Over the past two decades, Michael Dorf's Knitting Factory has justly emerged as one of New York's cultural landmarks. Its deceptively compact Leonard Street building accommodates the Main Space and three smaller stages, plus decently stocked bars at every turn you might find youself descending the steps from a harmolodic klezmer hip-hop string quartet to a more conventional koto-bass-and-drums Thelonious Monk repertory ensemble while passing though a penumbra of old Nashville recordings. The Knit is a magnet for alternative musics musics you don't hear in jazz and rock venues or on radio. It has spawned important musicians and bands as well as like-minded venues and record labels. Anyone who cares about music should be glad it exists. But it's no place for a festival.
For several summers, Dorf's Knitmedia mounted the What Is Jazz? festival, which in contrast to the increasingly safe and bloated JVC doings provided the pointed irreverence of what in olden Newport days was known as a rump festival a benign quasiguerrilla response. At some point, however, Knitmedia apparently learned what jazz was: a place where big sponsors reside. The Texaco Jazz Festival ensued, supplanted now by the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. The programming has not dramatically changed, having broadened to encompass mainstream performers significant, marketable, or both at other halls without effacing the Knit's usual menu. But so eagerly did Bell pursue bigness that it drafted several ongoing jazz series and clubs by stamping them with its logo, a familiar JVC ploy. Bloatwise, Bell made JVC look positively buff.
So why the steady cadence of grumbling? Can't blame the music, because you could hear two or three good sets a night with enough stamina and hindsight. In lieu of an obvious culprit, Bell offered a metaphor as blatant as the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg. At the outset of the Main Space events, an employee announced the schedule and then dramatically signaled for someone to play a tape of a drumroll and a greeting from Darth Vader. This aged quickly. Before long, James Earl Jones's ominous tones suggested a successful invasion of corporate inefficiency. The wait times sapped everyone's resolve. Most of the critics and civilians I spoke with assumed that the three bands scheduled at 8 were de facto concerts, say 40 minutes per band with intermissions. Instead, as perusers of the official program but not the ads might have gathered, each played an hour followed by an hour break. It shouldn't have been hard to kill all those hours, except that when the alternatives weren't dire (a Duane Eddytype combo) they were seldom in synch, and you had to ask yourself: Do I really want to risk my turf? The comments heard most often other than Darth's were "Please get in line" from employees and "Will you save my seat?" from customers. Yes, I had a book but not, unfortunately, a flashlight.
There's the same up-and-down criss-crossing of events at Holland's Northsea Jazz Festival, except that listeners roam a hugely capacious space and are never without great jazz. If those of us who treasure the Knit's eclectic unpredictability were relieved that Bell didn't leach it out, we had to extend sympathy to those were drawn by the word jazz in all its parochial glory only to be confronted with prolonged sound dabs and electroshock tenor. One first-timer dreamily told me of the years when she hung at the Five Spot and the Vanguard and how excited she was returning to the fold with Bell Jazz. She lasted for 20 minutes of Henry Threadgill, which is her problem; still, her only option was a cello trio called Strit. A visiting couple, no less shiny-eyed, balked at Geri Allen's quintet, the week's signal revelation for me, yet I can understand why they might have felt more comfortable with an Eric Reed or a Benny Green. Searching the building for something more to their taste, they could choose between Ray Corsair (the Duane Eddy guy) and a Japanese percussion group called Ne-Ne (which wasn't bad). Both T.S. Monk and Tom Harrell's Jazz Pioneers, which might have done the trick for anyone, were slotted for midnight.
The pall was not eased by the presence of video cameras, a reliable way to make an audience feel like unpaid extras. (The couple and I were nearly crowned by debris that fell through the fingers of a guy on a ladder who kept mumbling, "Sorry," as metallic objects continued to rain.) Nor was it alleviated by innovative or at least festive programming surprises more of those, albeit of a repertory nature, were scheduled for JVC. Not that Bell ignored repertory. Two noteworthy events were the overpublicized reunion of the New York Art Quartet, a 1964 band that managed to ring a note of nostalgia even though few earthlings ever heard it, and Misako Kano's unpublicized undertaking of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane's liturgical suite, also from 1964. Now which is going to be more stimulating: a mouth-watering reassemblage of actual innovators or a Japanese-led rehash of an old record? Right, the rehash.
The NYAQ existed barely a year and made two recordings, only one of which was released in this country, as the third catalog item from ESP-Disc, thought to have sold 11 copies, exclusively to teenagers who grew up to be jazz critics or the guitarist with Sonic Youth. The record was a wonder and remains so, for the insurgent undercurrent of drummer Milford Graves and the interplay between trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist John Tchicai, and between them and the rhythm. Near the close of Rudd's "Sweet," LeRoi Jones intones "Black Dada Nihilismus," from The Dead Lecturer, a pliant reading of a violent poem. Shortly after, bassist Lewis Worrell moved south, Tchicai returned to Denmark, and Graves and Rudd kept frustratingly low profiles. With the encouragement of the admirable Verna Gillis and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, they reassembled (Reggie Workman replaced Worrell), but this time the poet assumed the role of star soloist. Instead of reading a masterly early work ("A Poem for Willie Best" would have been nice) or even a new one, Amiri Baraka cupped his hands over the mike and shouted '60s names and phrases, racist slurs (the N-word interminably), and racial riddles. He left off periodically, sometimes returning at the very moment Rudd and Tchicai got into something.
The performance made you wonder how much wind Rudd could muster, as he stood as far from the mike as Baraka hugged his, and made you yearn for a clearer display of Tchicai and Graves, in a room conducive to music. What Bell was thinking of when it leased for nightly concerts the Seaport Atrium, a third-story food court with an elevated roof that sucks up all the high frequencies, leaving a bass din for the crowded standees, I can't imagine. I'd go hear the NYAQ again if they put the poet to bed early, but only a reunion of Lester Young and Billie Holiday would bring me back to the Seaport Atrium.
After battling off a brief irony attack, I was drawn into A Love Supreme as played by pianist Masako Kano, tenor saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Yosuke Inouem, and drummer Jeff Williams. Liebman broached the opening cadenza in tones so like the supreme lover that I first feared a reverent clone, but soon Liebman was piling in with such authenticity and commitment there was no doubting the abiding power of the work. The four movements were played without breaks and with two secularizing revisions: the vocal chant was dropped and Kano and Liebman each played a fourth- movement meditation without alluding to Coltrane's aching canticle. Inouem recalled the staunch double stops of Jimmy Garrison and Williams offered a bright take on Elvin Jones. But canny Kano made no attempt whatsoever to draw on McCoy Tyner, rejecting hammered fourths and two-fisted density in favor of pointillistic riffs and crystal permutations of the four-note title vamp. She brought an agreeable lightness to bear on the work's ecclesiastical severity, balanced by Liebman's go-for-broke attack. On "My Favorite Things," Liebman sounded unceremoniously personal on soprano sherbet after the main course.
Of the new bands, Allen's quintet showed the most promise and I hope it wasn't a one-shot. Seated on two phone books or standing to manipulate a synth atop the upright, she played with witty brio, picking her spots and taking aim with keyboard figures that belong to her and nobody else, which is to say her influences are so handsomely assimilated that she no longer even nods in their direction. And though I usually blanch at Casio mimickry, she used the synth to succinctly musical ends staccato electric chords, organ drones, a reedy choirlike scrim. Her responsive rhythm section consists of the Johnson brothers bassist Mark, who plucks the strings for a resonance that echoes William Parker, and drummer Billy, who favors a barrage of hi-hat and ride cymbals. More surprising was the unlikely front line, pairing Oliver Lake and Wallace Roney. Lake's alto seemed blustery and unsure at first, but as the set progressed his solos developed into compressed marvels, dynamic and varied, his acidic tone twisting riffs and exclamations with collateral logic, especially on his brightly swinging original, "Brass and Oak." He never wore out his welcome, which cannot be said for Roney, whose pattern was to begin by exercising his comely sound and open lyricism and then devolve into a bout of zealous tremolos.
The model coherence of Allen's solos was underscored a few nights later in duets with Charlie Haden, a longtime collaborator and fellow graduate of Ornetteland, with whom she breathed as one on a blues riff that unleased swirling arpeggios, an elaborately epic "Lonely Woman," and a deliberated "Segment." Their limpid and emotional clarity and knowing swing made up for a lot, including the opening sound stabiles of Mark Dresser's trio with prepared piano, but not for the 90-minute intermission that followed. This night, you could get a taste downstairs of Chico Hamilton and Euphoria or walk east to Angel Orensanz for the 10 p.m. set by Masada. But that would be a $50 evening. If Bell wants to be JVC as much as Dorf wants to be George Wein, it's going to have to go after JVC's venues.
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