Long before Raul Midón made his name as a genre-bending singer-songwriter and innovative guitarist, he had dreams of being a jazz musician. So when Midón was asked to perform as part of the acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival tour, he embraced the idea of taking a break from being a solo performer and joining the accomplished ensemble.
"I originally started out thinking I wanted to play jazz, and then I started getting into songwriting, and I got into the idea of perhaps being more of a crossover artist—somebody who could bridge the gap," Midón says. "People are always looking for categories for musicians, and I don't fit anywhere."
Founded in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival is the longest continually running jazz festival in the world, having hosted nearly every major star since it began. The idea of a touring ensemble began with the 50th Anniversary, when an all-star group performed 54 shows across the country in 2008. This is the fourth national tour organized by the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Joining Midón are Ravi Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, musical director Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums (Kendrick Scott takes over the drums for the tour's March dates).
The group's Old Pueblo performance is part of the second annual Tucson Jazz Festival, which runs from Jan. 14 to Jan. 24 and features 13 performances by local and national jazz musicians, including NEA Jazz Master saxophonist Jimmy Heath and Grammy Award winning Snarky Puppy.
The Monterey Jazz Festival tour will feature a mix of jazz standards and original compositions from the individual musicians, a songwriting opportunity that Midón relishes.
"I'm writing some songs specifically for the ensemble. It's exciting and different, and it's something that I've always wanted to do anyway," he says.
Born in New Mexico in 1966, Midón and his twin brother were blind from infancy. Midón began playing guitar at age six, studying flamenco as a boy and later jazz at the University of Miami (his brother Marco pursued science and is now a NASA engineer).
Midón began his career as a session backup singer, appearing on records by Shakira, Alejandro Sanz, Julio Iglesias and Jose Feliciano and earning comparisons to soul singer Donny Hathaway. His solo breakthrough came with the 2005 album State of Mind, which straddled soul, jazz and Latin folk and featured a guest vocal from one of his heroes, Stevie Wonder. That year he made his national television debut on the "Late Show with David Letterman." Since 2005, Midón has released three additional studio albums and the live CD/DVD Invisible Chains.
Though not strictly a jazz musician, Midón nonetheless received invitations to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
"I've always loved jazz. I feel a connection to the music and to an extent a lot of those performers," says Midón, who now lives in New York. "I feel like I have a chance now to do something that could be just a little bit different."
Before being asked to join the Monterey tour, Midón hadn't performed with any of his new bandmates before, but he knew their styles and skills through listening to their records.
Forming a new band for a sustained tour is a lot different than just picking up and jamming together, Midón says. The musicians began with some shared favorites, feeling each other out as they performed some standards, but the goal was also to write and create new music as well.
"That's the one thing about standards, it's a language that every jazz musician knows," Midón says. "In the case of this band, we are rehearsing and we are playing each other's music and trying to bring something new to it and also have some standards that will have a different take to them."
The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour will play 28 shows in 10 states. Each performer has a strong history at the festival. Coltrane made his first appearance at Monterey in 2001, almost 41 years to the day after his father made his own debut there in 1960. Payton was Monterey's Artist-In-Residence in 2000. As rising jazz stars, Clayton, Sanders and drummers Hutchinson and Scott first performed at Monterey as high schoolers in the Festival's student competition and have each returned many times as professional performers.
"Everybody has their own music they want to present," Midón says. "Because I'm coming from the perspective of a songwriter, I'm still going to write songs that will fit into the jazz ensemble and be original songs. I've never quite done something like this, and it's really quite exciting."
Midón says he's been working to write some lyrics for one of Clayton's tunes, a bit of unexpected off-stage collaboration that shows how much respect the musicians have for one another.
"Gerald has some beautiful tunes," he says. "The idea of writing in the modern jazz idiom is what's exciting to me. It's interesting because it's a very flexible and very capable bunch of musicians."
The group has rehearsed, but not to the point that the performances will be scripted out to the note. In the jazz tradition, they'll use improvisation to create in the moment.
"I've worked with quite a few situations that were much more of a pop band, and basically you get the set and you play the set and that's it. With this, there's more room for doing something different with the set each night," Midón says. "That's the other side of jazz musicians, everybody's taking gigs all the time. We haven't all sat down and written together. Everybody's spread all over the country. The collaboration will come in the playing."