Rhoda Teplow has been attending Monterey Jazz almost as long as the festival has existed.
“I have been coming ever since I got my driver’s license at 16-years old,” says the Mendocino resident. “Now, I am 76-years old.”
Yet, she wasn’t able to attend in 2020, as organizers cancelled (or, as they put it at the time, “postponed”) last year’s event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first time that the festival had missed a year since it got its start in 1958 — 63 years ago.
“It was sad,” Teplow reflects back on missing 2020.
But sadness was replaced with joy, frowns with broad smiles, as Teplow and approximately 2,500 other music lovers returned to the Monterey County Fairgrounds on Friday (Sept. 24) for the long-awaited opening night of the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival.
And what an opening night it was, with Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock — two living legends of the genre — performing on the festival’s main Jimmy Lyons Stage.
“You can’t do any better than that,” commented Tim Jackson, the festival’s longtime artistic director.
It was the start of three days of music, with Ledisi, Miho Hazama and m_unit, Las Cafeteras, Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science and others set to take the stage on Saturday. George Benson tops the bill on Sunday, a day that also brings the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Christian Sands Group, Kandace Springs and more. For more information, visit montereyjazzfestival.com.
Organizers were expecting capacity crowds throughout the weekend, having quickly sold out of tickets not long after they went on sale back in July.
“Ten minutes after the tickets went on sale, we were on,” says Susan Fior, a longtime Bay Area resident who now lives in Italy. “We were laser focused.”
The festival was operating at reduced capacity due to COVID-related safety precautions — with ticket sales capped at 2,500 as opposed to roughly 10,500 that could attend per day in the past — and they weren’t nearly as many stages as usual. Most of the action took place in the famed open-air arena (on the Jimmy Lyons Stage), but there was also a small stage set up near the entrance, where the Mimi Fox Organ Trio held court on Friday night.
“Even though they scaled it down, I was still going to come,” said Berkeley resident Gloria Frank. “I’m so happy I did.”
The music on opening night was superb, starting with guitarist Fox and her organ trio greeting people as they entered the festival grounds.
Then Metheny and his wonderful new trio project — Side-Eye — delivered the first bits of music played on the Jimmy Lyons Stage in two years. The tunes were bold and ambitious, living in that space where daring meets extreme artistry, as the legendary guitarist worked in this unusual trio setting with drummer Joe Dyson and keyboardist James Francies.
Missing in the mix, of course, was the bass. Yet, it sure didn’t feel/sound like it was missing, as the amazingly talented Francies handled some basslines on the keyboards and Metheny added in others on his assortment of guitars. It was a thrilling musical adventure — and one that other fans can experience for themselves when Pat Metheny Side-Eye performs Sept. 25-26 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco (sfjazz.org).
Hancock was up next, balancing classic and newer material in a performance that thrilled fans at the Jimmy Lyons Stage. The pianist-composer took the crowd through a variety of musical vibes, from flat-out funky and soulful to adventurous and avant garde.
The jazz master, of course, has a long history of performing in fantastic groups — and the one he brought to Monterey certainly qualifies as such. Guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus, flutist-vocalist Elena Pinderhughes and drummer Justin Tyson greatly helped Hancock close out Opening Night of the long-awaited 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival in memorable fashion.
Hancock and his band also perform Sept. 25 at the Oxbow Riverstage in Napa. For more information, visit apeconcerts.com.