Saved by the Classics

Bell Meets (Is?) Big Brother

Okay, so Michael Dorf is not the Flo Ziegfeld of jazz, not yet. Forgive the prefestival enthusiasm, but the pain of festivals past, like the pain of pregnancy, has no shelf life. Last year at this time I was vowing to be in another country this year at this time, but then I looked at the schedule—Ornette! Max and Cecil! the Art Ensemble!—and capitulated to a heedless optimism. Where else would you want to be, and how could anything go wrong? Such a simple concept: You exchange a ticket for a specific seat, the lights go down at a prearranged time, great musicians emerge to play great music.

But that's not exactly the way the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, now in its second year and with tentacles in D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, works; as the heir to the long-running Knitting Factory What Is Jazz? festival and a fleeting season of Texaco sponsorship, Bell wants to be at once inclusive and legit and bohemian. So the great music that was played cost more than the price of a ticket. Consider the following triptych of big events. All were imperfect. But unlike so many of the lesser shows, at least they weren't predictable.

You may have heard about the blinding yellow lights, emanating from the stage and into the eyes of the audience, that went on a half-hour into Ornette Coleman's final set—the one with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins—at his opening-night Battery Park concert. The Parks Department chose to impose a curfew, subjecting patrons (who paid as much as $65) to an indignity it would never think of implementing at a free Central Park concert with Diana Ross or the New York Philharmonic, where the audience is many times larger. The lights were Commissioner Henry Stern's way of saying, "Coleman, you've got five minutes to finish your piece." The lights did not merely blink a warning, but remained on, while generators in the rear roared into clattering motion, until it was no longer possible to play or be heard. There were no assaults, no fights, no disturbances of any kind to warrant such treatment, though the crowd might have considered tarring and feathering Stern and the imbecile who hit the switch.

Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors
photo: Michael Macioce
Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors

Except for jazz reviews, the incident didn't make the evening news; we have become a city willing to accept arbitrarily imposed curfews—for our own good. Incidentally, the lights went on not at midnight or 1 a.m., but at 10:10. The concert began at seven. Unless the Statue of Liberty wanted to take a nap, the likelihood of residential complaints was nil. The whole business was pure thumb-in-your-eye bureaucratic idiocy. But it didn't begin there. From the late start, there were occasional jackhammers, as if the city and Bell were unaware of each other's existence. The sound, Bell's problem, was dismal for the opening set—the debut of Coleman's Global Expression Project, in which the backup musicians were amped at the same level as Coleman. Audio was especially cloudy in the press section, a holding pen populated mostly by suits who talked louder than jackhammers. George Wein figured out how to amplify an outdoor space and handle (ruly) crowds at Newport 45 years ago. At Battery Park, you'd have thought open-air concerts were a novelty.

For the second set, I escaped the pen and had no trouble hearing the American debut of the chamber piece alternately known as "La Statue" and "Freedom Symbol," a marvelous 40-minute paradox that begins and ends with notated ensemble sections and has a long middle section in which each player solos—improvising or embellishing a notated episode. Drawing on diverse influences from Renaissance music to 19th-century romanticism to jazz, the players generally acquitted themselves well, though Lew Soloff's startlingly rangy trumpet episode, accompanied by guitar and suggesting an exalted Coleman ballad, so outdistanced the rest you couldn't help but wonder what the piece would sound like if most of the players had been drawn from jazz rather than classical. The mounting and speedy closing section, bouncing off Greg Bendian's timpanis, is a roller-coaster thrill ride.

The concluding, hastily interrupted trio should have sent everyone away drifting on a cloud. Against Haden's buoyant rumble and Higgins's pneumatic suspension of time, Coleman's gorgeously ragged riffs swan-dived and jackknifed, ageless and serene, instantly echoing a distant foghorn, dropping momentary references to "La Marseillaise," "Autumn Leaves," and "The Good Life," and just freely exulting—until our guardians stepped in, for our own good.

Little attempt at crowd control was necessary at Columbia University, where Max Roach and Cecil Taylor revisited the site of their original 1979 duets. The city could not interfere and the music went on for hours, though most of those hours were prelude to the main event, including one by Bob Stewart's La Guardia High School jazz orchestra, with guest soloists (Warren Vache, James Spaulding, Wessell Anderson). Does any other music fetishize amateurism—from school bands to weekend dilettantes—the way jazz presently does? I was reminded of a story Ira Gitler tells about standing backstage with Gerry Mulligan at a concert in Europe while students played. A woman enthused, "Aren't they cute?" Gerry retorted, "Madame, jazz is not cute."

Happily, part of the evening was given to David S. Ware's quartet, with Matt Shipp, William Parker, and Guillermo E. Brown, a tremendous ensemble of virtuoso excess. Ware is a true believer who, with Ayler's tonal grit and Coltrane's volubility and Rollins's muscular drive, is an avant-gardist by design. He has not only taken the flash-fire music of the '60s another step, but constructed the ideal rhythmic foundation. Despite one piece with a triple-meter vamp, the quartet never let up and never lost the audience, which leaped to its feet at the end. Free jazz has always had a communal appeal, breeding a concert excitement that doesn't necessarily carry over to records—the kind of intensity that can be oppressive at home can be liberating when diffused through a crowd of thousands.

A few years back, I dreamed I detected a mellowing in Cecil Taylor's playing. If his recent work with Elvin Jones had not disabused me of such heresy, his reunion with Max Roach would have. From the git (no recitation, no song), he was titanic, pushing great parabolic blocks of sound as though brushing aside gnats. As he wound up, throwing in an occasional elbow, he suggested a high-wire athleticism—headstands, somersaults, leaving the wire altogether to fly! fly! fly! fly! Roach, who leaned heavily on a tuned tom that suggested a tenor timpani, never flinched. Au contraire: After 50 minutes or so, Taylor began what seemed a negotiation for closure; he looked up at the drummer and offered a possible clearing space, to which Roach responded with a furious fusillade that brought the pianist back to the front line. That happened several times, I think—Taylor working toward an exit and Roach slamming all the doors. Finally, at the hour mark, they agreed to desist, or at least ventured enough of a pause for Taylor to walk away from the piano, at which point Roach embarked on a drum solo. These guys, 71 and 76, would have known how to handle that punk Henry Stern.

For much of the week, I felt like I was in the hall of mirrors in Chaplin's The Circus—or maybe the party of ghosts in Kubrick's The Shining. One night I accepted an invitation from pianist Bill Savory to attend a memorial gathering for his late wife, singer Helen Ward, at the Hotel Pennsylvania. He had rented the penthouse ballroom, provided food, erected huge speakers to play his wife's records with Benny Goodman and others, and set up a bandstand for musicians who chose to sit in. Maybe a dozen people arrived. Staring out the window at the neighboring gargoyles, with Helen and Benny swinging behind me, I imagined eternal ballrooms, sparsely attended by those who wish to recall a dusty era, and asked a few of those present how it felt when their particular world ended, but no one could remember. Helen was still singing when I left for the Jazz Standard, where Uri Caine had different gargoyles on the brain, wrestling with Bach's Goldberg Variations. I like his Mahler, not so much his Schubert, and now it's time for Caine to come back to the blues. This was a novel montage-music that changed course often enough to avoid boredom, but without making a point. When Caine or his violinist played it straight, they didn't do it as well as Gould or Schiff; when his saxophonist (Greg Tardy) or trumpeter (Ralph Alessi) issued jazzy variations they punctured any illusion of continuity. A tango variation was slick and amusing, but Barbara Walker's gospel and DJ Olive's turntables added little beyond the suspension of belief. At least they got a few laughs. "As Long as You're Living Yours: The Music of Keith Jarrett," with Tom Harrell, Mike Manieri, and George Garzone, took the same stage later in the week to reflect reflections of pieces that do not exactly cry out for reinvestigation. When I could no longer feel a pulse, mine or the music's, I left. A few days later the same bandstand would be resurrecting Hank Mobley. Help!

I arrived early at the Knitting Factory for the Art Ensemble of Chicago's tribute to Lester Bowie, to get a seat; half an hour later it was claimed by regulars through some kind of primogeniture. Never mind, heard a terrific soundcheck, as Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Magoustut, and Famoudou Don Moye bopped with great insouciance and charm, Mitchell testing his flute (he practiced a strain from Bach), tenor, alto, and soprano, producing vital and distinctive timbres on each. The stage was packed like a winter closet with racks of drums, cymbals, gourds, xylophones, shakers, blowers —a complete store of "little instruments." The doors opened at eight for an eight o'clock concert, guaranteeing a late start—8:30, to be precise.

The trio finally arrived and began to explore the little instruments, which took another half-hour. Longueurs are part of the Art Ensemble's bag of tricks, but in all the times I've seen them I'd never experienced an interlude this tedious, not even when the point was provocation (as if you could provoke an audience at the Knitting Factory). When, at long last, Mitchell rose from the floor, where he had been crawling through the bric-a-brac, and played an extended, circularly breathed note on tenor, it was like rain in the desert. As Favors and Moye closed in, he configured a slow, familiar theme and followed with a relatively brief (maybe seven minutes) but riveting solo, flush with vestigial touches of Sonny Rollins. Changing to soprano, which he plays with perfect pitch, Mitchell let loose a hurricane of overtones, at times spinning parallel phrases as if playing two instruments, and swinging with candid exhilaration over an arching four-beat. On alto, he was more boppish, working over an appealing eight-bar theme. The Art Ensemble, a quintet until Joseph Jarman left, is a trio with the death of Lester Bowie, but it remains nonpareil, one of the best bands we have. Perhaps it should park some of the little instruments in the attic.

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