Where's Waldo?

Looking for Uncle Jazz at the 2002 JVC Something-or-Other Festival

As the Sound Vision Orchestra was followed, the next night, by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra (discussed last column), optimism seemed warranted. But it dissipated. My third experience with João Gilberto was the anti-charm; his rite of performance, sure time, alluring voice, succinct guitar chords, and trance-inducing Portuguese seemed undernourished and repetitive. On a familiar piece, like "O Grande Amor," one could luxuriate in familiarity, but too many lesser-known (to me, unknown) pieces blended into soup. And is " 'S Wonderful" the only North American song he considers worthy of his repertoire? He sang its chorus over and over (I lost count after seven), altering not the slightest nuance.

Lauryn Hill also took the stage with just voice and guitar, but where Gilberto said not a word, she paced her singing with a narcissistic volubility that circled her subject without tagging it, since she assumed that everyone present had spent at least as much time worrying about her travails as she has. Her music was '60s folk with a religious curve, much deftly handled melisma, and chugging Richie Havens-style guitar chords. Her often pungent, even stirring voice and personal charm would have been better served had she maintained a few inches between microphone and lips—dynamics are not her strong suit. She perched so tenuously that more than once she felt obliged to summon a servant to move her footstool an inch this way or that or powder her hands—Minnesota Fats never used as much chalk. Her diatribe against the soulless cogs of the recording industry ranged from "The person was shrinking and the corporation was growing, but I'm not a corporation, I'm an individual" to "People been saying they made Lauryn Hill, but God made Lauryn Hill." Intermittently audible lyrics also failed to elucidate, ranging from "I'm way too individual to fit your groove" to "There's a reason for everything on Earth/[something, something] rebirth." Stardom is rough, but it beats pushing a footstool.

Teddi King was a minor '50s singer, tangentially related to jazz and by all accounts a perfectly delightful lady, who died young of lupus and in whose name periodic concerts are mounted in support of lupus research. The hour I caught, before rushing over to hear Charlap and company, was, to me, surprisingly agreeable, an opportunity to reassess a couple of jazz-cabaret performers I don't often hear. But it was as talky as Lauryn Hill, as each performer said something about King before performing one song. Even Ted Mack was less brutal about time, and time ought to have been less pressing, because everyone said the same thing: She was a wonderful friend who chose good songs and focused on lyrics. Daryl Sherman, herself an ever deepening interpreter of words and music, opened with a dependably expressive and snug "Isn't It a Pity." Marlene Ver Plank, usually a bit smooth for my taste, offered an obscure Berlin ballad, "Fools Fall in Love," revealing a centered pitch and radiant timbre that made me want to hear more. Barbara Carroll, with her disarming speakeasy voice, sang the Weill-Gershwin ballad "This Is New," coming to life as the time doubled, allowing herself a cunning, jaunty piano solo full of block chords and rhythmical daring. Carroll, at 77, swings: If she worked downtown clubs, she might find a new, if less monied, audience than the one she long regaled at the Carlyle. Lillias White, a Broadway actor I'd never heard, kept up the rhythmic juice, after conceding that she had never heard of Teddi King when hired, and demonstrated verve and control in a soaring "I Didn't Know About You" that flirtatiously threatened to go over the top but never did; she allowed Bucky Pizzarelli a stunning chorus. She has taste and style, as well as voice, and I'd have hung around for a second helping. The rest—including Barbara Lea working the words of "You Don't Know What Love Is"—was less appealing.

Patricia Barber, opening for Cassandra Wilson, was more convincing as pianist than singer, despite mannerisms that vie with Keith Jarrett's for unpersuasive theatricality—wincing at every minor third, as though the blues caused her terrific pain. If it hurts when you touch it, don't touch it! At its best, her trio has a pleasantly cool jazz sound, without muscle—easy listening, complete with la-la-la vocalizing, best in the interplay between piano and guitar, worst in the aching cleverness of her own songs, including one that mentioned every thinker in Philosophy 101 and another that mentioned every painter in Art 101. A brief appearance by Dave Douglas did little to alleviate the artsiness.

Wilson, the only performer I saw at Carnegie who received an offstage introduction, is one of the most compelling visuals in jazz: long white skirt, red top, bronze skin, golden hair, and megawatt smile that channels Faye Dunaway and Jeanne Moreau. Her primary gift is for adapting diverse material so completely that she makes it hers. She pulls it off with several songs on her recent CD, which provided the evening's material, but it is a mistake to make every appearance a plug for the latest product—you lose a signature repertoire and a long-term connection with the audience. The program could only have been enhanced with a few of her benchmark interpretations of Son House, Robert Johnson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Miles Davis, and the Monkees—better those than originals that blend together, the words barely intelligible, the rhythms repetitive. When she sang her current revisionist triumphs, she glowed and the audience snapped to attention: "The Weight," "Wichita Lineman," "Hot Tamales," and best of all, "Darkness on the Delta," backed only by bass and made languorously sensuous in her reading, especially on the bridge; and "Shelter From the Storm," enacting the refrain with a steady and sexy maternalism, before interpolating, medley fashion, a chorus of "I'll Remember April." The supporting trio was less cluttered than her usual group; Geoffrey Haynes is an invigorating, original hand-drumming percussionist, Mark Peterson an empathic bassist, and music director Marvin Sewell a clever and versatile guitarist whose solos go on and on, riding the rhythm without bringing it to heel.

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