Jazz is an ambitious musical form by nature, and the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour exploits that to the fullest, teaming musicians who in some cases have never worked together before, and asking them to perform more than 40 shows all around North America.
It’s not like a one-off all-star jam of the sort that gives any jazz fest a unique spark. The tour’s featured vocalist, Dee Dee Bridgewater, pointed out during a recent interview that she — or any of the other high-caliber musicians on this jaunt — would not be content performing the same songs night after night. So not only did the players have to get to know each other, they also needed to learn a lot of material before shoving off earlier this month.
The upside is that unlike a jam that occurs at the Monterey Jazz Festival itself, the tour offers room for growth.
“At some point we’ll realize we’re an actual band. We’ll have a sound. We’ve all been learning from each other,” says bassist Christian McBride, who is serving as the tour’s musical director.
Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour will be at the Berklee Performance Center on Thursday.
In addition to Bridgewater and McBride, the touring band has drummer Lewis Nash, piano player Benny Green, saxophonist Chris Potter, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
California’s Monterey Jazz Festival started in 1958, a few years after Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival began, and has run every September since, giving it the record for continuity. The festival now includes year-round education initiatives (including a partnership with Berklee College of Music) and artist-in-residence programs. The Monterey festival launched a touring component to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2007. This is the third time Monterey Jazz Fest has put a show on the road.
“We wanted artists with ties to the organization and were cross-generational,” says Tim Jackson, artistic director for the Monterey Jazz Festival. “Dee Dee is the senior member, having first performed at the festival in 1973. Ambrose was the festival’s artist in residence in 2012, and was part of the festival’s high school all-stars bands [in 1999 and 2000].”
McBride says Jackson charged him with making sure each stop on the tour is dedicated to the history of Monterey or its signature artists.
“That legacy includes Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, so it’s an easy job for me to find material,” says McBride, who along with Nash just happened to work with Bridgewater on her 2010 Grammy-winning recording of Holliday songs.
McBride says using jazz’s past as a springboard suits him, noting that those always wanting to find “the new thing” are actually missing out.
“You can’t go to new places if you don’t know where we’ve been,” McBride says. “Artists who are anti-tradition typically are just afraid to see if what they’re doing has been done before.”
McBride is certainly not an artist stuck in the past; he’s too busy to get stuck in anything. During the break between the two legs of the Monterey Jazz tour, McBride will engage his regular band Inside Straight in a short tour and prep for the release of two new albums.
But he is a bit of a stickler about purity.
“Monterey Jazz is one of the few festivals that actually stays true to its billing. When you go there, you’ll see actual jazz artists,” McBride says. “It never exploits the word. Other festivals will have 30 percent jazz and then pop, rock, R&B, or whatever. Stylistically, I have no problem with that, but call it a music festival, not a jazz festival.”
Bridgewater, echoing McBride, assures that the traditions infusing the concerts are getting modern twists simply by virtue of the ensemble’s freshness. All-star bands typically coalesce around instrumentalists, a fact not lost on Bridgewater, who says she is taking advantage of her unique role.
“For me, this was an opportunity to be a musician,” says Bridgewater, who has had success in musical theater as well as in jazz. “With this caliber of musician, I knew I’d be able to showcase other sides of my singing. I’ve never played with these two horn players. Their phrasings and solos are so new to me. They are outside my musical setting, and that brings out something in me.”
Even though the tour allows Bridgewater the chance to scale back to some raw skills, she knows the strong suit she needs to play as well.
“Having me involved brings an entertainment aspect to the show,” says the Tony Award winner. “I like how Tony Bennett described himself as a jazz entertainer. When I read that, I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I do.’ ”
Bridgewater tells a story about Akinmusire — a brilliant young player who turned in a fierce set with his band at last summer’s Newport festival — fretting early in the group’s formation about fitting in with the others.
“I just told him we’re blending it all together. We’re creating as a unit,” Bridgewater says. “I’m not changing my style. I just bring my own style to it, and he should let go of that notion of needing to change anything.”