Ornette and Others


And it must follow, as the night the day, that whenever JVC is as false to its calling as it was last summer, it will direct its next installment toward the true light. Look it up: The JVC Jazz Festival never scrapes bottom in consecutive years. With the return of Ornette Coleman (imperial), Wayne Shorter (tapped to elation by Savion Glover), and Dee Dee Bridgewater (an incendiary “Fever” for Peggy Lee), Carnegie Hall once again shone with star power, while diverse programming at Kaye Playhouse and inspired bookings at participating clubs added to a sense of citywide satiation. As usual for recent programs, it skewed to one age group—this year, elder statespeople. Boomers, so recently dominant, were in short supply (especially loft grads), and the young were virtually absent. I assume impresario and first-time author George Wein doesn’t do this deliberately; it just happens, like the rainy season and hot spells.

JVC got off to a terrifically festive start at Kaye with the kind of no-brainer that almost always works, though not at this level. The recipe is simplicity itself: a couple of beloved veterans as objects of homage, and reliable mainstreamers to combine jam-session zest, pointed anecdote, and pulsing esprit. Joe Wilder and Frank Wess, recent additions to the octogenerians’ club, hardly said a word all night but were involved in just about every segment, their trademark brews of eloquence and economy as potent as the sometimes ecstatic salutations played in their honor. From the first—Wilder, Wess, rhythm section, “Just Friends”—it was evident that the indispensable drummer Winard Harper would not tolerate flagging spirits; marking time on the hi-hat, shuffling over the snares for encouragement, and working the ride cymbal for incitement, he buttressed every measure.

The concert switched from pleasing to memorable when Phil Woods and Antonio Hart weighed in with their twin altos on “My Shining Hour,” the former venting with his customary electric charge, the latter modifying his Cannonball proclivities with a strong jolt of Woods, showing off the consequences of serious woodshedding. A promising player for what seems like forever, Hart held his own and stayed in tune. So many privileged moments ensued that singling out a few seems unfair to the abiding euphoria, but that’s what we’re here for: Jimmy Heath constructed a solo as lucid and intricate as an architect’s blueprint on “Bag’s Groove”; Bill Charlap found in Stephen Sondheim’s “Uptown Downtown” an anthem that combines stride rhythms and dramatic shifts in dynamics; Wilder engaged Charlap on “It’s Easy to Remember” and dapper Benny Powell on “Squeeze Me”; Jon Faddis outclassed Roy Hargrove on a Basie riff, but came in second on a ballad medley in which Hargrove’s Brownian lyricism (“Never Let Me Go”) showed his real forte; Wilder and Warren Vache locked horns on a contrapuntal “It’s You or No One,” preferring polyphony to the usual fours; Wess and Heath mined the deepest and mellowest swing groove of the evening on “What Is This Thing Called Love”; and everyone scored on a stunning finale of “Lester Leaps In” that was talked about all week—not least for the rapid-fire piano exchanges between Charlap and Renee Rosnes. It demands a sequel. I suggest “Over the Heath and Into the Woods.” No charge.

Ted Rosenthal’s “Piano Starts Here” scored more often than not once a thudding triptych of technicians was out of the way. Eliane Elias’s Gershwin medley showed that she can play breezy and her duet with Kenny Barron showed that she can play fast, but she brings little to a jazz party. Joey Caldarazzo brings nothing at all, beyond endless arpeggios, a consuming self-importance, and riff routines designed to make stadiums cheer (didn’t work at Kaye). It’s never seemed fair to me to review child prodigies the way they do in classical music, chiefly because so few of them get it, so suffice it to say that the 16-year-old relocated Siberian, Eldar Djangirov, played more notes faster than anyone else, and that it behooves his tutors to tell him about John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan. A little Tatum is a dangerous thing.

There was much to admire. Barron dug into “Yardbird Suite” at the swinging medium tempo that brings out his best. Charlap, uncharacteristically hyper (a few times he clapped his hands as if impatient of finding the right chord), played tunes by Michel Legrand and the Bergmans with economy and purpose, as well as duets with Rosenthal (“Rocker”—they had each worked with Gerry Mulligan) and Cedar Walton. Rosenthal revisited numbers from Threeplay, “Forever Young” and Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” with his gentle touch, pretty bass-clef harmonies, and astute time. Kenny Werner just about stole the show, deftly supported by Peter Washington, with his contemplative, ariose improvs, the last of which gradually revealed itself as a fantasia based on “Giant Steps.” Cedar Walton closed with just the right touch of maturity, revealing the ideal proportion of technique, swing, vamps, blue notes, and rests on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” and his own classic “Bolivia.”

Randy Sandke and Richard Sudhalter organized the centennial repertory tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, which managed to insert a few surprises amid careful re-creations and adaptations that included transcribed Bix and Frank Trumbauer solos played by trios of trumpets and C-melody saxophones, sometimes incorporating solos from alternate takes. The key surprises were the shrewd inclusion of little-known arrangements by the Whiteman and Goldkette arranger Bill Challis, and a couple of modern interpretations of Bix material by Tom Talbert and especially Gil Evans, whose “Davenport Blues” was a highlight. Yet it underscored a problem that stifled some of the early transcriptions: the idea that the drummer can do no more than politely ping the cymbal as directed by the score. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and clarinetists Dan Levinson and Ken Peplowski were not asked to play down to the level of Bix’s gang, so why must the rhythm section? Drummer Joe Ascione showed on the Evans arrangement that he has a lot more feeling than a metronome, and that feeling would have enlivened the creakier charts.

Sandke, who per usual played with sparkling articulation, did not make the mistake of including a passel of singers, as he did on a recent Bix CD (pianist Mark Shane handled the few appropriate vocals tolerably), but longueurs intruded, including an Eastwood Lane relic and, oddly, a plodding “Singin’ the Blues” that suffered from the same excessive reverence that, in the earlier pieces, reproduced the divide between Bix’s gems and his gang’s faded velvet. On “Riverboat Shuffle,” Gordon’s growling ensemble work and kickass solo showed how encompassing this music can be, and set the stage for the Bixian climax; he was slyer, waving his plunger like Vic Dickenson, on Levinson’s scoring of “Blue River,” though his tailgating on “Clementine” seemed a tad patronizing. The ensemble fired up “At the Jazz Band Ball” with such burly confidence you could almost forget it was jazz repertory.

Terence Blanchard’s misguided Carnegie concert of music he wrote for Spike Lee movies began with a brief chat between composer and director, who soon left, perhaps for a basketball game—he wore his jersey and surely had better things to do than listen to film cues accompanied by a slide show. What were they thinking? Isn’t the JVC JAZZ Festival an ideal opportunity for a gifted JAZZ musician like Blanchard to create JAZZ adaptations of the tunes he writes for movies? Backed by a chamber ensemble, with the occasional guest dropping in for a song, Blanchard presented the scores as heard in the movies, where they do their job. The drummer was so stiff he must have thought we were still in Bixland, and the music was almost uniformly sad, moody, oppressive, ominous, and nostalgic. Blanchard came to life once during the first half, on “Mo’ Better Blues,” which Jacky Terrasson treats more creatively on his new CD. I left at intermission, feeling bamboozled.

The tribute to Peggy Lee deserves more attention than I can give it. If one can believe that everything that occurred was intentional down to the last intonational wobble and the final clip of Peggy emoting the lethal “Is That All There Is?” in the manner of Olivier’s Hamlet soliloquies (lip-synching the chorus, closed-mouthed and thoughtful-looking through the rest), one might compare it as a drama to, say, Follies. Alas, Michael Feingold was not present and I was, and I’m obliged to review the music. It started well, with a montage of TV clips, a robust orchestra conducted by Mike Renzi, and Nancy Sinatra doing a thoroughly respectable—I was happily stunned—”Why Don’t You Do Right?” Things began to go strange as two dancers in white gloves emerged from the wings to distract Ann Hampton Callaway, who was having enough trouble with “Manana,” a tasteless period piece no matter how benevolent Miss Peggy’s intentions (as most songs were Lee originals, “I’m Goin’ Fishin’ ” would have been a better choice). Producer Richard Barone had gone and revived the worst aspect of ’50s TV variety shows—bad choreography.

There was an exception. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who needs no choreographer, radiated confident musicality on “Black Coffee” and returned wearing the last of Salome’s seven veils to strut her long legs on the most daringly erotic “Fever” imaginable; when male patrons at Carnegie Hall rearrange their coats and playbills on their laps, you know you are witnessing a historic event. She received the evening’s sole standing ovation, and it came before the intermission. Petula Clark and Chris Connor, who are respectively 70 and 75 (just an interesting tidbit), had pitch problems. But Connor had the range and spunk to try a difficult song, “Where Can I Go Without You.” Clark, who had neither, mentioned that unlike her friends, who grew up listening to Vera Lynn, she preferred Peggy—and then sang, as ever, like Vera Lynn. Deborah Harry apparently thought they were saluting Mae West, as she camped cluelessly and tonelessly around the stage, and Jane Monheit did her own version of sexy, which meant patting her hair and touching her breasts, first one, then the other, for the duration of her song. Thank goodness for Maria Muldaur, who salvaged Act Two with a good-natured touch of rock ‘n’ roll (“I’m a Woman”), and the redoubtable Shirley Horn, who required a crib sheet for “There’ll Be Another Spring” and still got more from the lyric than most of the others.

I hope Charlie Haden’s gotten “American Dreams” out of his system now that he’s performed the album at Carnegie; an exercise in bland democratic solemnity, it does carry the seed for what might be a great project. His inclusion of Ornette Coleman’s “Bird Food” suggests that he and Kenny Barron might profitably explore the Coleman oeuvre—just the two of them, no strings, no tenor saxophone, although Michael Brecker did have one bright moment, sounding tearily emotive on “Young and Foolish.” But enough of that. Art Blakey famously said that music washes away the dust of everyday life, and so it was when Ornette Coleman took the stage with his new quartet.

He went at it for close to 90 minutes, stopping, after a one-minute encore in response to a five-minute ovation, at the stroke of 11. That kind of precision characterized the entire set, not just the variational logic and magically timed endings, but the hairpin turns as the quartet sustained the leader’s expansive, combustible playfulness. With Denardo Coleman’s drums behind Plexiglas, the sound balance (better overall this summer than at any JVC festival in memory) gave each man his due, preventing the basses from getting muddied. Sometimes Greg Cohen asserted a thumping pizzicato bedrock as Tony Falanga employed his bow for melodic incursions; sometimes they plucked together, usually with Falanga suggesting the lead; and at one point Cohen laid out while Coleman and Falanga exchanged phrases. At all times the group seemed to breathe together, rising and falling like a pair of lungs, locked together with an emphatic rhythmic integrity that, in the Coleman manner, is less propulsive than fixed in the present—a perpetual-motion machine that swings in place, spotlighting the momentum of Coleman’s improvised melodies.

Nothing in jazz is more moving than the purity of Coleman’s sound and conception. Essentially, it has remained the same since 1959, when Shelly Manne marveled at how he could make the alto saxophone laugh and cry—never in a mimetic way, but through the natural effusiveness of his inventions. His tunes reach into an unguarded place where we store the most elemental tunes of childhood, and embody their universality, encompassing every kind of emotion. His solos chortle, sigh, exult, and dream, and when he’s finished you get sent back to the dust of everyday life. Small wonder the audience wouldn’t let him leave. Every Coleman concert is an event, but on this night he was preaching from the mountain and the clean air was exhilarating.

Meanwhile, there was much action in the clubs, including the return of Carla Bley’s big band. On opening night at Iridium she performed the current Looking for America in the first set, and began the second with an alternate, unrecorded version of the Overture to Escalator Over the Hill, continuing with a jolly Monkian piece called “Hip Hop” and excerpts from the 1996 Goes to Church. Gary Valente, a distinctive and robust trombonist who disappears from view when Bley isn’t around, was featured, along with Vincent Herring, Gary Smulyan, Steve Swallow, and other familiars, but it’s the stirring unity of the orchestra and Bley’s decisive writing that floats this mighty ensemble. At Birdland, Ira Gitler introduced respectful but never reverent repertory bands in tribute to the Tadd Dameron and Charlie Parker units that played the Royal Roost. Don Sickler, not an exciting trumpet player but an appealing one with his confident timbre and lyrical phrasing, straw-bossed the Dameron band, with Jimmy Heath outstanding on “If You Could See Me Now” and in tandem with Jimmy Greene, who played a knockout solo on “Our Delight.” The rhythm sections for both bands were in the reliable hands of Kenny Washington, Peter Washington, and pianist Michael Weiss, who is never more commanding than when reaching into his bop bag—especially in the Parker band, which featured Jim Rotundi, an accomplished trumpet player who played too close to the mic, and altoist Jesse Davis, who is back in New York after five years in New Orleans, and approximates Parker’s sound with fidelity, verve, and invention. Davis is long overdue for serious attention on the club circuit.

The festival climaxed at Carnegie with “Wayne Shorter: Life & Music,” a program as concise and wary as Coleman’s was effulgent and generous that nevertheless came to a smashing conclusion. Personally, I liked the first set, which was 45 minutes long and involved Shorter’s quartet and one duet with Herbie Hancock, yet feel obliged to report that many colleagues grumbled. Though Shorter’s sound was as light as a flute and his group a model of aggressive interaction, many fans want him to play conventional quartet music with coherent solos that have at least the vitality of his recent quartet album, if not the fabled might of the Miles Davis or Weather Report eras. Shorter, however, prefers at times a kind of hide-and-seek call-and-response with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade. In this mode, the band reminds me of Count Basie rhythm interludes, where instead of a piano solo you get a four-way immersion in timekeeping. With Shorter, the issue is less about rhythm than rests and retaliations—indeed, rhythm was nowhere to be found in the superbly executed, almost Debussyan duet with Hancock.

In any case, no one complained after the second set, which was dominated by tap dancer Savion Glover, whose lack of universal recognition amazes me—though I feel the same way about Ornette Coleman. With intermittent contributions from a chamber orchestra conducted by the histrionic Robert Sadin, he leaped to his platform and beat out so riveting a tattoo of complicated rhythms, with such finesse, that no one minded and some failed to notice that he often had his back to the audience. His music is that compelling—from any angle. After his initial solos and involvement with the arrangements, he kicked new life into Shorter, challenging him in a kind of standoff that had the tenor saxophonist wailing like a banshee or, better still, the old Wayne Shorter. Then he challenged the others, and one measure of his ingenuity was that Brian Blade, the greatest drummer of his generation and one of the most restlessly stimulating since Roy Haynes, was hard-put to match him. It was over by 10, a satisfying and fitting conclusion to a festival that felt like a festival, breaking little ground but sprucing up the old homestead just fine.

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