Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Monterey: The Vocalists

Jimmy Witherspoon—Live at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival
Shirley Horn—Live at the 1994 Monterey Jazz Festival
MJF Records

Some classic albums were recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, like Charles Lloyd’s breakout Forest Flower. In recent years though, it seemed like other festivals were much more prolific releasing live sets. However, the Monterey vaults have opened, happily resulting in several waves of live releases from prestigious jazz artists. Jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn and blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon are two such artists, featured in previously unreleased live festival sets from 1972 and 1994, respectively.

Jimmy Witherspoon was a blues singer who often played with jazz artists, including the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jack McDuff, so he was an easily compatible fit for the Monterey Festival, which he played several times. The band he brought to the fest in 1972, featuring Robben Ford on guitar, was also inclined to range into jazz territory. However, much of the set finds them squarely in a blues bag, like the deep slow “S.K. Blues” and “Goin’ Down Slow.”

The best moments of the set are indeed the bluesiest, like a heartfelt “I Want a Little Girl,” performed in tribute to the recently deceased Basie blues shouter Jimmy Rushing. However, some selections were abbreviated for various in-the-moment reasons, like “Walkin’ By Myself,” evidently cut short by a premature curtain. It is kind of funny listening to Witherspoon threatening to cut it open with his knife, at least the first time you hear it. Overall, Witherspoon’s 1972 appearance is a solid, respectable set, if not transcendent.

Shirley Horn’s 1994 set however was a total show-stopper. After a brief how-do-you-do rendition of “Foolin’ Myself,” Horn settled in for an incredible performance of Bacharach’s hoary old “The Look of Love,” that avoids all the camp and maudlin sentimentality usually associated with it. Horn invests the lyrics with stately gravitas, finding unexpected depth in the song, yet it swings like mad. It is the definitive version, so everyone else may as well stop recording it (seriously, please).

From the dramatic “Here’s to Life” to the rollicking “Hard Hearted Hannah,” Horn demonstrates pitch-perfect mastery of her art throughout her Monterey set. In her hands, an ostensibly cute little ditty like “Nice ‘N’ Easy” becomes a smoldering hot song of hard-earned experience, and again it swings hard. Consistently under-rated as a pianist, she closes with a rousing instrumental turn in the form of Oscar Peterson’s “Blues for Big Scotia” that had the audience clapping along.

This would in fact be a great disk to introduce listeners to Horn specifically, and to jazz vocalists in general. While eight of the ten songs were broadcast on NPR’s Jazz Set, the entire concert is only now seeing a commercial release. It is a fantastic live recording that might eventually come to be considered a legitimate classic.