Jazz's New Wing

Given all the clamor over whether or not Lincoln Center should unload inanimate treasures to subsidize performing ones, I was surprised at the lack of attention generated by the New York Philharmonic's plan for recycling Bach in 2000, the 250th anniversary of his death. Instead of using Bach's instrumentation and traditional orchestrations, they've commissioned contemporary composers to create updated versions, turning to pop and jazz for some variety; TAFKA Prince will adapt Partita No. 2; Diana Krall and Audra McDonald will sing the B-Minor Mass with new lyrics by Sir Andrew; and Wynton Marsalis will transcribe the cello suites for trumpet and rhythm. Bach is the most overhauled composer of all time, so there's nothing very novel here. Still, I expected more harrumphing. Like you hear in jazz.

Jazz repertory will peak in frenzy this year as everyone and his cat pay homage to Duke Ellington; all meet and proper. But while Ellington may be the greatest orchestrator since Berlioz, he was also a composer of melodies that echo throughout the past 73 years and it is ludicrous to argue that they be off-limits to adaptation. When Ellington was alive, jazz orchestras always commissioned versions of his work, not least because it would have been considered imitation or theft, not repertory or homage, to do otherwise. Like the constitution, Ellington's music implies more than can be bound by strict interpretation. The unevenness of the updated material performed by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band on January 21 underscored the maxim— usually attributed to Ellington or Stravinsky— regarding the two kinds of music, good and bad. Those Bach revisions may make your skin crawl, but if one or more works, you'll revise your prejudice. In music, new does not replace old.

The issue was raised twice last month in very different contexts. As part of the monthlong Blue Note celebration, Billy Higgins fronted a small band at the Jazz Standard, performing tunes made famous on Blue Note albums of 30 to 40 years ago. No one expected music director Don Sickler to mimic original instrumentation, because the tunes— good as they are— are considered launching pads for improvisation. They are neither pop melodies nor classic jazz. Yet some people were offended when the CHJB played an evening of Ellington half-authentic and half-revised, though perfectly willing to give Higgins a pass.

My first Higgins epiphany occurred about 25 years ago, when I went to see Cedar Walton and Clifford Jordan at Boomer's and was seated, to my dismay, ringside, the high-hat cymbal literally hanging over my table. I expected to be smashed into oblivion and instead fell in love with the pealing musicality of the drummer, who even from my vantage was in balanced accord with the quartet. The second came a couple of summers ago at Ornette Coleman's Avery Fisher triptych. Because he had been seriously ill, his very appearance was noteworthy. Coleman, Geri Allen, and Charlie Haden played imaginatively, instinctively, beautifully, but time and again my attention was riveted by Higgins's shining cymbals, sandy skins, and incalculably subdivided time— now you hear the one, now you don't, but you always feel it.

Burt Korall, who wrote the definitive Drummin' Men, recently pointed out to me that Higgins is the sonic heir of Kenny Clarke. That says a lot. When was drumming more sensuously illuminating than on Miles Davis's sessions of 1954? Clarke's shimmering tone-colors make those sessions roll. Higgins has that quality, as well as an analogous faith in the basic components of the trap set and a gentlemanly sense of dynamics. But his versatility is astonishing, from Coleman to Blue Note house drummer. He may not have invented the "Sidewinder" beat, but he made it his own— made jazz-funk fluid, radiant, deep, cool. At a recent Vanguard gig with Walton and Jackie McLean, he splashed the time, skating across it with rhythms that were less countable than intuitive. The terra was firmer as he fronted the True Blue Allstars, but he was no less spellbinding, pressing turnbacks, alchemizing plushness with just the snare and ride cymbal. On Dexter Gordon's funny blues march, "Hanky Panky," he would drive the backbeat for a couple of choruses then suddenly let up, allowing the piece and soloist to breathe.

Yet the set I caught was missing something: fire, madness, genius, a tenor saxophone. For all Blue Note's range, its signature sound remains the funked hard bop assault that began with Blakey and Silver in the mid '50s and climaxed with Hancock and Shorter in the mid '60s— hardly a music of fire, madness, and genius, as compared with Monk, Powell, Coleman, or Taylor, but bold and expressive all the same. The repertory of Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Hank Mobley, who was especially well featured, is rich enough to merit more than celebrational recycling, if the players are out for blood. Sickler, a deliberative trumpet player with a trim tone, played smartly and without risk; Curtis Fuller, a singular trombonist, charmed with triple-tonguing and foghorn timbre, but limited himself to single choruses; James Spaulding, an altoist with unsteady pitch, veered into neverland on "Soy Califa." A remarkable, just-issued 1982 concert by Freddie Hubbard, the key trumpeter of the True Blue era, glows with the electricity this idiom can produce; Above & Beyond (Metropolitan) respects nothing but the passion of the moment. Jazz repertory should be respectful, but not reverential.

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