Intimate Encounters at June's Jazz Fests

Let's get small

Even if the days of corporate-sponsored big-ticket New York jazz events are done, June remains jazz-festival season here. But what does "jazz festival" mean these days?

At the Blue Note last month, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Herlin Riley dug into what seemed more conversation than performance, splitting the difference between the two endeavors in riveting fashion. Themes bubbled up as rhythms snapped to then shimmied off. Clamor begat lyricism, then returned to clamor of a fresh sort. At one point, Moran placed copper bells next to his piano's strings to produce droning overtones while Riley built a soft wash of cymbals. Sometimes, a song took hold: Moran's "Gentle Shifts South" or "Lulu's Back in Town." Moran extended not just the harmony but also the form of one instantly familiar ballad; Riley let his brushstrokes extend way past bar lines before snapping them back.

"That was a song called 'Body and Soul,'" Moran said. He turned on an MP3 player. "And this is a song called 'Body and Soul,' sung by Eddie Jefferson. I just want to listen to it." That he did, all the way through, playing along for a measure or two. "I think it's important to listen together," he said. He explained a bit about this 1952 recording—that Jefferson sang the exact phrasing and improvisations saxophonist Coleman Hawkins had recorded in 1939 and how Jefferson's lyrics formed "a journal of what he'd heard." So the Blue Note crowd caught Moran digging Jefferson reveling in Hawkins's playing of a classic. It was both a jazz-history lesson for a mostly tourist crowd and the set's most avant-garde moment.

Joe McPhee's Angels, Devils & Haints II perform at Roulette in June.
Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net
Joe McPhee's Angels, Devils & Haints II perform at Roulette in June.

That duet might have fit within the Vision Festival, the annual event that is this country's essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians. But it came during the second annual installment of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, based at its namesake club and with additional shows at the Highline Ballroom and B.B. King's. This year, the fest also highlighted women who elevate the idea of jazz singing without singing all that much jazz. Cassandra Wilson performed some original songs from her new album, Another Country, and her band reunited the fantastic guitar team of Brandon Ross and Marvin Sewell. A decade ago, Buika (who performs under her surname) did Tina Turner imitations in Las Vegas; last month, she sang with an emotional style drawn from gypsy and flamenco music, and a rasp in her voice that suggested Nina Simone. She should—and will soon—be a star.

During a Blue Note Jazz Festival set headlined by Savion Glover, another intriguing duet took shape. The tap dancer, who had already displayed his ability to sound like a hand drum or full trap set, invited drummer Jack DeJohnette to the stage. DeJohnette played cascading beats on tom-toms that took Glover out of his (admittedly great) game. The exchange was abstract and simple at first, then finally densely overlapping, song-like in some moments but fully improvised.

One more duet, the most exalted of all, formed the high point of the 17th annual Vision Festival. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes, who plays bass and violin, had played together twice during the past two years. Grimes, who played on 1960s free jazz recordings by the likes of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, had been missing in action for nearly 30 years and presumed dead by some until a decade ago. By 2003, he was back in New York, at the Vision Festival, playing a green-stained bass dubbed "Olive Oyl" given to him by William Parker, one of the fest's founders. Smith, a brilliant and unclassifiable musician and composer, plays trumpet with little vibrato and a tone that can be either boldly declarative or soft to the point of breaking. At first, Grimes played violin and then bass, as if sketching, while Smith slowly filled in color. By set's end, Smith had found his way to something as balladic as "Body and Soul." Grimes plucked out a walking bassline that soon zigzagged off into a majestic song all its own.

This year's Vision Festival took place at Brooklyn's Roulette, simultaneously signaling the borough's growing reputation for creative music and downtown culture's difficulty maintaining its foothold in, well, downtown Manhattan. Despite this sense of displacement, the usual enthusiasm filled the air and Vision's customary crowd—right down to painter Jeff Schlanger at his canvas, first row, stage left—filled the space. The festival has many charms, not least its chances to hear tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and to catch the exalted rhythm team of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake (best heard this year in the reconstituted In Order to Survive). For an evening in his honor, Joe McPhee, who plays both trumpet and saxophone, fronted an 11-piece band including four bassists. The group's improvisations were based on "Gardens of Harlem," composed by McPhee's first employer, trombonist Clifford Thornton.

Maybe the formula for a June jazz fest has been subverted. Household names and grand gestures are out; neglected masters and unexpected duets are the new order.

 
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