A (Re-)United Front


Here’s a fitting koan: How many times can the Flatlanders not reunite? Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, the core of that west Texas band, recorded a 1972 album that was shelved, then released in ’90 as More a Legend Than a Band. Tex as loyalists still group the three bohos together, partly because they recorded one another’s songs for years. But at Summerstage on Saturday afternoon, as they once again didn’t quite re unite, it was clear that the three also constitute complementary pieces of an elemental Greek trinity: mind (Han cock),
spirit (Gilmore), and body (Ely).

Hancock (ball cap, loose jeans, sneakers, froggy voice) led off solo, leaving a lot of his best songs for group encores. His playful, gnostic rambles spot puzzles in the ineffable; one mused, “There is no now”—a pause so long the crowd got baffled, then the punch line—”and there is no then.” Gilmore (white-silver mane, Native American necklace, beatific demeanor) relied more on his ghostly, wavering tenor as he contemplated “the fight between the being and the seeming,” and strummed a big beat with three other guitarists, including singer Kimmie Rhodes. The day was as hot as the Lubbock plains anyway, and New Yorkers declared fealty to Texas: they clapped warmly when Gilmore (who increasingly looks like he should be cast as a New Age cult leader in a Lifetime movie) introduced a Walter Hyatt song, and when his more phenomenological pal Ely attributed Terry Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” about a hitchhiker who first claims to be Jesus, then turns really weird.

Ely (dark pompadour, needle-nose boots, Cormac McCarthy fan) showcased the flamenco guitarist Teye, whose gusting solos fit the singer’s rambling story-songs and chesty showmanship. Then, to the crowd’s great delight, the Flatlanders re-formed briefly, relying on telepathy more than practice, offering Gilmore’s wary ode “Dallas” and Hancock’s “Bluebird” and devotional theme “West Texas Waltz.” Ely—who, ironically, began as the junior member of the
Flatlanders—cued solos and handed out verse assignments, some of which were dropped, though the thrill ing spirit of the improvisations made up for the weaknesses of the flesh. “This is a long way to come for a rehearsal,” Gilmore joked. If the three amigos ever did reunite, in a way that involved less ontological forms of collaboration—like, say, rehearsal—they could open a trade route into the astral plains. ——Rob Tannenbaum

Variations on Variations

In the 15 years that pianist Dick Hyman has served as organizer, host, chief arranger, and star player for the Jazz In July series at the 92nd Street Y, he’s redefined the basic approach to presenting vintage jazz styles in concert. Rarely playing note-for-note recreations of classic works, he in stead encourages new improvisations in older genres, and new twists on iconic jazz masterpieces. A few summers ago, he put into practice his speculation on how Bix Beiderbecke might have interpreted the songs of George Gershwin. And in this year’s series, he had six different pianists tackle “Tea for Two”—all with the verse in rubato. Today, somewhere in between Jazz at Lincoln Center’s recreation of Ellington charts nearly exactly as the Duke played them and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra’s commissioning of far-out, even gonzo re conceptions of familiar works, there’s a place for Hyman’s ingenious variations on variations.

Hyman, known to the pop music world for having the original hit, be fore Louis Armstrong or Bobby Darin, with “Mack The Knife,” to modernists for playing on Charlie Parker’s sole surviving TV appearance, and to Hollywood as musical director on Woody Allen’s movies, is adept in virtually every sort of music that’s ever been played on the piano. Still, Jazz in July, which this year spanned seven concerts from July 22 to 29, concentrates on pre-bop forms. No less a Zelig than the Allen character he underscored, on different nights Hyman played stride piano with the form’s greatest living master, Ralph Sutton, boogie-woogie in tribute to Bob Haggart and the Bob Crosby band, W.C. Handy with the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and Martinique beguines with Jazz à la Creole and Evan Christopher.

No less remarkably, Hyman pulls all this off without hogging the spot light. Rather, he plays up other player-scholars extensively—chatting like a jazzwise Johnny Carson with Scott Robinson, who enlightened the audience as to the whys and wherefores of such obscure saxophones as the neglected C-melody and the elephantine contra bass. And with Dan Levinson, whose expert recreations of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band illustrate how jazz’s first supergroup, loud and audacious as their music still is, was born of ragtime and the blues. In his own concise and thoughtful discourses into the music’s theory and history, Hyman provided obvious inspiration for Wynton Marsalis’s role as jazz’s primary spokesmodel.

Hyman also isn’t afraid to compete with other pianists, even masters on the level of Derek Smith (some musicians play notes at pitches only dogs can hear; Smith, a virtual robot of rhythm, can play at blazingly fast tempos only roadrunners can outrace), and Dave McKenna, who has forged stride and swing
piano into an idiom that’s entirely his own.

Even more than Hyman himself, the major recurring theme at the Y was the diversity of jazz sources, an illustration of how this music came not only from Scott Joplin and New Orleans (via the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the ODJB-styled Roof Garden Jass Band), but the Islands (Jazz à la Creole), the English music hall, vaudeville and the popular song (in one memorable turn, former English rock star Ian Whitcomb showed a houseful of alter kockers how to get in touch with their inner Jolson), and Eastern Europe (via songs by Weill and other refugees from Hitler, including Bronislau Kaper and Django Reinhardt).

A decade ago, when the JVC Jazz Festival began presenting “The Knitting Factory Goes Uptown,” there was hope that George Wein would begin incorporating more “cutting-edge” musicians into jazz’s world series. Instead, as Gary Giddins noted recently, JVC has since “surrendered” its postmodern responsibilities to the Knit’s own annual summerfests. Surprisingly, Wein has done a neat job of absorbing the Hyman/Y style into the JVC’s June subfest series at the Kaye Playhouse. Still, Hyman comes up with his own surprises, presenting John Sheridan as a potential new star of swing piano, and proving that Preservation Hall, for 40 years the flag ship unit for all traditional jazz, can still cut it: New Orleans may have run out of living legends, but the city can yet produce a spirited ensemble. After a decade and a half, Hyman and company continue to show that jazz’s past is every bit as unpredictable as its future. —Will Friedwald

Kids Rock

While wild flower kids, too young to have even been conceived at the first Woodstock, set fire to Rome, New York, another set of kids, too young to have learned their moves in the ’80, took to break-dancing on Pier 54 in Kangols and fat shoelaces as part of the Rock Steady Crew’s 22nd Anniversary weekend. With nothing but blue sky above and brown water be low, stand-up comics Danny Hoch and Ricky Powell paced the stage cracking jokes in an attempt to keep the 10-plus underground acts, including the Beatnuts and the Arsonists, moving and the crowd from leaving.

Artists spun on and off the stage as if it were a revolving door. Onlookers ducked and leaned to avoid the wrath of break-dancers spinning on their heads on portable dance floors. Somewhere in the crowd, there was a spinning wooden stick with a long string flying off fast. At one end was the Puerto Rican flag turned kite, at the other end was none other than hip-hop founding father DJ Kool Herc (who is actually Jamaican).

“Yo, I got a little kid up here who can rhyme,” yelled Rahzel of the Roots from the stage. Rahzel commenced his trademark beatbox, and Supernatural, underground veteran and father of the junior MC, kicked the rhyme off. It was difficult to decipher exactly what the eight-year-old rapping wonder was saying between the cheers from the crowd and shouts for his mic to be turned up. His flow, however, was impressive. On his turn to rhyme, Supernatural invited Crazy Legs’s son to follow in his father’s dance steps and spin on his head. He didn’t. He was probably too comfort able on his father’s shoulders, stage right, but there’s always next year. —Felicia A. Williams

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