Ornette and Others

JVC Bounces Back Right on Schedule

Sandke, who per usual played with sparkling articulation, did not make the mistake of including a passel of singers, as he did on a recent Bix CD (pianist Mark Shane handled the few appropriate vocals tolerably), but longueurs intruded, including an Eastwood Lane relic and, oddly, a plodding "Singin' the Blues" that suffered from the same excessive reverence that, in the earlier pieces, reproduced the divide between Bix's gems and his gang's faded velvet. On "Riverboat Shuffle," Gordon's growling ensemble work and kickass solo showed how encompassing this music can be, and set the stage for the Bixian climax; he was slyer, waving his plunger like Vic Dickenson, on Levinson's scoring of "Blue River," though his tailgating on "Clementine" seemed a tad patronizing. The ensemble fired up "At the Jazz Band Ball" with such burly confidence you could almost forget it was jazz repertory.

Terence Blanchard's misguided Carnegie concert of music he wrote for Spike Lee movies began with a brief chat between composer and director, who soon left, perhaps for a basketball game—he wore his jersey and surely had better things to do than listen to film cues accompanied by a slide show. What were they thinking? Isn't the JVC JAZZ Festival an ideal opportunity for a gifted JAZZ musician like Blanchard to create JAZZ adaptations of the tunes he writes for movies? Backed by a chamber ensemble, with the occasional guest dropping in for a song, Blanchard presented the scores as heard in the movies, where they do their job. The drummer was so stiff he must have thought we were still in Bixland, and the music was almost uniformly sad, moody, oppressive, ominous, and nostalgic. Blanchard came to life once during the first half, on "Mo' Better Blues," which Jacky Terrasson treats more creatively on his new CD. I left at intermission, feeling bamboozled.

The tribute to Peggy Lee deserves more attention than I can give it. If one can believe that everything that occurred was intentional down to the last intonational wobble and the final clip of Peggy emoting the lethal "Is That All There Is?" in the manner of Olivier's Hamlet soliloquies (lip-synching the chorus, closed-mouthed and thoughtful-looking through the rest), one might compare it as a drama to, say, Follies. Alas, Michael Feingold was not present and I was, and I'm obliged to review the music. It started well, with a montage of TV clips, a robust orchestra conducted by Mike Renzi, and Nancy Sinatra doing a thoroughly respectable—I was happily stunned—"Why Don't You Do Right?" Things began to go strange as two dancers in white gloves emerged from the wings to distract Ann Hampton Callaway, who was having enough trouble with "Manana," a tasteless period piece no matter how benevolent Miss Peggy's intentions (as most songs were Lee originals, "I'm Goin' Fishin' " would have been a better choice). Producer Richard Barone had gone and revived the worst aspect of '50s TV variety shows—bad choreography.

There was an exception. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who needs no choreographer, radiated confident musicality on "Black Coffee" and returned wearing the last of Salome's seven veils to strut her long legs on the most daringly erotic "Fever" imaginable; when male patrons at Carnegie Hall rearrange their coats and playbills on their laps, you know you are witnessing a historic event. She received the evening's sole standing ovation, and it came before the intermission. Petula Clark and Chris Connor, who are respectively 70 and 75 (just an interesting tidbit), had pitch problems. But Connor had the range and spunk to try a difficult song, "Where Can I Go Without You." Clark, who had neither, mentioned that unlike her friends, who grew up listening to Vera Lynn, she preferred Peggy—and then sang, as ever, like Vera Lynn. Deborah Harry apparently thought they were saluting Mae West, as she camped cluelessly and tonelessly around the stage, and Jane Monheit did her own version of sexy, which meant patting her hair and touching her breasts, first one, then the other, for the duration of her song. Thank goodness for Maria Muldaur, who salvaged Act Two with a good-natured touch of rock 'n' roll ("I'm a Woman"), and the redoubtable Shirley Horn, who required a crib sheet for "There'll Be Another Spring" and still got more from the lyric than most of the others.

I hope Charlie Haden's gotten "American Dreams" out of his system now that he's performed the album at Carnegie; an exercise in bland democratic solemnity, it does carry the seed for what might be a great project. His inclusion of Ornette Coleman's "Bird Food" suggests that he and Kenny Barron might profitably explore the Coleman oeuvre—just the two of them, no strings, no tenor saxophone, although Michael Brecker did have one bright moment, sounding tearily emotive on "Young and Foolish." But enough of that. Art Blakey famously said that music washes away the dust of everyday life, and so it was when Ornette Coleman took the stage with his new quartet.

He went at it for close to 90 minutes, stopping, after a one-minute encore in response to a five-minute ovation, at the stroke of 11. That kind of precision characterized the entire set, not just the variational logic and magically timed endings, but the hairpin turns as the quartet sustained the leader's expansive, combustible playfulness. With Denardo Coleman's drums behind Plexiglas, the sound balance (better overall this summer than at any JVC festival in memory) gave each man his due, preventing the basses from getting muddied. Sometimes Greg Cohen asserted a thumping pizzicato bedrock as Tony Falanga employed his bow for melodic incursions; sometimes they plucked together, usually with Falanga suggesting the lead; and at one point Cohen laid out while Coleman and Falanga exchanged phrases. At all times the group seemed to breathe together, rising and falling like a pair of lungs, locked together with an emphatic rhythmic integrity that, in the Coleman manner, is less propulsive than fixed in the present—a perpetual-motion machine that swings in place, spotlighting the momentum of Coleman's improvised melodies.

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