Say this of JVC: The plot changes annually. It may look the same on paper, may list toward the same artists, suffer the same limitations, capitulate to the same distractions, but George Wein’s flagship festival manages to take different turns each summer. If I am more conscious than usual of past vagaries, triumphs, subplots, and themes, contrived or otherwise, it is because midway through this edition, I realized that I had been reporting on the behemoth variously known as Newport-New York, Kool, and JVC for 30 years. Thus I thought I might peruse my old reviews. Two seem especially relevant: In 1991, the cast focused on under-40s and over-60s, leaving the boomers out in the cold, not for the last time; in 2000, every event paid its respects to the past. The current edition reversed both trends.
Identifying bona fide boomer jazz heroes requires some precision. I refer to those who came into their own when we were starting to listen, as opposed to those who, though only slightly older or even younger, were already established parts of our inheritance. Dewey Redman, who turned 70 in May but had no national reputation until 1967, makes the cut; Phil Woods, who turns 70 in November but was a star long before 1960, does not. Boomer heroes—notably Redman, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, and did I mention Wayne Shorter?—accounted for most of the expectations and red meat at JVC 2001. Jazz’s past was evoked, but not fetishized. At a tribute to Coltrane keyed to the 75th anniversary of his birth, for example, no one ever mentioned John Coltrane or played any of his music in his style.
A very boomeresque motif developed. Never in my experience at a jazz festival was so much audience participation encouraged. Credit it to the unacknowledged influence of either Minnie the Moocher or Pete Seeger. I counted no fewer than four sing-alongs and four clapfests, not to mention practiced routines in which the audience was obliged to stand and whoop for five minutes in order to get encores already scheduled. We received no payment for our efforts.
The major concerts got under way at Kaye Playhouse, with “Who’s on First?” Repeating (sometimes verbatim, down to the patter) the Los Angeles engagement that Blue Note issued last year, Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough alternated individual sets and duets. Entertaining as the album is, the visual component is such that the two must be seen live to be fully appreciated: Frishberg, the short Brooks-blazer Midwestern Jew, who honed his neuroses during long stays on both coasts, writing and singing songs to fend off rude times and hifalutin clichés; and Dorough, the grinning, ponytail-wearing Arkansan beanpole, writing and singing songs to celebrate the dawn of a new day, invulnerable to absurdity. They have been friends for four decades, co-composed “I’m Hip,” and worked on Schoolhouse Rock. Each began as an accomplished bop pianist and celebrates jazz heroes in the language of jazz fans. Frishberg is knowingly funny, if occasionally saccharine; Dorough is accidentally funny, if occasionally overbearing.
On his own, Frishberg rambled from an understated piano medley of Harold Arlen to several of his best-known portraits—”My Attorney Bernie,” “Quality Time,” meditations on Zoot and Bix, the brilliantly arch yet genuinely nostalgic “I Want to Be a Sideman,” and a new song, “The Hopi Way,” which derives much humor from the melodic/verbal surprise of the tag line, countering a list of temptations and woes with the singer’s improbable allegiance to the Hopi creed. Dorough, for his part, patrolled the stage waving branchlike arms, switching between pianos, milking the audience, and having the time of his life, croaking and twanging autobiographical benchmarks: “Devil May Care,” “Nothing Like You,” musical settings to official prose (parking summons, laundry ticket), tributes to Bird, Billie, and Bechet (Don Nelson’s affecting “Something for Sidney”), and homages to Hoagy Carmichael—”Hong Kong Blues” and “Baltimore Oriole.” They wrapped up with a duet on “Conjunction Junction,” Dorough conducting the audience on the refrain. The crowd, apparently suffering from stage fright, was eerily high-pitched.
On the second night, instead of one of the usual swing or guitar evenings, Wein allowed Joshua Redman and Eric Reed to bring to Kaye a touch of Gen X modernism, which amounts to the modernism of midcareer Coltrane and Oscar Peterson. The event was nearly disastrous. Redman’s quartet, with the splendid drummer Gregory Hutchinson, spent 80 minutes playing his new CD, Passage of Time, which itself clocks in at under an hour. Dazzling cadenzas, unison tenor/piano themes, and the accretion of drones, fragmented themes, several meters (I think one long passage was in seven) provided moments of tension and variety. But such attractions were undermined by the increasingly evident preplanning of the thing—each passage fussily worked out until the life was leached out and the climaxes, accented with heroic body English, producing more false endings than Gone With the Wind. Reed’s septet played much of the same material from his Lincoln Center concert and new CD, Happiness, when he wasn’t indulging in lengthy introductions. He is a facile pianist who can approach profundity, as on “Three Dances,” but his compositions are banal, sometimes patronizingly so, as on his tributes to African American women, especially “Black Beauty.” I didn’t last the set.
The third night, inexplicably titled “Cabaret Jazz Hall of Fame,” offered a suave set by Freddie Cole, his combo, and his royal timbre; followed by Blossom Dearie and her trio, mining more laughs from “My Attorney Bernie” than its composer with her faux-innocent phrasing and vocal quality. She fared best overall. Act II was more of a provocation: Ronny Whyte, who wore a white dinner jacket but chose to scat “Buttons and Bows” for the occasion, sent me racing to the lobby; it was my understanding that JVC provides a safe haven from lounge acts. Then it was time for 85-year-old Joe Bushkin. Jack Kleinsinger, our voluble host, uncharacteristically announced that he would turn over the introduction to Judy Garland, who led off an entertaining 10-minute film in which Bushkin spoke of his life amid clips with her, Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra, Crosby, Armstrong, and others. At a normal program, the lights would have come on to reveal the man himself; instead the lights revealed Kleinsinger for another introduction. Bushkin had had enough. He walked out and later made a rude remark about the majordomo that induced more gasps than laughs. Yet he played splendidly in his pop 1950s Teddy Wilson-at-cocktail-hour style, lush and spry; sang his two hit songs; told anecdotes mostly of the war; and started a medley from High Society that ignored “True Love” in favor of “Love for Sale” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
“A Love Supreme: Remembering John Coltrane,” at Carnegie, offered another kind of drama—waiting for some mention of Coltrane, which never came. A totally silent Roy Hargrove led his superb quintet through the festival’s single worst morass of acoustic madness. The sound was so boxy you had to strain just to penetrate the echoes and hear the notes. The first piece, which may actually have been by Coltrane, defeated me completely. But switching to flügelhorn for a few exceedingly laid-back ballads—two that Coltrane recorded (“I Wish I Knew,” “Nature Boy”) and one he didn’t (“I’m Glad There Is You”)—Hargrove penetrated the mist. Few musicians, Gen X or other, can embrace standards with Hargrove’s polish; at JVC, only Keith Jarrett matched him. I have no doubt that he could pull off, Clifford-like or, better still, Coltrane-like, a whole album of ballads. Altoist Jesse Davis played ferociously, though most of his efforts disappeared into the ceiling, and pianist Larry Willis offered acute comping and a lithe, Tatumesque touch. He was also exceptional later in the festival, as a member of Jerry Gonzalez and Fort Apache.
JVC’s most ambitious debut, the oddest in some time, was Slide Hampton’s arrangement of A Love Supreme, performed by Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band with guest soloist Michael Brecker. The very idea was daunting, but Hampton pulled it off by ignoring religious connotations, focusing on the eight- and 12-bar themes from parts two and three, and permitting Brecker free rein in a cadenza acknowledging only the god of ravenous virtuosity. It was impossible, on one hearing, to grasp all the intricacies; I’m not sure how the first section—a 10-minute episode beginning with a choir of winds, a vamp, a percussion transition, and piping Faddis top-notes—relates to the original. The delayed arrival of Coltrane’s first-movement ostinato introduced Brecker, who played with the rhythm section. “Resolution” was almost shocking, with baritone saxophone fronting stark voicings topped with pitched brasses, the eight-bar figure played in unison with as many different endings as Coltrane indicated and possibly more. The long Brecker cadenza replaced penitential passion with razzle-dazzle showmanship, complete with double-note ripples that reminded me of the old Varitone electric sax, except Brecker apparently gets all his effects without help. Considered religiously, if we must, the approach was less Coltrane than Ellington, who put virtuoso display, including an elaborate drum solo, at the center of “In the Beginning God.” Brecker had the audience on its feet cheering as the ensemble suddenly went into “Miles’ Mode,” featuring short solos by CHJB saxophonists (none of whom invoked the once ubiquitous Coltrane style) and another powerhouse display from Brecker. Indeed, the concert resembled a religious service in the number of times the congregation took to its feet. Still, it was not a good idea for Faddis to encourage the audience to sing “A Love Supreme” with the band, which I swear he did.
The boomers got to worship at greater length a few nights later, as Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette filled Carnegie—something I suspect no other piano trio could pull off. I had not seen Jarrett, never a favorite of mine, in more than 20 years, since the days of the grumpy hour-long meditations replete with blues clichés that you found either transporting or numbing. But last year’s Whisper Not made me regret my assumptions and dig through many other albums of standards he recorded in the ’90s; I can still live without the earlier records, including the quartet with Dewey Redman, but I will never again underestimate a musician who can make me listen to “Love Is a Sentimental Thing.” So I awaited this performance eagerly and, though there were none of the triple somersaults heard on, for example “Groovin’ High,” I was not disappointed. The trio is spectacular. Records, however, have an advantage: You don’t have to watch him levitate from the bench like beer foam, gyrating his hips and swiveling toward the audience with a grimace indistinguishable from a grin or vice versa. Live and on records, you have to put up with vocal accompaniment—a keening eeeeehhhhhh that is no more pleasing than Glenn Gould’s and a constant regimen of Peacock solos that reminded me of Ellington’s comparison of bass solos to TV commercials. Alas, no remote.
But from the opening “Green Dolphin Street” on, the music paid its way. The sound was acceptable, too, thanks in part to DeJohnette’s ingenious restraint. Jarrett may not be the only pianist of his era who can embrace “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” at a relaxed medium tempo, indulging the melody while avoiding cocktailisms or Bill Evans devices, but is anyone else as convincing? The energy, poise, flow of ideas, and determination to mine the changes in a thoroughly modern context suffused that song and others—”What’s New,” “Lover,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Last Night When We Were Young”—with a heady mixture of discipline and originality. He played “Yesterdays” slowly and then jauntily, dramatizing the piece twice over, and closing with a quietly elegant finish. On “Honeysuckle Rose,” arranged to begin with quasi-stride (as on the Whisper Not version of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”), DeJohnette used brushes and took off on a rocking marchlike solo perfectly appropriate for the piece. Only an untitled free improvisation got away from them. A medium blues caused the Brubeckian audience to explode with naked adoration, acceding to the ritualized routine of encores for which time was permitted by knocking off the second set after half an hour. As the audience cheered for more, members of the trio hugged each other, which was sort of cute. Members of Chick Corea’s and Wayne Shorter’s bands did the same; it’s a boomer thing. Corea’s New Trio, as he calls it, refers to the fact that although he has been working with bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard for four years, he only conjoined them as a trio eight months ago. The acoustics at Avery Fisher promised to serve the band pretty well, but Cohen had a faulty pickup that, incredibly, the musicians could not hear. Even after the audience protested the distortion—every bass note was accompanied by a loud blat—they expressed surprise. Corea got off a good line, though: “You want to listen with headphones?” After a couple of numbers, the bass mic was turned off, an improvement if you preferred piano-drums duets. Not until the last piece did someone arrive onstage with a microphone. Maybe he had to go to Carnegie to borrow it.
The set had moments, but no passion. You never wonder why Jarrett is playing a particular song—the performance tells you. But Corea turned “I Hear a Rhapsody” into an exercise: rubato theme, much dialoguing with Cohen, who is all over the bass (an occasional four-beat walk would be a relief), tempo changes—all of it light, bright, and slightly preening. Even at his best, Corea is rarely emotional. The pleasure he affords is basically that of exceptional musicianship. “Life Line,” the final piece, ended with Corea and Cohen picking up cowbells and sticks to join in Ballard’s drum solo, and it was fun, truly, more so than the sing-along on “Spain,” with Corea playing phrases on piano and the audience la-di-dahing responses. Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho!
There is no more beautiful nor pined-for sight in jazz than Wayne Shorter holding a tenor saxophone, especially if he means to play it. Following Corea and receiving a standing ovation just for showing up, he did. Surrounded by the uncannily supportive piano, bass, and drums of Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade, he created a spellbinding hour, brimming with feeling and pleasurable apprehension. Although the rhythm players never sounded remotely like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, they re-created the kind of suspense that made the second Miles Davis Quintet a revelation—not merely backing the soloist, but collaborating with him on each measure. The result was a true quartet music, driven by spontaneity, impulse, and a shared commitment to the whole. Shorter achieved what Joshua Redman could only attempt, a genuinely organic quartet music.
They opened with his adaptation of a Sibelius theme, “Valse Triste,” and although his tenor lacked the power of his epochal ’60s work, it found its way with the wasteless grace that is the hallmark of his mature style. After the debacle at Lincoln Center a few years ago and the sometimes narcoleptic duets with Hancock, his recommitment to the tenor and acoustic jazz would be reason enough to pat him on the back, but excuses were not necessary. The key responsibility of a musician is to keep it interesting, and Shorter knows how. His shy, hesitant, gingerly designed phrases, occasionally interrupted by a roar or a siren arpeggio banking into the clouds, were etched with sure narrative logic. The piece itself accelerated and decelerated, with Perez following his lead, sidling into a solo with equal deliberation, and then relaying the spotlight to bass and drums. Shorter once remarked that composing is the same as improvising, only slower. “Valse Triste,” melding the two, ran about 15 minutes without a false step. Even the hall’s sound was bright and clear.
Although Shorter’s compositional style is easily recognized, his titles, like Monk’s, tend to blur. Interestingly, the one piece everyone recognized was his most recent, “Aung San Suu Kyi,” introduced on the Hancock duets CD, and the only piece he played on soprano—the audience erupted when Perez played the introductory chords. Shorter performed it with more vitality and rhythmic definition than on the record, expanding on the theme with stop-and-go concentration. Like Bill Evans, he managed on this piece and the others to relay the lead to Perez so deftly that he denied himself applause. Thirty-five years ago, his solos seemed like a respite after Davis’s soul-baring candor. Now he is the soul barer, excavating the material with repeated notes and sudden flurries, limpidly falling into the reprise. He has recast “Masquelero,” sustaining the third note of the opening phrase, but this piece seemed stillborn, taking its time being born in a de facto dialogue between Shorter and Blade, and never quite delivering on the promise. Even here, however, the cohesion of the quartet sustained interest, intuiting directions. It was like walking through a dark room, feeling your way to the light, then slipping into the dark for good.
Blade kept time with hand patterns on “Atlantis,” which began with arco bass and found Perez referencing “Aung San” in his comping. Played at a yawningly slow tempo, it did not induce yawns because after wondering where it was going, you realized it was already there; like “Nefertiti,” it was a vehicle for the rhythm players. Shorter was standing out front, but in repeating the theme, he was really the background, until the last note when the quartet resolved on a lovely consonance. After the ritual hugs and standing cheers, he reached back to the Blue Note womb—from which so many jazz boomers were yanked into life—for “Juju.” As Perez pummeled the keys with crossed hands and Blade, who just may be at the forefront of Gen X drummers, set off flairs and bombs, Shorter played his busiest solo of the evening, only without dynamics—reclusive, enigmatic, alluring. Imagine the old “Juju” phrased like the old “Infant Eyes,” and you get an idea not only of this number but of the entire set.
Last year, I demurred on Diana Krall because I was on the fence; I’ve now got my feet on the ground, but am demurring again until her new CD is released. The concert was retro and lush, with orchestrations for strings by Johnny Mandel and Claus Ogerman, and she was often compelling, not least in her piano solos. Gladys Knight arrived half an hour late, but once she got going all was forgiven; excepting an unnecessary guest saxophonist, her 90-minute set, including a vaudeville routine with her sole remaining Pip, was show business heaven. Yes, she could probably sing jazz, but her old material is so good she doesn’t need to.
One of the festival’s best new ideas was to run parallel evenings at Birdland, enabling players who can’t fill the major halls to sell out a club that enshrines bebop and its derivations. A Phil Woods quintet plus guest Johnny Griffin and a Dewey Redman quartet plus guest Sonny Fortune delivered the goods and more. Woods revived a couple of pieces you don’t often hear anymore (“Bohemia After Dark,” “Little Niles”), eliciting from pianist Bill Charlap the kind of inventive sparkle absent on his own recent CD. After Fortune deconstructed “What’s New?” Redman went from an Ornette stop-and-go piece—inadvertently demonstrating how close the Coleman and Adderley legacies really are, at least from this vantage—to a backbeat rocker worthy of your neighborhood bar, during which he wandered around tables getting everyone to clap. It was that kind of night, that kind of festival. A boomer thing.