There's always been something special about the jazz festival experience. Whether it was Paul Gonsalves' spectacular 27-chorus solo at Newport that landed the Ellington band on the cover of Time or epic duels and encounters at places like Montreaux, fans, critics and musicians treasure the experience.
Monterey's been part of that elite field since 1958, when a San Francisco disc jockey named Jimmy Lyons got the festival going by persuading Dave Brubeck to convince skeptical city-management types they wouldn't be subsidizing an event mainly populated by transients and junkies. Brubeck played there 14 times, and the festival's such a part of jazz lore that Clint Eastwood incorporated live scenes from it into his 1971 directorial debut Play Misty for Me.
The Monterey Jazz Festival on tour, which comes to Nashville Friday night, takes that tradition on the road. The term "supergroup" can be cringe-inducing, but it's accurate when referring to the band picked to celebrate the event. There's elegant, swinging vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, a Grammy- and Tony-winning singer equally celebrated as the host of NPR's Jazzset. Bridgewater's style is steeped in the precise timing and pinpoint vocal execution that's jazz's trademark, but also deplores excessive seriousness. Her partner in terms of band leadership is famed bassist Christian McBride. The son and great-nephew respectively of Philly jazzmen Lee Smith and Howard Cooper, McBride represents something many wish there were more of in the jazz world: a bridge between traditional and contemporary happenings. An astonishing acoustic player also able to execute the rapid licks and tricks that distinguish the instrument's electric side, McBride's at home with McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes just as much as with Sting or The Roots. Since 2000, The Christian McBride Band has delighted in giving audiences everything from hard bop to hip-hop-inflected material in concerts and on recordings. McBride also was the Los Angeles Philharmonic's creative chair for jazz from 2006 until 2010.
But there are absolutely no weak links in the Monterey Jazz Festival crew. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinnousire has gotten raves and praise unheard of for an emerging player since the early days of Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton. Chris Potter's the first saxophonist in decades that guitarist Pat Metheny has recruited to join his regular unit. Potter's forthcoming ECM release The Sirens drops Jan. 29. It's inspired by Homer's Odyssey, and it promises to be anything but your basic, conventional 4/4 jazz item. Pianist Benny Green and drummer Lewis Nash paid their dues with Betty Carter's band. Nicknamed "Betty Bebop," Carter was a champion vocalist famous for not suffering fools or players who couldn't cut it live.
Certainly hearing this band can't replace being out on the 20-acre Monterey fairgrounds at festival time. Huge crowds jam five stages and see more than 50 performances each September, while enjoying an array of seminars, exhibitions, conversations and vendors. But Friday night's performance will offer some of the explosive, unpredictable and brilliant music that's made the Monterey Jazz Festival a vital part of the improvisational universe for nearly 55 years.