Is Everyone Happy?

Why complain if a jazz festival is no more than a highly publicized, highly congested confluence of concerts? It provides work, a little excitement, an occasional surprise, and focuses attention on jazz, New York, the impresario, and the sponsor. Is everybody happy? You bet.

Happy, but perhaps not entirely festive. The Texaco New York Jazz Festival stomped into town June 1 for a two-week party, offering something for everyone. Produced by Michael Dorf and centered at his Knitting Factory and other points south of Canal Street, it was not the rowdy What Is Jazz? thumbsucker of years past, but rather a big, big tent, assimilating mainstream jazz (Joe Henderson, Kevin Eubanks) and pop (Bela Fleck, George Clinton) along with the avant-garde and Downtown genrefication.

Texaco is no longer a rump festival, but a festival at the throat of JVC, which was recently sold to BET, an uninspiring prospect. JVC's conservatism is earned, a reflection of George Wein's taste as well as the demands of expensive midtown concert halls; BET's conservatism is institutionalized—it seeks product for TV. Texaco hasn't abandoned its roots, but in true arriviste fashion, it wants establishment respect, and will do anything to get it, even to the extent of mounting the phony baloney New York Jazz Awards, handed out at Lincoln Center before an audience drawn largely from "the industry" and willing to pay benefit-priced tickets ($150, half that for civilians). The awards are administered by Dorf's KnitMedia, which selected the voters and counts the votes. You will not be surprised to learn that virtually every nominee is signed to a major. Making it worse was the Jazz Journalists Association, handing out its own awards at the same ceremony—a clever bid on Dorf's part to find a credible beard in the JJA's president, Howard Mandel, who committed his organization without discussion or referendum.

Respect or no, a flatness pervaded the past two weeks, or maybe I was just hanging with the wrong people. San Francisco glows with civic pride during its jazz festival, which, like Texaco, is all over town, as do cities with festivals as varied as those of New Orleans, Pori, Cork, and the Hague. Downtown is out of town for some, and very little producing was evident in the production—with few exceptions, you got to see working bands, not one-time-only blow-your-mind festival extravaganzas. As it happens, the most exciting jazz event I caught wasn't part of Texaco and had no vocals and only ancillary instrumental solos. But later on that.

I went out in pursuit of pianists, and began with Sephardic Tinge (Spanish Jews, Spanish tinge—get it?), a trio created by Anthony Coleman, who has the rhythmic subtlety and anvil touch of Dave Brubeck, another pianist who tried to make a case for swinging the Middle East. Coleman opened for Muhal Richard Abrams, who proceeded to open for himself, devoting nearly half of his long (90 minutes) and continuous set to a throat-clearing study of the relationship between slablike soprano saxophone tones, played by Patience Higgins, and heavily pedaled rumbling piano. Bass and drums entered and there were moments of light, including passages of pointillistic piano (hammering à la Gershwin) and brazen saxophone chords, but it was all foreplay, without melody or focus. Then, after a mallets solo by Reggie Nicholson, Abrams struck up a vamp, Higgins took up his tenor, and great godamighty they were free at last, finding midpage what should have been their lead.

At one point Abrams laid out, leaving the field to Higgins, who affirmed his growing reputation as best-kept secret. Adapting his timbre with a powdery grit, he played undulating phrases with patches of melody (a line from Glenn Miller wafted by too quickly to catch), balancing a midrange attack with bottom-note blasts, sustaining two-note chords, and demonstrating the durability of a fixed free jazz. That pushed Abrams's button, and he bounded in with splayed chords in leaping rhythmic patterns that evolved into swinging, flashing linearity. He made the piano ring and played all of it, settling into a serpentine figure that Nicholson capered against. After a bass solo by Greg Jones, the quartet fired up again, fourth-quarter full-court press, percussive and coherent, if overlong. At the wind-down, I wondered if the first part, which no longer seemed so laborious (pain has no memory), was some sort of ploy to make dessert more rewarding.

Every time I see Cecil Taylor I forget, until the first grunt in the dark, that he is going to begin with a vocal warm-up (pain has no memory). Then, having no choice, I submit. A small price to pay, because you know that any minute he is going to sit down and do what no one else on earth can do, notwithstanding his many imitators. And so it was. His current quartet mines a surprisingly conventional pulse, and the soprano saxophonist adds little, but Taylor likes the option of receding into the mix every once in a while. Still, the others are not in Taylor's class and you can't help but wait on his brilliance—the onslaught of trilling, caroling runs; bass-chord punctuations; an occasional forearm for emphasis. He did it all—the cascades and dynamics and sudden change-ups. And then he slowed, the caesuras turning into stabiles, and the others incapable of picking up the slack. I thought for a tremulous moment: Is age (he is three seasons away from 70 and playing with uncompromising bravado) beginning to tell? The performance whimpered away, as he rose, stood for a moment, then quickly left the stage. But he just as quickly raced back for a splashy three-minute encore that said yes in thunder and lightning. Fuck age.

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