Yes He Can
In Wyclef Jean’s world, it’s all good: He seems convinced that there’s no such thing as bad music. He’s put this theory into practice on a pair of globe-trotting solo albums, and the result has been a mild variant of success—less intense than fame, and less deeply felt than respect. It ain’t about guitar technique, or mic skills, or even songwriting. People just sorta buy his albums because . . . well, because he’s Wyclef. I used to think he was merely some Haitian hustler peddling mediocre world music to a gullible public. But after seeing the former Fugee’s bravura performance at Carnegie Hall on Friday, it’s clear that the man has simply chosen the wrong profession: His albums may be dull, but his charity concerts are top-notch.
The charity is called “Clef’s Kids” (I think it has something to do with youngsters and music), and the concert paired an all-Kid jazz band with an ecleftic lineup of special guests. Have you ever wanted to hear the 14-year-old Welsh diva Charlotte Church perform an operatic version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” backed by a hip-hop beat and Wyclef’s acoustic guitar? The answer is probably No, but before anyone could protest, the Brit was shunted offstage, replaced by a bewigged Macy Gray, who rasped her way through Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” On and on it went: Mary J. Blige tore apart the sublime ballad “911,” Whitney Houston belted out a song called “I Go to the Rock” (it’s about Jesus, not that other thing), and Destiny’s Child flummoxed the boomerish crowd with their electronic pop. The adult-rock icon Eric Clapton received one of the evening’s most enthusiastic ovations, but even he was outshined by Stevie Wonder, who ad-libbed over Wyclef’s “Gone Till November”: “I’ll be driving you,” promised Stevie, with a grin. By the end of the night, dozens of stars—and kids—had crowded the stage for a double-speed rendition of “Guantanamera,” and the aisles were filled with Haitian and Brazilian drummers. Sure, it was a garish spectacle, and I don’t think I’d want to relive it with a live CD. But it’s hard to hold a grudge when Al Gore’s favorite rapper is staring into a sea of benefactors, crowing, “I’m the new Sammy Davis Jr.!” —Kelefa Sanneh
Grecian Formula and Aqua Net
Around the beginning of 1976, John Holmstrom printed up the first issue of his indelibly silly zine Punk. On January 10, the Punk crew held a 25th-anniversary show at their epicenter, CBGB, to hype their reunion issue. A lot of the revelers, onstage and off, didn’t exactly remember the first wave; as the Bullys’ singer put it, “I was fuckin’ reading some fuckin’ Dr. Seuss books and shit.” Others had broken out their rusted safety pins and expired bottles of Aqua Net for the first time in decades. Spotted on the scene: a matron in a red leather jacket, three or four quasi-Soo Catwoman ‘dos, a few power suits, some Starbucks cups, a neon-green fur coat, rampant eyeliner abuse, an Extreme Championship Wrestling man-mountain, a dancing lad in a Woodstock ’99 T-shirt, and the saddest punk sight of all time—a mohawk interrupted by a bald spot.
The hinted-at appearances by Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone never materialized, though the old-school crew did include Unnatural Axe (of “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” nonfame), fronted by Destroy All Monsters’ remarkably well-preserved Streisand look-alike Niagara, who caterwauled a few Stooges covers too many. Vaguely embarrassing covers kept turning up, actually—why, no, you haven’t told us about the war, Grandpa. Nice to see that the Dictators are still energetic and trim, though it was pretty unnecessary for them to phone in the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” and even more unnecessary for the crowd-baiting eighth-generation Ramonnabes Furious George to play it again a few hours later. By 2 a.m., when Big Fat Combo were dredging up “Heart of Glass,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” and (fronted by Legs McNeil) “Ring of Fire,” the unnecessariness was approaching critical mass.
All was forgiven when Alternative TV ripped into their first New York set ever with “Action Time Vision,” which they actually wrote. Front man Mark Perry launched his own zine, Sniffin’ Glue, in London a few months after Punk; ATV were basically antidoctrinaire punks to begin with, and gradually abandoned punk for artier territory altogether, as Perry became disenchanted with the dogmatic monoculture that dominated the rest of this bill. So it was a little strange, though not unwelcome, to see them retrenching to their earliest three-chord assaults. They sounded great—taut, engaged, wry—and lyrics like “How much longer will people wear/Nazi armbands and dye their hair?” haven’t gotten any less pointed. Even looking backward, they were the most forward-looking band of the night. —Douglas Wolk
It’s usually bad juju when a singer calls time-out midway through his latest single, so when Antony and the Johnsons hit pause during the radiant “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” on January 12, folks were poised for the worst. Given the barroom tunes bleeding through the Knitting Factory walls, a tantrum would’ve been understandable, but Antony chose jelly beans over vitriol, rakishly distributing candy to fey admirers and baffled hipsters alike before starting the number anew.
Such droll conviviality comes melded to the man’s haunting, unabashedly robust compositions. While the bittersweet contrast has prompted comparisons to Otis Redding and Judy Garland, there’s a canny precision to Antony’s dubbing Divine his “self-determined guru.” The departed femme fatale—his womanhood crafted from wholesale defiance—existed as a primal vision of the autonomous (though not untroubled) sexuality that fuels Antony’s music and booming, keening voice. Disarmingly childlike, his stage presence twines innocence to decidedly polymorphous perversity, as precocious renditions of the Ronettes’ “Too Young” (natch) and “Cripple and the Starfish” aptly demonstrated.
Likewise, in the Johnsons’ latest reworking of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” ambling cello and a breathtaking crush of violin stroked the jailbait sauciness of Antony’s vocals. But “River of Sorrow” and the Julee Cruise stunner “Mysteries of Love” (Antony here clutching at words as if they were long-flown memories) conjured dusky cabaret melancholia, further mottling the night’s coquetry. Still, the chanteuse caught in this dwindling spotlight couldn’t give himself over entirely to gloom and doom. The sole encore (“Twilight,” no less) found him plopping Dietrich-style into the lap of a potential sugar daddy. “Are you his wife?” Antony blithely inquired of the fellow’s female companion. “I would’ve brought you a chocolate drop.” —Nick Rutigliano
Besides convening pedagogues and students for how-to music clinics, scholarly presentations, and collegiate big-band performances, the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference rallies the industry for its premier schmoozefest (more than 8000 people gathered January 10 through the 13 at the Sheraton and Hilton hotels). Publishers, label reps, presenters, retailers, and publicists crowded three floors of the Hilton’s exposition center, where boothkeepers made anxious glances at visitors’ name badges in swift valuations of their tchotchke allotments: cookies or key chains for students, CDs or books for industry professionals, and free horns or occasionally recording contracts for deserving musicians.
While the trade in goods and services continued apace, the trade in ideas rarely extended beyond the polite chatter of a tea party, at least in the Industry Track programs I caught. (I missed the popular Amiri Baraka and Quincy Jones panels.) Maybe it’s the prevailing mood of Burnsian pride that lent most panels the thematic thrust of those bargain-bin “I Like Jazz!” CD compilations. Despite panelist James Carter’s urging that everyone “get their freak on,” even typically prickly attendees maintained the buttoned-down, deferential profiles of new parolees out on good behavior.
So IAJE’s best industry forums took a tip from the educational element, offering practical musical or historical information from insiders. Dan Ouellette, a Downbeat magazine contributor and Schwann Inside editor, wisely chose star musicians Joe Lovano and Greg Osby for his Live Blindfold Test. A rare Sun Ra recording stumped just about everyone, but both musicians instantly ID’d Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, who was faded out mid-track. “No one ever turns down Sonny Rollins in the middle of a tune in my home,” quipped Lovano, who was especially sharp-witted given the rigors of the previous night: He’d been limoed over to Town Hall for a guest solo with the Italian Jazz All-Stars between sets with his own Nonet at Birdland.
Another standout panel addressed the work of photographer Frank Wolff, the partner of Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion. Both men were German immigrants, or “Hitler’s gifts to us,” moderator Dan Morgenstern cracked. Wolff’s photos defined the era of 1960s jazz in New York; as photographer Jimmy Katz said, “You usually think about Lee Morgan or Hank Mobley through his eyes.” Dr. Ruth Lion (Alfred’s widow), Rudy Van Gelder (the recording engineer whose clean sound also defined the High Blue Note era), and producer-writer Michael Kuscuna took turns eulogizing Wolff, then joined in a collective oral-history session when they projected a series of his photos onstage. After, the audience shuffled out in a warm daze of nostalgia, but of the galvanizing variety: We were primed to see and hear the music that defines New York now. —Michelle Mercer