans to attend the granddaddy of all jazz festivals ... the now 57-year-old Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF). I truly was not prepared for the experience. I was not prepared for the scale of the event. I was surprised not only by the sheer number of performers, but their breadth – from legendary names to young unknowns with obvious talent.
Their performances were scheduled on one of eight stages that range in size from a trio-sized temporary platform in the middle of a lawn, to the Jimmy Lyons Stage at The Arena that will handle a large orchestra (and seat about 6000). Four of the stages are outdoors – The Arena/ Courtyard/ West Lawn and Garden Stage. The other four are indoors – Coffee House/ Jazz Theater/ Night Club/ Dizzy’s Den.
The venues are located within short walking distance of each other with The Arena at one end of the property and Dizzy’s Den and the Night Club at the other. In between there are shops (music to clothing to artwork) and food (hot dogs to BBQ ribs to Funnel Cakes). The grounds are comfortable, and easily navigated.
The performances are well arranged and staggered in time to allow as much to be seen as possible. However, with this much music there are choices to be made ... Donald Brown Quartet at the Coffee House or Charles Lloyd Duo in Dizzy’s Den? Michael Feinstein at The Arena or Geoffrey Keezer Trio at the Coffee House? Perhaps one of the multiple “conversations” (interviews) scheduled which offer a slice of jazz history? You get the idea – you really cannot make a mistake – but you do have to decide.
Since half of the stages are outdoors, you can hear music most of the time, even when you are walking around, waiting in line to get an autograph, or sitting down and enjoying your made-to-order pizza. The music floats around you constantly, creating an environment unlike any club or concert I have ever attended, as you always seem to be immersed in it. The music ends up reaching your soul – you cannot avoid it (nor do you want to).
What you soon realize is that every genre of jazz
is represented – from the familiar traditional standards to the heavier
(almost rock & roll-like) drum beat or bass lines of the more current
compositions and arrangements. Most notice and some resist the inevitable
evolution; but jazz has always been about freedom of expression and that is on
full display at Monterey.
It is also wonderful to see the opportunity and exposure that young musicians are given. Throughout the weekend, but especially on Sunday, high school age performers get to play on the same stages as the main attractions and gain valuable experience as well as the chance to meet established, successful artists that can offer guidance regarding a career in music. The very lucky ones receive awards from MJF that honor revered members of the jazz community.
Attendees of the festival were from every walk of
life ... both young and old ... first-timers and well-adorned veterans ... music
lovers all. But it seemed something was missing. I attend multiple high-end
audio trade shows every year and have for quite a while now. In that time I have
had the pleasure to meet literally thousands of audiophiles.
At shows we get requests for a great deal of jazz
to be played as our reference recordings to demonstrate systems. Miles Davis,
Ben Webster, Louis Armstrong, Diana Krall, Duke Ellington ET all have gotten a
lot of play in both our home and our show systems. Jazz is arguably the most
popular genre of music in our hobby.
So you would think that audiophiles would be well represented at an event like the Monterey Jazz Festival. Well, I am terrible with names, but I do remember faces. Over the last two years I have bumped into three people that I recognized or that recognized me that I have met at high-end audio shows.
Now I am not naïve enough to conclude this sampling represents every audio hobbyist that was in attendance. But, I was surprised that audiophiles were not here in the numbers that I would have guessed, or for that matter in the numbers that support of such an event warrants.
As equipment lovers we want to go to audio trade shows. As
music lovers we should want to attend live concerts whenever we can. Although I
am in New York often at a club or at Carnegie Hall, it took me far too long to
get to a place like Monterey. I am hoping you can learn from my mistake and that
I can encourage you to plan your own musical adventure.
So besides the above broad-brush description of a truly marvelous event, let me entice you with something else that not only surprised me, but that actually blew me away ... the sound!
Please understand that the musicianship of these great artists
is not in question, after all not just anyone gets to perform at Monterey. I
expected it to be superb, and it most certainly was. The sound I am speaking
about is the sound as provided by the reinforcement systems found throughout the
Last year (my initial MJF), from the first notes of the opening set at 6:00pm Friday from the Garden Stage, I could not believe the extreme quality of the sound (please note this is one of the outdoor venues). The bass was extended and tight; the mid-range was clean (vocalists could easily be understood); the top-end was smooth and the overall dynamics were impressive. In short, it was so much more than I expected after my constantly less-than-thrilling experiences with large venue live sound. In addition, it was consistent from stage-to-stage; from day-to-day; and from year-to-year. These guys and gals know what they are doing!
However, there was one glaring anomaly for me last year. On
the last night, after having experienced multiple sets by different artists in
the arena, all of which were equally impressive (especially George Benson!),
something moved in the wrong direction with the closing act – Diana Krall.
Ms. Krall needs no introduction to the audiophile set being one of the most often requested female vocalists to evaluate the performance of stereo systems. We can sing along with many of her songs without missing a beat. From her first notes last year, something was amiss. So here I was at the last performance of the entire weekend, listening to the artist I was probably most familiar with, and this was literally the first time I had any thoughts about the sound being wrong or unacceptable. What changed?
We could only guess that whomever was in control of the
soundboard was different for this performance than for all the others. This year
I got to the fairgrounds a couple of hours before the first performance, and had
the opportunity to discuss last year with the technicians doing the sound checks
and setting things up.
I mentioned that I noticed the sound when Diana Krall was on-stage last year as being different from all the other performances – was I imagining things? The answer was that whether it was better or worse (I had not stated how I felt, only that I noticed a change), the MJF personnel mentioned that they had nothing to do with the sound – Diana had her own sound people set it up.
Sunday I paid a visit to the Jimmy Lyons Stage as they were getting ready for “The Sinatra Project” to be performed later to close the 2014 festival (I was curious if the same would be repeated this year). I went to the soundboard where Nick Malgieri (MJF) was working with Steve from Michael Feinstein’s entourage to get the sound dialed in. Using a Yamaha board (along with Yamaha pianos and drums on all stages), the settings can be memorized so that the sound could be tweaked for other performances that day and recalled for Michael that evening.
Michael Feinstein turned out to be a strong close to a wonderful weekend! Kudos Nick and Steve for a job well done! A fitting ending indeed consistent with the excellent sound standards established all weekend long.
I feel that my time spent recording live jazz has helped
establish for me a reference that is very valuable in audio (In the system being
evaluated, does the instrument sound like it sounded when I heard it live?).
Monterey offered the same level of reference. Impressive indeed!
The internal compass that is the music lover in all of us should point us to events like Monterey. It is a beautiful event at a great time of the year, and worthy of our support. I hope to see more of you there next year, as I will be there for sure! Until then... Enjoy The Music!