Where's Waldo?

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

A brief July 9 press release about the flagship event that ran from June 16 to June 29 begins with an announcement from George Wein ("CEO of Festival Productions, Inc."): "The 2002 JVC Jazz Festival-New York was the most successful JVC festival ever held in New York." It was also the least jazz-like. JVC, whether good or ill or, per usual, in between, rarely reflects what is actually going on in the jazz world. This year it did—not musically, but culturally and economically as concerns New York, long considered jazz central. Like Uncle Tom in an episode excised from Duke Ellington's Jump for Joy, Uncle Jazz is lying on his deathbed while producers and CEOs frantically administer adrenaline to keep him alive. It isn't necessarily his music they hope to preserve, but his name, a valuable brand on seven continents.

Never in my experience has JVC presented so little jazz, or so few thematic and genuinely imaginative concerts. Even re-creations, with which we are admittedly surfeited, vanished from the bill. There was nothing novel, original, or newsworthy. A cursory look at programs scheduled for the Hague, Montreal, and other international jazz sites demonstrates the uniqueness of New York's drought. Of eight concerts presented at Carnegie Hall, which according to the press release had a 90 percent ticket sale (that's the source of the "most successful" claim), only half were undeniably jazz. Of the others, João Gilberto and Eddie Palmieri are tangential, though they have become deservedly admired JVC traditions; Michael Feinstein and Lauryn Hill were in on a pass. Of the four Beacon Theater concerts, only one (Roy Haynes and Wynton Marsalis) offered jazz, and it was a box-office disaster—probably in part because it was slated opposite one of the bona fide Carnegie jazz artists, Keith Jarrett. Of the mere three Kaye Playhouse shows, two were largely given over to cabaret.

True, much great jazz was heard nightly at Birdland and the Village Vanguard, but you can always hear great jazz there. Except for shorter stays (mostly one-nighters) and a two-for-one pricing gimmick that incorporated five other clubs and required a main-hall ticket stub, nothing about the JVC connection served to make those performances especially merry. At festivals in towns like Pori, Cork, Perugia, Nice, New Orleans, and San Francisco, as well as Montreal and the Hague and elsewhere, music lurks in many corners, often for the price of a beer or a general admission, and the small venues are essential pleasures. In New York, they suggest a guilt-edged Band-Aid for the cavernous hole into which jazz has disappeared; participating clubs get an official JVC banner and, if possible, more tourists than usual, and JVC can pretend comprehensiveness.

Since I spent most evenings at Carnegie, forlorn and confused, the thrill of hearing the Bill Charlap Trio with guests Phil Woods and Frank Wess may have been intensified. If you count, as JVC did, isolated events at the Schomburg Center (jazz: a Mickey Bass quintet) and the Apollo (not jazz: the Roots and Living Colour), and a free afternoon of university bands at Bryant Park, this was the eighth day of the festival, and the first opportunity to hear unadulterated, urgent yet laid-back, small-band, bebopping, mainstream jazz. Having just experienced evenings with João and Lauryn and a set of cabaret vaudeville, it was like coming home. Jazz!—ah, a grand old music. Birdland was packed tight with an audience conspicuously more attentive than those in the halls, where thousands of attendees apparently thought eight o'clock curtains would rise at 8:50. Charlap, a shrewd fellow, featured his guests on alternating numbers, demonstrating his own masterly ability to comp with precision, drive, and originality.

With bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, he may have the best piano trio extant, a slot vacated by Tommy Flanagan. It swings so effortlessly and unselfconsciously you get the feeling that any top-flight soloist could have walked on and found himself comforted and inspired. Woods, his sound bright with the sturdy glow that mixes beauty and defiance (still, at 70), brought Benny Carter's "A Summer Serenade" to gleaming life, signing off with a stately cadenza; Wess, his approach to flute kinetic and spry (still, at 80), enlivened an original based on "Exactly Like You." Joy turned to enchantment when the saxophonists (Wess on tenor) joined together for "What's New?" (alternating theme and obbligato every eight bars) and the battle anthem "Blues Up and Down," played super fast, both men roaring as Charlap thrust chords that shadowed and mimicked them, before essaying his own steely solo, building with abundant ideas. Even when indulging his rippling technique, he is never heavy-handed. And this was thought too rarefied for the customers on 57th Street?

For me, the festival got off to an enlightening start, but it had nothing to do with JVC, which is another problem with JVC. At the Knitting Factory, on the night Michael Feinstein was crooning with a 70-piece orchestra, Cecil Taylor led his 27-piece Sound Vision Orchestra in a premiere of "With Blazing Eyes and Open'd Mouth." He was originally scheduled to play solo at Birdland, but apparently decided late in the day that the club would either accommodate his orchestra or nothing—a poor way of doing business, perhaps, but the SVO was primed to go, the massed voicings secure and resolute, pinning you to your seat with hurricane force. Like Ascension, it alternated solos and ensemble crescendos, which were written and varied (unlike Ascension's). It went on too long: Some soloists had little to say; others stood out, including altoist Bobby Zankel; singer Lisa Sokolov (whose volatile scatting and whooping made Taylor laugh aloud), one or two trumpet players I couldn't see, and tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb, whose mellow, understated attack inspired the pianist to full-throttle comping exuberance. The closing was inspired—a long, even winding down, like a great beast giving its last breath.

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.

The sterling Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette trio gave an even better performance than last year—indeed, virtually perfect, with a minimum of vocalizing and a stunning selection of tunes that mixed standard standards ("I'm a Fool to Want You," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Summertime," "Last Night When We Were Young") with jazz standards ("Four Brothers," "Now's the Time," "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West"), and a free improv. Why, however, does he make the audience beg and beg and beg for the two encores? After one belated bow, DeJohnette walked to the drums only to learn that there had not yet been enough begging and then had to walk offstage; after the next bow, Peacock made the same mistake. OK, it's a small price. Jarrett and company, at least, know what they're doing. I'm not too sure about JVC. If this year's financial success breeds another year with as little resourcefulness, as little jazz, there won't be much point in covering it. We will already have heard almost all of it worth hearing—year round, in the clubs.

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