Minnie the Moocher's Revenge

Sing Along With the JVC All-Stars

Say this of JVC: The plot changes annually. It may look the same on paper, may list toward the same artists, suffer the same limitations, capitulate to the same distractions, but George Wein's flagship festival manages to take different turns each summer. If I am more conscious than usual of past vagaries, triumphs, subplots, and themes, contrived or otherwise, it is because midway through this edition, I realized that I had been reporting on the behemoth variously known as Newport-New York, Kool, and JVC for 30 years. Thus I thought I might peruse my old reviews. Two seem especially relevant: In 1991, the cast focused on under-40s and over-60s, leaving the boomers out in the cold, not for the last time; in 2000, every event paid its respects to the past. The current edition reversed both trends.

Identifying bona fide boomer jazz heroes requires some precision. I refer to those who came into their own when we were starting to listen, as opposed to those who, though only slightly older or even younger, were already established parts of our inheritance. Dewey Redman, who turned 70 in May but had no national reputation until 1967, makes the cut; Phil Woods, who turns 70 in November but was a star long before 1960, does not. Boomer heroes—notably Redman, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, and did I mention Wayne Shorter?—accounted for most of the expectations and red meat at JVC 2001. Jazz's past was evoked, but not fetishized. At a tribute to Coltrane keyed to the 75th anniversary of his birth, for example, no one ever mentioned John Coltrane or played any of his music in his style.

A very boomeresque motif developed. Never in my experience at a jazz festival was so much audience participation encouraged. Credit it to the unacknowledged influence of either Minnie the Moocher or Pete Seeger. I counted no fewer than four sing-alongs and four clapfests, not to mention practiced routines in which the audience was obliged to stand and whoop for five minutes in order to get encores already scheduled. We received no payment for our efforts.

Wayne Shorter: no more pined-for sight in jazz
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Wayne Shorter: no more pined-for sight in jazz

The major concerts got under way at Kaye Playhouse, with "Who's on First?" Repeating (sometimes verbatim, down to the patter) the Los Angeles engagement that Blue Note issued last year, Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough alternated individual sets and duets. Entertaining as the album is, the visual component is such that the two must be seen live to be fully appreciated: Frishberg, the short Brooks-blazer Midwestern Jew, who honed his neuroses during long stays on both coasts, writing and singing songs to fend off rude times and hifalutin clichés; and Dorough, the grinning, ponytail-wearing Arkansan beanpole, writing and singing songs to celebrate the dawn of a new day, invulnerable to absurdity. They have been friends for four decades, co-composed "I'm Hip," and worked on Schoolhouse Rock. Each began as an accomplished bop pianist and celebrates jazz heroes in the language of jazz fans. Frishberg is knowingly funny, if occasionally saccharine; Dorough is accidentally funny, if occasionally overbearing.

On his own, Frishberg rambled from an understated piano medley of Harold Arlen to several of his best-known portraits—"My Attorney Bernie," "Quality Time," meditations on Zoot and Bix, the brilliantly arch yet genuinely nostalgic "I Want to Be a Sideman," and a new song, "The Hopi Way," which derives much humor from the melodic/verbal surprise of the tag line, countering a list of temptations and woes with the singer's improbable allegiance to the Hopi creed. Dorough, for his part, patrolled the stage waving branchlike arms, switching between pianos, milking the audience, and having the time of his life, croaking and twanging autobiographical benchmarks: "Devil May Care," "Nothing Like You," musical settings to official prose (parking summons, laundry ticket), tributes to Bird, Billie, and Bechet (Don Nelson's affecting "Something for Sidney"), and homages to Hoagy Carmichael—"Hong Kong Blues" and "Baltimore Oriole." They wrapped up with a duet on "Conjunction Junction," Dorough conducting the audience on the refrain. The crowd, apparently suffering from stage fright, was eerily high-pitched.

On the second night, instead of one of the usual swing or guitar evenings, Wein allowed Joshua Redman and Eric Reed to bring to Kaye a touch of Gen X modernism, which amounts to the modernism of midcareer Coltrane and Oscar Peterson. The event was nearly disastrous. Redman's quartet, with the splendid drummer Gregory Hutchinson, spent 80 minutes playing his new CD, Passage of Time, which itself clocks in at under an hour. Dazzling cadenzas, unison tenor/piano themes, and the accretion of drones, fragmented themes, several meters (I think one long passage was in seven) provided moments of tension and variety. But such attractions were undermined by the increasingly evident preplanning of the thing—each passage fussily worked out until the life was leached out and the climaxes, accented with heroic body English, producing more false endings than Gone With the Wind. Reed's septet played much of the same material from his Lincoln Center concert and new CD, Happiness, when he wasn't indulging in lengthy introductions. He is a facile pianist who can approach profundity, as on "Three Dances," but his compositions are banal, sometimes patronizingly so, as on his tributes to African American women, especially "Black Beauty." I didn't last the set.

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