Why complain if a jazz festival is no more than a highly publicized, highly congested confluence of concerts? It provides work, a little excitement, an occasional surprise, and focuses attention on jazz, New York, the impresario, and the sponsor. Is everybody happy? You bet.
Happy, but perhaps not entirely festive. The Texaco New York Jazz Festival stomped into town June 1 for a two-week party, offering something for everyone. Produced by Michael Dorf and centered at his Knitting Factory and other points south of Canal Street, it was not the rowdy What Is Jazz? thumbsucker of years past, but rather a big, big tent, assimilating mainstream jazz (Joe Henderson, Kevin Eubanks) and pop (Bela Fleck, George Clinton) along with the avant-garde and Downtown genrefication.
Texaco is no longer a rump festival, but a festival at the throat of JVC, which was recently sold to BET, an uninspiring prospect. JVC’s conservatism is earned, a reflection of George Wein’s taste as well as the demands of expensive midtown concert halls; BET’s conservatism is institutionalized—it seeks product for TV. Texaco hasn’t abandoned its roots, but in true arriviste fashion, it wants establishment respect, and will do anything to get it, even to the extent of mounting the phony baloney New York Jazz Awards, handed out at Lincoln Center before an audience drawn largely from “the industry” and willing to pay benefit-priced tickets ($150, half that for civilians). The awards are administered by Dorf’s KnitMedia, which selected the voters and counts the votes. You will not be surprised to learn that virtually every nominee is signed to a major. Making it worse was the Jazz Journalists Association, handing out its own awards at the same ceremony—a clever bid on Dorf’s part to find a credible beard in the JJA’s president, Howard Mandel, who committed his organization without discussion or referendum.
Respect or no, a flatness pervaded the past two weeks, or maybe I was just hanging with the wrong people. San Francisco glows with civic pride during its jazz festival, which, like Texaco, is all over town, as do cities with festivals as varied as those of New Orleans, Pori, Cork, and the Hague. Downtown is out of town for some, and very little producing was evident in the production—with few exceptions, you got to see working bands, not one-time-only blow-your-mind festival extravaganzas. As it happens, the most exciting jazz event I caught wasn’t part of Texaco and had no vocals and only ancillary instrumental solos. But later on that.
I went out in pursuit of pianists, and began with Sephardic Tinge (Spanish Jews, Spanish tinge—get it?), a trio created by Anthony Coleman, who has the rhythmic subtlety and anvil touch of Dave Brubeck, another pianist who tried to make a case for swinging the Middle East. Coleman opened for Muhal Richard Abrams, who proceeded to open for himself, devoting nearly half of his long (90 minutes) and continuous set to a throat-clearing study of the relationship between slablike soprano saxophone tones, played by Patience Higgins, and heavily pedaled rumbling piano. Bass and drums entered and there were moments of light, including passages of pointillistic piano (hammering à la Gershwin) and brazen saxophone chords, but it was all foreplay, without melody or focus. Then, after a mallets solo by Reggie Nicholson, Abrams struck up a vamp, Higgins took up his tenor, and great godamighty they were free at last, finding midpage what should have been their lead.
At one point Abrams laid out, leaving the field to Higgins, who affirmed his growing reputation as best-kept secret. Adapting his timbre with a powdery grit, he played undulating phrases with patches of melody (a line from Glenn Miller wafted by too quickly to catch), balancing a midrange attack with bottom-note blasts, sustaining two-note chords, and demonstrating the durability of a fixed free jazz. That pushed Abrams’s button, and he bounded in with splayed chords in leaping rhythmic patterns that evolved into swinging, flashing linearity. He made the piano ring and played all of it, settling into a serpentine figure that Nicholson capered against. After a bass solo by Greg Jones, the quartet fired up again, fourth-quarter full-court press, percussive and coherent, if overlong. At the wind-down, I wondered if the first part, which no longer seemed so laborious (pain has no memory), was some sort of ploy to make dessert more rewarding.
Every time I see Cecil Taylor I forget, until the first grunt in the dark, that he is going to begin with a vocal warm-up (pain has no memory). Then, having no choice, I submit. A small price to pay, because you know that any minute he is going to sit down and do what no one else on earth can do, notwithstanding his many imitators. And so it was. His current quartet mines a surprisingly conventional pulse, and the soprano saxophonist adds little, but Taylor likes the option of receding into the mix every once in a while. Still, the others are not in Taylor’s class and you can’t help but wait on his brilliance—the onslaught of trilling, caroling runs; bass-chord punctuations; an occasional forearm for emphasis. He did it all—the cascades and dynamics and sudden change-ups. And then he slowed, the caesuras turning into stabiles, and the others incapable of picking up the slack. I thought for a tremulous moment: Is age (he is three seasons away from 70 and playing with uncompromising bravado) beginning to tell? The performance whimpered away, as he rose, stood for a moment, then quickly left the stage. But he just as quickly raced back for a splashy three-minute encore that said yes in thunder and lightning. Fuck age.
Eric Reed can’t blame age for a midnight set so innocuous you wondered where you were. Isn’t this the Knit? No, it’s the Blue Note? Jeez, I am tired. I used to trace Reed to Hampton Hawes, because he has so much technique and smarts that I didn’t went to mention Ramsey Lewis. Reed played imaginatively, responsively, at the Wayne Shorter Lincoln Center concert and I wanted to hear more. But he wanted to plug his Broadway songs album (“Send in the Clowns,” “Maria,” oy). He played two extended blues and a fastidiously inventive “‘Round Midnight,” he and his trio executing everything with the éclat of Oscar Peterson—also with Peterson’s notes (modified by Lewis’s gospel blues tropes) and superficiality. The audience loved it—a couple in the balcony danced. Peterson has always been popular; why not his heirs (cf. Benny Green)? Earlier that day, I had listened to the new Nicholas Payton album and only the heavy mix on the bass told me I wasn’t listening to the head of an old Blue Mitchell album, which was also in the carousel. Jazz has always found strength and renewal in the anxiety of influence; now we’re getting the influence without the anxiety. Which is one reason I was blown away by the show at the Variety Theater.
Savion Glover Downtown was a largely improvised program created by Glover, featuring him and six other dancers. Prospects looked especially good when Eli Fountain’s quartet took its place and in the center was Patience Higgins. I admired Glover in 1989 in Black and Blue, but never footed the bill for Bring in ‘Da Noize, Bring in ‘Da Funk, so forgive a latecomer for shouting: Glover, who is 24, is one of the most inventive, stimulating jazz players in years. True, his instrument is his feet, but I heard no Texaco solo more riveting or intricately musical than his extended variations on a medley of “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time,” or wittier than his rendition of “Cheek to Cheek”—wearing a tuxedo T-shirt in a pas de deux with Ayodele Casal, whose birthday that evening prompted a jam session with more fire than the staged jams you hear at most jazz festivals.
Glover has invented a stamping style that is already much imitated, and he can pounce on a theme like “Milestones” or “Caravan” and work it with the same nonstop intensity as Cecil Taylor, until your head is spinning. But he can also be sweet and slow, as in an intoxicating version of “In a Sentimental Mood,” introduced with a rapturous tenor solo, replete with what has apparently become Higgins’s trademark grit and two-note chords. Higgins has recorded memorably (Abrams’s Think All, Focus One, David Murray’s South of the Border), but in the era of cloned jazz he remains conspicuously neglected. Glover’s music, however, isn’t as easily packaged. He taps a splendid, sandy obbligato to Abbey Lincoln on “Who Used To Dance,” but an album?—Baby Laurence tried that. Movie musicals are dead, yet Comden and Green could fashion something worthy of him, because whether or not he can sing (I guess not, since he doesn’t), he can express anything with his feet. A highlight of Black and Blue was Bunny Briggs’s double- and triple-time tapping to a very slow “In a Sentimental Mood.” The lesson was not lost on Glover, who, refraining from all upper-body acrobatics, zeroed in on the melody with his feet and softly and expressively played the music. He would kill in a jazz club. Michael Dorf, are you still reading this?