Touring the Jazz Museum

JVC 2000 Looks Backward

Another sextet followed, this one modeled after the Kansas City Six, with Geri Allen and with Steve Wilson's alto instead of Lester Young's (or Buddy Tate's) tenor. Twenty-year-old Bilal Oliver tried to get a rise out of "Going to Chicago"—a departure from the original program—but was too eccentric and whimsical (e.g., falsetto scat) to make his case. What came next, however, was the week's unexpected triumph. Dianne Reeves joined the band to do two Ida Cox blues, and while I would like a tape for confirmation, it seemed to me she was more enchanting than Ida herself. I reviewed Reeves in the '70s, when she was in her teens, and raved—thinking I was in the presence of a young Sarah. Every performance and record since has knifed my expectations. I have invariably found her mannered, showy, superficial, overproduced, whatever. I am now smitten once again.

She counted off a dangerously slow tempo on "Low Down Dirty Shame," coolly limned by Geri Allen, and attacked the song as though she'd just come in from a TOBA vaudeville tour, mining the lascivious wit in every line and getting all the laughs. She commanded attention with her nuances and unfailing time, inspiring Steve Wilson to his best solo and Randy Sandke to a sympathetic Shad Collins-style obbligato. "Four Day Creep" was even better. Without suggesting anything in the way of mimicry or overt homage, she captured the old blues diva aesthetic: natural, funny, and sure, incarnating the blues as short stories with coquettish punch lines. In a duet with Dr. John, she zeroed in on "Come Rain or Come Shine," dramatizing it to the hilt.

By contrast the Basie band, directed by Grover Mitchell, merely sounded great (the dynamics, the tuttis), when the Basie band should be more than that. It was nice to hear Kenny Hing and Doug Miller trade choruses on "9:20 Special," but no sooner did they start than they had to sit—each number was expeditious and short, except "One O'Clock Jump," which featured nine or 10 choruses by Don Byron, his most adventurous outing of the night, particularly when the band riffed at him like a hot poker. The finale consisted of the McCollough Sons of Thunder from Harlem—a tailgate trombone brass band, led by Elder Edward Babb—which marched down the aisles to the stage for an exhilarating close.

Cassandra Wilson: shoelessly cohesive
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Cassandra Wilson: shoelessly cohesive

If "From Spirituals to Swing" was peaks and valleys, "Porgy and Bess & Sketches of Spain" was level and emphatic—maybe the best case made for jazz rep since Maurice Peress and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band revived "Black, Brown and Beige." The names Miles Davis and Gil Evans appeared nowhere in the playbill and were not mentioned onstage. Small point, but a program would have been nice. Last year, JVC presented a performance of Kind of Blue, so Miles continues to be a major draw. Yet conductor Maria Schneider and soloist Jon Faddis did more than offer a robust and faithful rendering of two classic albums; they argued by example that here are two of the great concerti of our time. It would be a shame to put them back in mothballs.

The presentation was immaculate—no emcees, no talk of any kind. Just bam! right into the roaring, weirdly Asiatic chords of "The Buzzard Song," and no rest for the weary. Schneider produced a hugely persuasive orchestral sound. Only the recollection of Paul Chambers's magnificent bass was shortchanged, especially on "My Man's Gone Now," which tends to flaccidity even on the original; fidelity to the text does not mean you can't kick the tempo a little if warranted. Still, for the most part I was happy to forget the records. Jon Faddis remains one of jazz's enigmas—an outstanding trumpet player and guaranteed crowd pleaser who is rarely cogent on records, partly because he cannot resist the Faddispheric climaxes that are his signature. He scrupulously avoided the high notes, and did not attempt to imitate Miles. Playing flügelhorn and trumpet, he finessed on its merits, delighting in the sliding two-pitch blasts that identify "Solea." It will be interesting to see if he can translate such Milesian caution into something more personal.

The audience was wonderful. At first, it refrained from applause between movements, as though paying respect to the rituals of classical music. But after "Gone" (excellent drumming by Dana Hall and a pointed Faddis solo), it said the hell with protocol: no obligatory applause, but no restraint when something merited an ovation. Faddis was almost too understated at times—I missed Miles's sobs and cries—but, working closely with Schneider, he kept both works on target, and may have surprised even himself with his hard-bitten eloquence on "Saeta" and Rodrigo's adagio. Carnegie, too, responded in kind; every instrument, from tuba to harp, rang clear, as did the shimmering woodwinds on "I Loves You Porgy," the building riff of "Prayer," and the Tchaikovsky-like colors on "Pan Piper."

Other moments during the week were no less memorable. Even a dreadful Bill Evans tribute at the Kaye Playhouse, which attempted to honor him as a composer and produced an arid, fat, and comfortable music, had a couple of brief privileged moments: Renee Rosnes captured none of his drive or touch, except on "Epilogue" (from the 1966 Town Hall concert), a fleeting glimmer of his genius; and James Williams brought artful voicings to Evans's arrangement of "My Man's Gone Now." The first of the Carnegie Hall concerts, a Cliffs Notes history of tango called "Passion and Swing!" whet the appetite for more of Pablo Ziegler's piano and Julia Zenko's voice—she sang a startling passage from a 1968 Astor Piazzolla opera that consisted of constantly rising phrases, allowing few discernible rests. No less appealing, in a collaboration with Ziegler, was Gary Burton, whose playing burbled with melody and whose lightning four-mallet technique remains wizardly. Another nice touch: dancers.

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