Heroes at Work

Boomers at Their Best for 'Made in America' Benefit

Banjoist Bela Fleck came out alone to play the first of the evening's several anthems, turning the national one into a kind of chaconne, with a reference to the Minuet in G amid the Bach, an impressive feat that stretched the jazz boundary, but no complaints. His million-note solo on a quartet version of "Ah-Leu-Cha" was more a stunt than a variation, but the matchless team of Carter and Nash, the former hugging the ground with loping double-stops, reaped another whirlwind and Blanchard rode it with the kind of burning panache you rarely hear on his records—another highlight. It was followed by an even more engrossing duet by Barron and Regina Carter, whose work together has developed into something telepathic. They exchanged notes—she plucking one, he staccato-chording the next—on the head of "Misterioso," and then settled into an astutely elemental blues, deep and abiding, with terrific interplay, expected Barron elegance, and a perhaps less expected swinging vivacity from Carter, whose energetic riffs, sustained high bowing, and violin vocalisms (recalling Clark Terry's Mumbles) were underscored by good time and dynamics. Carter, too, should be making better records.

And so it went: Kenny Werner entered to a smattering of applause to play a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," and left to cheers, not for patriotism, but because he turned them into coherent blues, sustaining rare feeling and closing with lightly tapped piano keys that sounded like whistling. Rubén Blades lent his big voice to (I think) a Panamanian ballad, backed by Danilo Perez, who stuck around as Brian Blade and John Patitucci came out to back the ineffable Wayne Shorter, whose elliptical phrasing on the soprano saxophone maintained an almost constant understated suspense. The trio responded with depth charges, locking into the fiercest rhythmic storm of the evening, powered by the patented Tony Williams funk march and focusing the leader's storytelling fragments. Cassandra Wilson and her trio followed with the exceedingly prolix "Waters of March," and, joined by Fleck and Regina, "This Land Is Your Land," which had more vamp than dynamics, though the poor sound sabotaged the risky arrangement, if not Regina's rhapsodic solo.

A Michael Brecker-John Scofield quartet armed itself with Coltrane ecstasy, but also had to fight audio mud and, after a strong showing by Brecker and a clouded one by Scofield, collapsed into a teeming Patitucci bass solo. Brad Mehldau, with the mood and restraint of a slow-blues player, soloed on "New York State of Mind," but couldn't escape the head, which he repeated relentlessly; he did better reuniting with McBride and Blade in Joshua Redman's old quartet ("Rejoice"), a controlled virtuoso display for which Blade unleashed none of the explosions that riveted Shorter. K.D. Lang joined them on "Skylark," opening her considerable pipes to mine the great release, but holding on to certain notes a tad longer than necessary, compromising swing and never quite settling in as she does when she works with country bands. The finale found Diane Reeves in stunning voice, lending her vivid, clinched melisma to "In Your Eyes," giving more than she got from it; she is primed for a greatness she keeps eluding.

The ineffable (and elliptical) Wayne Shorter
photo: Ebet Roberts
The ineffable (and elliptical) Wayne Shorter

Better to close with the trio that preceded her: McBride, Gregory Hutchinson, and Kenny Garrett frying "Cherokee" to a crisp, in a long-meter venture at racehorse tempo, with Garrett's slightly acrid timbre essaying the tune as written, then laying it into the flames, his phrases burbling a millisecond behind McBride's staunch beat, before challenging Hutchinson to a contest of stormy eights—the kind of thing that loses steam on records, but can make a concert hall hiss with satisfaction. Too bad it took a national tragedy to bring together so many heroes of one of the nation's great prides. But the best jazz events these days are routinely benefits or memorials—paradoxical evidences of its undaunted life.

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