Monterey Jazz Festival Records (an imprint of Concord Music Group) created its own record label last year in recognition of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s half century anniversary. The resulting series of cds provide an excellent introduction to ‘who’s who’ in jazz and blues – and at the same time present previously unheard and rare material for the ardent fan who might be looking to enhance a collection. Even people who aren’t quite sold on live concert albums – because let’s face it, they can sometimes be quite dire when the artist is removed from the studio – will find these recordings worthwhile because they really do capture the essence of the music and the crowd in a way that makes you yearn to have been there.
One of the artists that comes into his own in a live setting anyway is the wonderful classic blues man Jimmy Witherspoon. On this 1972 Live at Monterey recording, Witherspoon is teamed up with very young but more than capable guitarist Robben Ford as well as a band line-up that just smolders alongside them. Ford has nothing but good things to say about Witherspoon on the liner notes and it is clear that he is beyond excited to be playing next to “Spoon.” Ford is an integral part of the record himself though and his incendiary guitar skill shines in many solo spots. There are plenty of clever asides to listen up for from Witherspoon who talks to the crowd throughout and some of the seventies jargon is suitably hilarious and not to be missed!
Key tracks for me would be the 1959 but still incredibly vital ‘Bonus track’ When I Been Drinkin’ which is just a hypnotic piece that you won’t want to end. Tenor sax are ably supplied by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and the phrasing is so slick you’ll swear that the sax are forming actual syllables of agreement. The crowd is epic on this one too, hooting in true blues tradition. Witherspoon is understated and sexy. Listen late at night on a long road trip. If you can’t manage that, at least turn off the lights …
Walkin’ by Myself is an upbeat shuffle that has been elevated to a kind of anthem. The band is tight and Witherspoon’s vocals are earnest and heartfelt. This is just the kind of tune that you can only hope to hear when you go out to a new bar.
My only warning – not every track is created equally in terms of quality – so be prepared for variations in sound quality and accept it.
Interestingly, although the songs featured on this album are all very much blues in origin, the band – and especially Robben Ford – manage to massage a little jazziness into every one. Bassist Stan Poplin credits this phenomenon to the fact that the entire band had a “solid blues background” but every member was deeply immersed in jazz at the time and just couldn’t prevent it seeping into the sessions. Witherspoon himself was already noted for just this versatility in his own vocal style being equally at home with blues or jazz and strays intuitively between the two on this record.
Because the net profits get rolled right back into the Monterey Jazz Festival in order to nourish its own jazz education programming which goes on all year round, you can also feel good about buying this album – it’s a sweet deal in every way! There is also an impressive amount of variety in the artists that have been selected (from Art Blakey also captured Live in 1972 to Shirley Horn in 1994 and plenty in between) so there really is something for everyone.
Jimmy Witherspoon, vocals
Robben Ford, guitar and alto sax
Paul Nagel, electric piano
Stan Poplin, bass
Jim Baum, drums
*Bonus track: Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster on tenor saxophones;
Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Woody Herman, clarinet; Earl “Fatha” Hines, piano;
Vernon Ashley, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.
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