”Twentieth century’s over. No more Mr. Nice Guy.” Marc Ribot’s getting tough, but with whom? Not the New Year’s Eve crowd for the triple bill at Tonic. With Cubanos Postizos, he’s pure crowd pleaser. Hardly 30 seconds of a tune go by before he rips out a patent solo–fuzzy and overdriven but note-clear–and sends the assembled revelers into paroxysms. Cubanos Postizos’ rhythm section got the people shaking booty, or at least shuffling and bobbing, which is pretty good for Downtown. We can all feel better about the 21st century knowing that Ribot will carry the torch of Keith and Jimi into it, but that’s not the only baggage we’ll be lugging. The swath of midcentury Cubanismo the Postizos cover can’t help reminding the grasping critic, on this historically underdetermined evening, that the Cold War’s longest-running, most embarrassing spectacle is with us yet. A lot of zeros don’t add up to a clean slate.
For Big History, though, the Brazilians have the leg up. Cyro Baptista’s percussion octet Beat the Donkey constantly enacts the truly epochal business of the concluded millennium, the global population tumult that attended the New World real estate boom. Samba is still smoking from the heat of that big bang, and Beat the Donkey tosses it like a hot potato. Slowing down the constituent rhythms at varying speeds and transposing them to gongs, they morph into a gamelan orchestra. And with flair! Whistling and shouting and costumes–fezzes, wigs, feathered Carnival accessories, silver Barbarella bras, and a gold bharata natyam getup on Baptista’s daughter. Baptista also plays tabla. Not to get global villagey–how last decade!–but that’s five out of seven continents accounted for; Java almost counts as Australasia; and Antarctica’s native inhabitants don’t know from Y2K anyway.
Like John Zorn does? Masada, Zorn’s bebop lineup, is named after a fortress the Jews battled the Romans for early in the first millennium. I’ve always liked the chamber versions of the same tunes (named for the second-century rebel Simon Bar Kokhba) for the historical specificity they imply, and for their variety
of tone color. Tonight, Masada’s mysticism matched its relevance. Zorn’s sax squall is
pretty specific–unmistakably late c20–but Dave Douglas’s trumpet, Greg Cohen’s bass, and Joey Baron’s drums make the most timeless music we have. It’s jazz, we guess, but it could be the jazz of the second century or the 22nd. In Bar Kokhba’s calendar, we’re a fair way into the sixth millennium. —David Krasnow
Preordained to create cultural convergence, Chico O’Farrill, who spent Christmas week at Iridium (and who has a new album, Heart of a Legend, on Fantasy), was born in 1921 to parents of Irish ancestry residing in Havana. He grew up immersed in Cuban music but was infatuated with American jazz, and spent his career developing ways to combine the two forms. The result of his labors–which reached fruition, not coincidentally, at the height of the bebop era–was the modern Latin jazz big band, a form that has not changed appreciatively since O’Farrill perfected it 50 years ago. But his musical domain extends further still, from full-scale symphonic compositions to arrangements for Ringo Starr and David Bowie. There were also such curate’s egg juxtapositions as bop charts for Benny Goodman and orchestrations of Beatles hits for Count Basie, as well as the classic Afro Cuban Jazz Suite, which spotlighted Charlie Parker in a Latin context. O’Farrill, who waited until his 75th birthday to put together a regularly working big band (which more frequently plays at Birdland), now helms one of the most formidable aggregations in jazz. On one hand, it’s a repertory band, which plays the leader’s music going back to the ’40s and ’50s with undebatable authenticity. On the other, it’s as fresh and modern as anything being produced today. Best of all are the occasions when O’Farrill, no less than Ellington, retools an old masterpiece: His current treatment of Afro Cuban Jazz Suite is considerably more concise than the 1950 original, and features the ensemble almost exclusively, particularly the Maestro’s distinctive, dark-toned reed writing.
It’s clear that O’Farrill thinks of himself as a jazzman first and a Latin musician second–the band often plays jazz pieces with no Latin relevance (”Chicago,” from the Basie book at Iridium, and ”Sing Your Blues Away,” with a vocal by guest Freddy Cole, on the album). More often, O’Farrill establishes the Latin presence, as on his opener ”Igor” (named after his pet cat, not Stravinsky), which commences with flute and congas, and then gradually brings in jazz solos. Apart from the master orchestrator, the band is stuffed with great players like baritonist Pablo Calogero, Bobby Porcelli on alto, trumpeter Michael Mossman, and O’Farrill’s son, Arturo, pianist and frequent conductor. O’Farrill’s end-of-December activities served as a potent reminder that it’s time to celebrate one of the few 20th-century masters coming with us into the new millennium. —Will Friedwald
To Be Frank . . .
Frank Sinatra wasn’t just singing songs, Eric Comstock remarks in the retrospective revue Our Sinatra, at the Blue Angel, but was ”inhabiting” them as no one else ever has. Apparently, the glib analysis means the late, irrefutably great crooner believed implicitly in his material, lived it, made it his own. Incorrect on a few counts. First, taking a song on as an expression of one’s innermost feelings has been done equally well or better by singers as disparate as Al Jolson and Janis Joplin. Second, it was part of Sinatra’s everlasting charm that he frequently didn’t inhabit a song any farther than donning it as jauntily as he did his porkpie hats.
But if inhabiting a number is the measure of this revue, it has to be said that all too often Comstock and his sidekicks-coconceivers, Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines, are just singing songs. Only occasionally do they bring unshakable conviction to the 62 pieces rendered entirely or in part. Comstock, who has a relaxed manner Sinatra would have approved, does his best work on the Matt Dennis?Tom Adair ”Everything Happens to Me,” implying the combination of bitterness and resignation that lies just under the surface of the words. Kole, who looks like one of the beauties Sinatra chased at MGM, has the most fun with ”I’ve Got the World on a String,” when she follows her natural instincts for jazz noodling. Gines, sounding the most like Sinatra, is as deep as his hero on ”If You Are but a Dream,” but also as callow on ”Ol’ Man River”–a piece Paul Robeson ”inhabited.”
The playbill says the formal wear was supplied by Chaps Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis. Which sums it up: This pleasant-as-it-reminisces survey is to the indelible Sinatra as Chaps Ralph Lauren is to Purple Label. —David Finkle>