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Prisoners of the Past

Midway through the week, the JVC Jazz Festival kicked into life at a sedate homage to Charlie Parker's romance with strings, when the featured soloist, James Moody, bounded into an exultant "Cherokee," shaking off the ensemble like a great swan beating the wet from its wings. He soared, dove, and crested. The rhythm section floated him on the song's hammered harmonies, inspiring him on his tear while the resting chamber players glazed over with wonder. When he finally looped the last loop into a mocking shave-and-a-haircut finish, the crowd levitated. We talk about bop as though every postwar jazzman who plays changes with a beat enjoys equal access to its mysteries, but in fact few can essay the music's curvy melodic purity and drive of 50 years ago, when it was mint, daring, and not a little unbelievable. Though Moody was one of the first to augment and even parody that style, he never lost the knack— he just doesn't go for broke with it that often.

Moody was also one of the first to record with strings, two years after Parker; the subject in 1951 was "Cherokee" and he didn't do much with the piece that Parker had made his personal anthem. When Moody finally put his mark on the song in the 1960s, he adapted it as a virtuoso flute vehicle. So those who heard his "Cherokee" on alto last week will likely remember it, as there is no equivalent on records. And if you plodded through the whole festival, which was consumed by the past, you could not help but mark the distinction between art under glass and art under the gun. Stringing along with the Classical Heritage Ensemble, Moody was a choirboy— underrehearsed, tentative, and polite to a fault. Marking his own time— on quartet spin-offs of "Lover Man" and "Parker's Mood," too— he was a 74-year-old terror.

The Parker-with-strings concert embodied everything about JVC that is worthy and everything that ought to be a lot better. On the surface, it was quixotically generous, an attempt to revisit Parker's most controversial venture. The execution, however, was fatally halfhearted. The Ensemble, directed by Kermit Moore and bolstered by an enthusiastic Mike LeDonne rhythm section and James Fiorello's oboe, knew the notes better than the tempos, which were lackluster, while the unprepared soloist was inhibited by the complicated entrances and exits, missing a cue on "April in Paris" (LeDonne smartly filled the vacuum). Worse, the numbers were poorly chosen; four were genteel Jimmy Carroll arrangements from the first Parker strings session, the fifth an overwritten "I'll Remember April" by Joe Lippman, whose work Parker preferred. Not that more Lippman would have improved things. The opportunity lost here was to do something far more innovative: resurrect the superior pieces for strings that Parker commissioned from George Russell, Jimmy Mundy, and Gerry Mulligan, but never formally recorded, and secure the proper rehearsal time. A record company might have— should have, I mean— assumed the additional costs.

Jazz lovers have long since grown inured to close-enough approximations of ideas that look good on paper and falter in performance. But how much collective shrugging is permissible when jazz repertory assumes almost total dominance, as if it were no longer an option, but an oppressive movement: from swing to bop to post-historical reclamations? Everyone from Cassandra Wilson and Ken Peplowski to Geri Allen and Branford Marsalis had history on the brain, some of it fairly recent, and so did audiences who like nothing better than to hear what they've heard before. The 1999 JVC Jazz Festival was George Wein's 45th as a producer and my 31st as an attendee, and I can't recall a stranger one. It was not awful (as some were)— just gray, overcast, nostalgic yet unreflective.

There were moments. There are always moments. But for reasons I suspect not even Wein can explain, a festival assumes a character, a sum total of its parts, and this one— at least the part that was played out in the major halls— struck a tired note of surrender, to what I'm not sure. Between Bell Atlantic and JVC, between new music and old, a gaping hole opened that was once filled by the mainstream, the jazz lingua franca that everyone used to know. I should have caught the Joshua Redman and Diana Krall concert, which by all reports answered that need for twentysomethings (as the competing Dave Holland and Brad Mehldau didn't quite manage for me). Mired in the past, the festival made me feel like a frequent visitor to a museum that never changes its paintings.

Miles Davis is dead eight years, and he figured, directly or not, in three concerts. Cassandra Wilson performed selections from her Miles tribute album with a sextet directed by her bassist, Lonnie Plaxico. In a welcome change of attitude, she played to the audience, which responded gratefully, but moments of genuine intensity— a compelling "Blue in Green"— were few. The ensemble's soft rhythmic scrim was one palm tree too many. An absence of edgy four-beat swing and colorful harmonies enervated pieces in which her throbbing chants provided the sole signs of emotion. A steady diet of scalar improvisations in eight, tarted up with atmospheric percussion, will definitely take off weight. Shirley Horn, who was also scheduled to muse over Miles, elected not to, except maybe for "I Fall in Love Too Easily," and she was superbly poised in vignettes she made of signature Billie and Peggy songs— "Foolin' Myself," "How Am I to Know," "Fever." But she, too, was resolute about avoiding an adrenaline rush or even a wakeup call.

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