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Elemental fusions

Monterey Jazz Festival stars assemble at Wharton


The Monterey Jazz Festival brings together bassist Yasushi Nakamura, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Christian Sands, trumpeter Bria Skonberg and drummer Jamison Ross.

With six brilliant young jazz musicians in the mix, it will be hard to track all the criss-crossing chemistry when the Monterey Jazz Festival stars assemble at Wharton Sunday.

Here’s one strategy. Open your pores and absorb trumpeter Bria Skonberg’s elemental fusions with multiple-Grammy-winning singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.

“If I bring earth and dirt, she brings air and water,” Skonberg said.

Both women can toggle from gutbucket blues to string-of-pearls swing to delicate abstraction in a single phrase.

“Cécile and I approach music in some of the same ways,” Skonberg said. “It’s about people, stories. When I hear different grooves, it’s not just patterns. We share a love for earthy, gritty, down home thumping and bumping jazz.”

Reflecting the Monterey Jazz Festival’s goal of booking 50 percent female artists, the touring group’s entire frontline — half the group — are women.

“It’s not that hard,” Skonberg said. “The performers are out there. You just have to decide and do it and that’s why this really works.”

The assemblage kicked off a busy month-long 60th anniversary tour with a performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center March 15. The day before, they gathered for the first time since the Monterey Jazz Festival last September.

Each of them is a formidable bandleader, composer and musician.

“There’s opportunity for high level collaboration, but also for egos to get in the way,” Skonberg said.

Not so with this group. It’s a mutual fan club. They rehearsed, caught up with one another and went out to lunch before the tour started. Skonberg said they talked about everything from Herbie Hancock (“for about 40 minutes”) to the best way to clean cast iron skillets.

Skonberg is impressed with the tour’s high level of organization. As leader of her own groups, she’s used to booking the gigs, driving the tour van, finding lost drumsticks and doing whatever else it takes to keep the show rolling.

The well-oiled Monterey tour frees the members from dealing with the distracting logistics.

“We’re really grateful for being so well taken care of, so we can focus on the music,” she said.

The Monterey tour has always emphasized outreach, but the youth and diversity of this group is exceptional.

Christian Sands, the musical director and pianist, sets the tone by pushing the music into new regions while welcoming listeners unfamiliar with jazz.

“He’s the perfect balance of inventiveness and refinement,” Skonberg said.

Skonberg called energetic drummer Jamison Ross “an incredible master of groove. He’s supportive and open, but man, when it’s his time to shine, there is no light brighter.”

The group’s most unassuming member, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, is the “secret weapon that holds it all together,” in Skonberg’s words.

The stars really come out when you get to the group’s frontline. Skonberg first met Salvant in France, about 10 years ago, before Salvant moved to the United States.

“It was clear she had so much depth to her music,” Skonberg said. “The way she has artistically flourished since then is so inspiring. She’s won three Grammys, but she brings no ego.”

When the all-stars assemble, every member brings original compositions to the group to play.

Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana, familiar to Lansing area listeners from a recent MSU residency, is a potent force in the group’s front line.

“Her compositions were the ones I practiced the most,” Skonberg said. “She plays and writes with a strong intention and her work ethic is very commendable. She’s the one who wants to get to the venue at 9 a.m. to practice. I’m hoping some of that rubs off on this tour.”

Monterey Jazz Festival 60th Anniversary

Tickets start at $31

6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 24

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall



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