Recapping 2008's Vision and JVC Jazz Festivals

Charles Lloyd, Kidd Jordan, Herbie Hancock and more

Kidd Jordan felt something stir deep down inside. He just had to let it out. That's the way the tenor saxophonist explained it during a Vision Festival pre-concert discussion when poet Kalamu ya Salaam asked, "Why don't you just play more popular music and make more money?"

In New Orleans, where he's lived most of his life, Jordan once played all sorts of commercially viable stuff: seminal 1950s r&b alongside Art and Aaron Neville in the Hawkettes, Broadway scores for touring productions, session work and gigs with everyone from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder. But he found his sound elsewhere. It's been some 50 years since a friend played him Ornette Coleman's Something Else!!!!, and Jordan has felt emboldened to follow his singular, utterly unfettered path ever since. He's informed by but never derivative of Coleman's free jazz, enamored of his instrument's altissimo overtone range, and still as soulful as when he played r&b. Yet Jordan is revered in his hometown mostly as an educator, in summer camps for kids and as founding director of the Heritage Music School at Southern University. His music isn't heard much there; at this year's Jazz & Heritage Festival, Jordan didn't even perform.

In June, at the 13th annual Vision Festival, this country's premier gathering of avant-garde musicians, Jordan got a true hero's welcome: a full night in his honor, billed as a lifetime-achievement celebration, centered on his music. New York City had been hit with an early heat wave. And the ventilation at the Clemente Soto Vélez Center, which housed Vision for five nights, offered no relief. Still, the 73-year-old Jordan spent nearly five hours onstage, playing in his customary, somewhat relentless style, squeezing out upper-register overtones for long stretches, never losing tight yet joyful focus. He laid out for just one set, when his sons—trumpeter Marlon and flutist Kent—fronted a sextet for an in-the-pocket, post-bop set (at the Vision Festival, this amounts to a radical act). Otherwise, Kidd never let up, reveling in the company of favorite collaborators: veering toward spirituals with baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, exploring upper-register pitches with violinist Billy Bang, losing himself in rumbling communion with pianist Joel Futterman, conversing in code with fellow tenorist Fred Anderson, and ducking in and out of ever-shifting grooves dug by bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.

Bebop a lulu: Charles Lloyd at the JVC
Willie Davis
Bebop a lulu: Charles Lloyd at the JVC

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Around the time that Coleman's music awoke Jordan's muse, Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto was formulating his own sound—every bit as revolutionary, and just as influential. The bossa nova that Gilberto devised distilled samba rhythms into an essential throb, colored by delicately harmonized chords and overlaid with soft, poetic vocals. So a deafening roar of applause greeted Gilberto when he walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage on June 22, acoustic guitar in hand. The concert, billed by the JVC Jazz Festival (which stretched across the last two weeks of the month) as "Fifty Years of Bossa Nova," could easily have been touted as its own lifetime-achievement celebration. Unlike the raucous abandon of Jordan's night, Gilberto's centered on calm control. At his concerts (an annual JVC highlight by now), the crowd knows the plot: Gilberto sits down, rests his guitar on his knee, and out flows one bossa after another, three minutes a pop. He never raises his voice above a loud whisper, and his innovations are of the subtlest kind—a variation in chord voicing, a phrase slightly displaced in rhythm. Who needs anything more?

Calm was also the pervasive feeling at Cecil Taylor's JVC solo-piano recital, which came as a surprise. Sure, some characteristic elements—the rumbling basslines, densely packed tone clusters, and rapid-fire right-hand runs—were present, yet this time employed in the service of something more overtly lyrical and, well, prettier than we've come to expect. That it was so satisfying points to the silliness of attaching expectations to Taylor. Like Gilberto, he'll do what he does; in contrast, it will rarely sound the same as the time before.

Herbie Hancock, another conquering- hero pianist at JVC, lost a battle at Carnegie this time around. His "River of Possibilities" concert drew on two recent CDs, Possibilities and River: The Joni Letters, both of which feature singers and pop songs. River, the surprise Grammy winner, drew its beauty from restraint, smart vocals, and Hancock's exalted rapport with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Here, there was no such restraint; instead, we got ill-chosen vocalists and—alas—no Shorter. One brief bright spot: a tender abstraction based on Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," introduced by Dave Holland's bass solo and carried through by the composer, alone at the grand piano.

A better example of album concept turned into performance was singer Dee Dee Bridgewater's "Malian Journey" at the Society for Ethical Culture, based on her wonderful Red Earth CD. No crossover pose, the album was the product of a true journey: Bridgewater immersed herself in the Bamako scene, learned traditional tunes, and formed lasting musical relationships. At JVC, she augmented her working band with kora, talking drum, and other percussion, and at one point traded vocals with a griot, Kabine Kouyate. Bridgewater led Malian songs smoothly into swinging territory and found pentatonic roots and African beats within American songs like the Les McCann/ Eddie Harris tune "Compared to What."

If pop appropriation fell flat during Hancock's JVC show, it flew fine at William Parker's Sunday-night Vision Festival closer. Parker fronted a seven-piece band for his "Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield," with the brilliant Leena Conquest singing, the ever-provocative Amiri Baraka chanting original verse, and even a youth choir joining in at one point. He played Mayfield's r&b and gospel tunes faithfully in some stretches, and trolled successfully for improvisational possibilities in others. In the show's best moments, it was a swirl of recombined yet familiar elements, with Mayfield's' anthems—"People Get Ready," "It's Alright," "This Is My Country"—somehow newly animated, vital as ever, staked to the resonant, ever-sturdy thrum of Parker's bass.

JVC closed on a note of spiritual uplift, too. Charles Lloyd's concert at the Society for Ethical Culture would've fit under the Vision Fest banner, free as the saxophonist plays. But Lloyd, whose 1966 album Forest Flower sold a million copies, is that rare combination of sage and star. The quartet that animates his beautiful recent CD, Rabo de Nube, is among the most interesting bands in jazz right now. In concert, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers teased all sorts of rhythmic possibility from Lloyd's bebop-inflected, gracefully flowing music. And pianist Jason Moran, typically inspired, spun slightly askew improvisations from Lloyd's "Booker's Garden" and crafted a gleaming introduction to his "Prayer." At evening's end, Rogers bowed his bass and Harland chanted in a deep, breathy voice as Lloyd, an adherent of Vedanta philosophy, recited verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Then, lifting his horn, he blew one more wise and lovely improvisation. Like Kidd Jordan, he felt something stir deep inside. And he just had to let it in.

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