Given all the clamor over whether or not Lincoln Center should unload inanimate treasures to subsidize performing ones, I was surprised at the lack of attention generated by the New York Philharmonic’s plan for recycling Bach in 2000, the 250th anniversary of his death. Instead of using Bach’s instrumentation and traditional orchestrations, they’ve commissioned contemporary composers to create updated versions, turning to pop and jazz for some variety; TAFKA Prince will adapt Partita No. 2; Diana Krall and Audra McDonald will sing the B-Minor Mass with new lyrics by Sir Andrew; and Wynton Marsalis will transcribe the cello suites for trumpet and rhythm. Bach is the most overhauled composer of all time, so there’s nothing very novel here. Still, I expected more harrumphing. Like you hear in jazz.
Jazz repertory will peak in frenzy this year as everyone and his cat pay homage to Duke Ellington; all meet and proper. But while Ellington may be the greatest orchestrator since Berlioz, he was also a composer of melodies that echo throughout the past 73 years and it is ludicrous to argue that they be off-limits to adaptation. When Ellington was alive, jazz orchestras always commissioned versions of his work, not least because it would have been considered imitation or theft, not repertory or homage, to do otherwise. Like the constitution, Ellington’s music implies more than can be bound by strict interpretation. The unevenness of the updated material performed by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band on January 21 underscored the maxim— usually attributed to Ellington or Stravinsky— regarding the two kinds of music, good and bad. Those Bach revisions may make your skin crawl, but if one or more works, you’ll revise your prejudice. In music, new does not replace old.
The issue was raised twice last month in very different contexts. As part of the monthlong Blue Note celebration, Billy Higgins fronted a small band at the Jazz Standard, performing tunes made famous on Blue Note albums of 30 to 40 years ago. No one expected music director Don Sickler to mimic original instrumentation, because the tunes— good as they are— are considered launching pads for improvisation. They are neither pop melodies nor classic jazz. Yet some people were offended when the CHJB played an evening of Ellington half-authentic and half-revised, though perfectly willing to give Higgins a pass.
My first Higgins epiphany occurred about 25 years ago, when I went to see Cedar Walton and Clifford Jordan at Boomer’s and was seated, to my dismay, ringside, the high-hat cymbal literally hanging over my table. I expected to be smashed into oblivion and instead fell in love with the pealing musicality of the drummer, who even from my vantage was in balanced accord with the quartet. The second came a couple of summers ago at Ornette Coleman’s Avery Fisher triptych. Because he had been seriously ill, his very appearance was noteworthy. Coleman, Geri Allen, and Charlie Haden played imaginatively, instinctively, beautifully, but time and again my attention was riveted by Higgins’s shining cymbals, sandy skins, and incalculably subdivided time— now you hear the one, now you don’t, but you always feel it.
Burt Korall, who wrote the definitive Drummin’ Men, recently pointed out to me that Higgins is the sonic heir of Kenny Clarke. That says a lot. When was drumming more sensuously illuminating than on Miles Davis’s sessions of 1954? Clarke’s shimmering tone-colors make those sessions roll. Higgins has that quality, as well as an analogous faith in the basic components of the trap set and a gentlemanly sense of dynamics. But his versatility is astonishing, from Coleman to Blue Note house drummer. He may not have invented the “Sidewinder” beat, but he made it his own— made jazz-funk fluid, radiant, deep, cool. At a recent Vanguard gig with Walton and Jackie McLean, he splashed the time, skating across it with rhythms that were less countable than intuitive. The terra was firmer as he fronted the True Blue Allstars, but he was no less spellbinding, pressing turnbacks, alchemizing plushness with just the snare and ride cymbal. On Dexter Gordon’s funny blues march, “Hanky Panky,” he would drive the backbeat for a couple of choruses then suddenly let up, allowing the piece and soloist to breathe.
Yet the set I caught was missing something: fire, madness, genius, a tenor saxophone. For all Blue Note’s range, its signature sound remains the funked hard bop assault that began with Blakey and Silver in the mid ’50s and climaxed with Hancock and Shorter in the mid ’60s— hardly a music of fire, madness, and genius, as compared with Monk, Powell, Coleman, or Taylor, but bold and expressive all the same. The repertory of Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Hank Mobley, who was especially well featured, is rich enough to merit more
than celebrational recycling, if the players are out for blood. Sickler, a deliberative trumpet player with a trim tone, played smartly and without risk; Curtis Fuller, a singular trombonist, charmed with triple-tonguing and foghorn timbre, but limited himself to single choruses; James Spaulding, an altoist with unsteady pitch, veered into neverland on “Soy Califa.” A remarkable, just-issued 1982 concert by Freddie Hubbard, the key trumpeter of the True Blue era, glows with the electricity this idiom can produce; Above & Beyond (Metropolitan) respects nothing but the passion of the moment. Jazz repertory should be respectful, but not reverential.
Despite the tuxedos, the hall, and the occasion, reverence was not a problem at the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band’s “Black, Brown and Beige and More: Happy Birthday Duke.” In its fashion, it drew just as heady a bead on Ellington as the rousing David Murray concert in December; but it often missed the target. Of the new arrangements, two I’d like to hear again. You’d have to be awfully fundamentalist or humorless or both not to admire Jim McNeely’s temerity in adapting “The Mooche,” Ellington’s most famously serpentine hoochie-coochie epic, to the precincts of cool jazz. As Britt Woodman imparted puckish plunger obbligatos, the cup-muted brasses took the winding theme slow and easy, for a contrast that was paralleled as Frank Wess offered soulful blues tenor and the ensemble coalesced in luscious Gil Evans sonorities (circa 1957). A dreamy passage led to plunger trumpet by Byron Stripling, who played with becoming reserve all evening. Because it worked, measure for measure, I never found myself comparing it to Ellington.
“Rockin’ in Rhythm,” also arranged by McNeely, was another matter; everything, from Renee Rosnes’s insufficiently percussive piano intro to a merely attractive theme statement (cool, coy) to unmemorable solos and various self-conscious references reminded me of what wasn’t there— for example, the Harry Carney clarinet solo. A pale rumination on a masterpiece, I thought, touching inadvertently on the relative merits of modernist originality and postmodernist refractions. On the other hand, Frank Foster hit a classicist triple with “Take the A Train,” all ’50s opulence, with pretty bone voicings, a good Carrie Smith vocal, and a fine chorus of high-pitched variations for the saxophones, punctuated by the gleaming brasses— the effect marred only by a protracted tag ending. Jimmy Heath added little to “Johnny Come Lately” (though Randy Brecker brought it fleetingly alive and Jon Faddis took it out with a Dizzy cadenza), and Randy Sandke dared too much in an incoherent medley of train songs, salvaged briefly by a solidly Dexter-ish Ralph Lalama tenor solo. It ended with the three-note Count Basie kicker— a joke, I guess, although it went over my head.
True-blue Ellington was heard during the second half, done full justice by conductor Maurice Peress. Black, Brown and Beige belongs to the realm of flawed masterpieces, like Eyeless in Gaza or For Whom the Bell Tolls, where an artist’s best work goes toe-to-toe with his worst. But if BB&B lacks the formal discipline of Harlem or the obvious solutions of the suites, it dares far more, offering a procession of peaks that, though seemingly bound at times by nothing more than Elmer’s, are so elevated that ungainly transitions are reduced to tolerable blips. The major problem is theatrical: a discursive and anticlimactic third act. Live with it. “Black” is marred only by a too-abrupt transition from the magnificent “Work Song” to the first swing passage. Peress has conducted BB&B on several occasions, but I’ve never heard him or any ensemble mine as much exuberance from “Work Song.” Did he edit the trombone passage or did Dennis Wilson play it so well that the awkwardness of Tricky Sam Nanton’s 1943 performance disappeared? One of the loveliest and most neglected passages in Ellington is the violin setup for “Come Sunday”— Eddie Venegas made it sing. Yet it was Jerry Dodgion who had you on the edge of your seat as he sculpted every note of the alto solo with a rhapsodic inspiration worthy of Johnny Hodges. Stripling, Wess, and Smith (she missed one word but bounced right back) rose to the occasion, with Faddis crowning the high notes and drummer Winard Harper helping Peress to keep the whole mechanism running as smoothly as an hourglass.
Faddis did a decent job reading the Ellington introductions to each episode, but if BB&B is to get more than one performance a decade, that responsibility should be assigned to a pro, as is the case with Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Peress made his case, and the Carnegie audience jumped to its feet and cheered. That’s the sign of a living piece of music, and, heretical as it may sound (I didn’t feel this way about his recording or earlier performances), I’d would rather hear him conduct BB&B in its present form— slightly tweaked from the original— with a great orchestra than listen to the 1943 performance. Nor will it surprise me if Higgins and Sickler someday make me forget Blue Note vinyl. Jazz repertory is no longer a movement; it is a permanent wing, like the avant-garde. There are no rules, only good intentions, successes and failures. Incidentally, I made up the stuff about Bach and Lincoln Center. But Deutsche Grammophon has now commissioned Billy Bragg and Wilco to devise settings for the cantatas Bach never completed.