Say It Isn't So

How Not to Broaden the Jazz Canvas

Like Gerry Mulligan with his much- shorter-lived Concert Jazz Band, Faddis developed a cadre of gifted writers, representing several generations of jazz, and allowed them to go for broke. Generally, they were invited to tackle and revise celebrated jazz works or classic songs. The inconsistent results were, strangely, one of the CHJB's charms: You were never too certain of what you were about to hear, and thus experienced the excitement of discovering big band music in the making, as an evolving art. Owing to thematic constraints, listeners had a grounding with which to evaluate variations: Can this hymn really be "Yesterdays" (it is, via Michael Phillip Mossman) or this mad labyrinth "Sing, Sing, Sing" (credit unpredictable Jim McNeely), and did Coltrane ever receive more disparate treatments than "Giant Steps" (the invariably swinging Frank Foster) and A Love Supreme (Slide Hampton slyly banishing solemnity)?

I agree entirely that Carnegie Hall ought to broaden its approach to jazz, and with a resident crack orchestra that can handle virtually any challenge, one way would be to encourage the CHJB to do more. For my money, it ought to do a lot more classic repertory. No orchestra is better equipped to interpret a host of durable works that are no longer played, from Jimmie Lunceford and Mary Lou Williams to Bill Holman and Gil Evans. It's disgraceful that no orchestra (including the American Jazz Orchestra) has explored the works of George Russell (of course, Harth is probably planning to bring Russell himself to the hall, as part of his jazz expansion). In the meantime, here's a band growing like a pearl. Instead of tearing the pearl from the oyster, to which it brought much credit, Carnegie might have insisted on a board to oversee an enlargement of its mandate.

In that respect, I wish the CHJB's farewell, the first of seven intermittently jazzy Carnegie Hall concerts at this year's JVC Jazz Festival (ongoing as I write), had been two full sets, to more fully display its wares. After an hour of deconstructed ballads by the Brad Mehldau Trio, Faddis, clearly as angered as he was moved by the event, indulged a bit much in envoi speeches and ceremony (this has been the talkiest JVC in memory), before playing five of the band's commissions based on pre-war standards. The chief pleasure of the CHJB is its ensemble esprit: You expect to be charred by high notes, jolted by dynamics, and caressed by snug voicings. Mossman's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was an ideal opener, displaying the orchestra's polish, vibrant swing, and, in a two-note transitional screech, diverting virtuosity; Faddis's poised, midrange solo was perfectly gauged. Hampton's "Days of Wine and Roses" was a pastel: muted brass, flutes, and clarinet. Mossman's "I've Told Every Little Star" incorporated a mambo joke and rhythm before heading on to strong solos by his own trumpet and Ralph Lalama's tenor. Mike Abene's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" introduced Terrell Stafford's trumpet and flute exchanges between the ageless (80, actually) Frank Wess and Jerry Dodgian. Frank Foster's thunderous "Fascinatin' Rhythm" laid out all the CHJB's strongest cards, powered by drummer Dana Hall.

Jon Faddis tops those tuttis off.
photo: Jack Vartoogian
Jon Faddis tops those tuttis off.

Before Foster, Faddis supported Wess, on tenor, producing a warm purring sound, cozy as a stuffed animal, in a quintet reading of "Body and Soul." Faddis's willingness to allow small groups to emerge from the big one, a gambit at least as old as Benny Goodman's trio, gives the band a rest and the audience a change. But it takes a musician of uncommon aplomb to allow his own band a siesta while permitting an unannounced guest to steal the show. The infinitely hearty Carrie Smith belted "Blues in the Night," but she was really a beard for Clark Terry, who, at 81, is besieged by ailments and can't walk unaided. "The golden years suck," he announced, but, wit notwithstanding, the prospect of listening to him fumpher was not a pleasant one. Well, he didn't muffle a note; his tone was gorgeously unspotted, unmistakably lyrical and ironic (including a few high-note Mumbles asides). I've heard he played as well at the recent Town Hall Eddie Bert tribute, but if I hadn't heard him I wouldn't have believed it. The only way to end was with the big band and Goodman's old, nightly farewell, "Goodbye." I hope not.

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