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Monterey Jazz All-Stars Are a Tour de Force

Sextet that comprises the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour demonstrates a rare mastery in an unforgettable performance.

Upcoming jazz concerts at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center include Branford Marsalis on Feb. 2 and Sonny Rollins on April 20. But it's hard to imagine that either could put on a better show or more greatly enthrall an audience than did the all-star jazz artists who make up the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour who performed Wednesday night.

Sweet and cool, brash and smooth, vocalist (and Tony winner for The Wiz) Dee Dee Bridgewater sang with a gusto, a passion and almost as many styles as she had numbers. Pianist Benny Green practically glided through complex improvisations. Veteran tenor saxman Chris Potter and relative newbie Ambrose Akinmusire created musical magic when they played together. Drummer Lewis Nash showed time and again why he is king of the cymbals.

And then there was Christian McBride, the ebullient musical director and the glue that held it together, kept it moving and made you see possibilities in the bass you just hadn't previously imagined.

Each of them  had a proud association with the Monterey Jazz Festival, celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. But if you can't  make it to Monterey in the fall, this sextet is more than up to showing you what you're missing. And as masterful as each of these artists are individually, their sum is still much greater than the parts.

They did it with 12 numbers, six per set. Just from the enthusiastic applause, it might be hard to pick the highlight of the evening. Still, I'm going with Bridgewater's gospel-infused rendition of Billie Holliday's God Bless the Child. Her rich, powerful voice and unassailable bebop skills reflect her renewed celebration of her personal and artistic freedom, which she symbolizes with shaved head.

In this instance, Bridgewater gave new dimension to the classic Holliday song. But Bridgewater is also perfectly capable of channeling Holliday, as she did in the opening number, My Mother's Son-In-Law. You can hear the number on Eleanora Fagan, Bridgewater's tribute CD named for Holliday's given name.

Also praiseworthy was Bridgewater's take on All of Me, a song she performed at age 23 during her first appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival almost a half century ago.

Virtually each number offered each musician a chance to improvise with impressive riffs and audacious solos, and they made the most of it. Akinmusire, only 12 years removed from the time he played the Monterey Jazz Festival as part of a high school all-star band, demonstrated his mastery of the trumpet with one of his original compositions. Chris Potter , 42, gave more than enough evidence to show why he already has more than 150 CDs to his credit as a studio sideman.

Neither overly familiar nor cutting edge, the sextet wowed the Valley audience from the start to the encore, the bouncy theme by Dave Brubeck for Mr. Broadway , a CBS series that came and went in the fall of 1964.

The affection was mutual. Declared McBride: "If only all jazz audiences could be this loud and enthusiastic.  We're going to Nashville tomorrow. Can you come?"

No doubt many in the main theater gave it more than a cursory consideration.

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