What's in a band name?
Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour is the rather unwieldy official name for the group featuring acclaimed jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and celebrated bass virtuoso Christian McBride.
It's not exactly original, as two previous bands have toured under that name. And the billing serves the blatantly commercial purpose of promoting the brand of the northern California festival, widely regarded as one of the country's oldest, biggest and best gatherings of its kind.
But after playing more than 25 shows on a 40-city tour that began in January and makes a stop at the Straz in Tampa on Saturday, the six top-shelf jazz musicians feel like a real band, McBride said last week from New York.
There, Bridgewater, McBride, saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Benny Green and drummer Lewis Nash played a dozen sets over six nights at the Blue Note, the famous Manhattan jazz club.
Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey festival, asked McBride, the tour's musical director, to "try to capture the feel of the festival, which is kind of hard to do because musicians make the festival," he said by telephone. "After digging further into his think tank, he (Jackson) says, 'There are a few artists who've always been associated with Monterey more than most — Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Gerald Wilson, Charles Lloyd. Give us a few songs by those grand masters who have been closely associated with Monterey, but do your own music as well.' "
Consequently, the group draws from music that might variously be classified as straight-ahead jazz, hard bop, soul jazz, and ballads, on original compositions as well as pieces including Brubeck's Mr. Broadway, Dizzy Gillespie's Tanga, and Bobby Hutcherson's Highway One. Bridgewater sings God Bless the Child, Don't Explain and Your Mother's Son-in-Law and other numbers associated with Billie Holiday. Holiday, honored by Bridgewater on her 2010 CD Eleanora Fagan, sang at the debut Monterey Jazz Festival, held at an outdoor horse-show arena in 1958.
"Even beyond the repertoire, with standards and originals, and a gamut of styles, we wanted it really well rehearsed and well oiled so we're not just a jam band," McBride said. "We wanted to make sure this band had a look and a concept and a sound. I've worked very hard on really approaching it as if we're a real band, and at this point, we are. We've been going since Jan. 10, so it's safe to say we're lived-in. It's come together well as a unit, not just an all-star jam band. We've seen enough of those over the years."
The sextet's members, who collectively have racked up nearly 35 performances at the Monterey fest, come by their synchronicity naturally. McBride, who estimates that he has played on nearly 300 jazz recordings, has worked with drummer Nash on 60 of those releases, and both have collaborated with pianist Green.
The rhythm section, McBride said, has developed an easy rapport with Potter, a journeyman saxophonist who recently toured with Pat Metheny, fast-rising trumpeter Akinmusire, at 30 the crew's youngest player, and Bridgewater. The singer, 62, the elder stateswoman of the group, has gained a worldwide following via numerous recordings and concert appearances, and her work as host of National Public Radio's JazzSet program. Additionally, she has won two Grammys, as well as a Tony for The Wiz.
"Dee Dee has seen it all, done it all, and worked with everyone," McBride said. "She knows exactly what she's doing. There's nothing you can get by her or nothing she doesn't want to try. She approaches her art the same way any instrumentalist would. She's so sure footed — she sings with such assuredness. We just love her fearlessness."