Inasmuch as subcultures have a way of first surfacing via oddball chart hits, novelty and innovation can amount to the same thing in pop. Itself once a novelty, jazz is supposedly a different story now, protected from aberrations like fusion and frippery like smooth by a hundred years of evolution beginning with ragtime and continuing through . . . well, there’s the catch. With evolution on hold since Coltrane, maybe novelty is our last hope. Or so I’m tempted to conclude after being blown away by Don Byron and the Sugar-hill Gang at Symphony Space earlier this month and left cold by Wynton Marsalis’s big-band arrangement of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the new CD by Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Admittedly, one thing has nothing to do with the other. But both Byron and Marsalis are tackling the problem of expanding the jazz repertoire beyond derivative “originals” and a handful of distressed standards, and Byron’s more novel solution seems to me at least as valid as tweaking the canon—it all depends on the results.
A typical jazz repertory concert resembles a college survey course, with the bandleader as prof. Even when Byron is comparing Earth, Wind & Fire to Schoenberg, as he did in introducing “Shining Star,” his shows are more like mix tapes—a breezy assortment of stuff he enjoys and wants you to hear the way he does. Following a Stravinsky trumpet fanfare nobly delivered by James Zoller and Ralph Alessi, Byron’s Symphony Space Adventures Orchestra—nine pieces plus singers DK Dyson and Gordon Chambers—covered EW&F, Henry Mancini, Sly & the Family Stone, and Herb Alpert. It didn’t even matter whether you ever liked Earth, Wind & Fire or the Tijuana Brass. These sounds are part of our DNA, and the arrangements by Byron and his band members captured the panache of the original recordings. The fun was in listening for affinities in songs not usually included on the same playlists. Byron even took Mancini outside, cuing improvisers on “Futter’s Ball” like a cross between Bugs Bunny and Butch Morris. Although he never touched his clarinet, he wailed on baritone over juking horns on “Let’s Groove Tonight.”
Euphoria kicked in with what Byron, who grew up in the South Bronx around the time of Kool Herc, called “for me, the Kunta Kinte portion of tonight’s concert”—Sugarhill Records revisited. Along with the West Street Mob’s “Let’s Dance,” the band also did Sequence’s “Here Comes the Bride” and Wayne and Charlie’s “Check It Out,” supposedly the only rap record by a ventriloquist and his dummy (talk about conceptual art!). This wasn’t nostalgia, because obscurities like those last two, which few remember, appeal to memory only if there were such a thing as generic Sugarhill, which Byron conclusively proved there wasn’t. What was novel about Sugarhill back in the day were the raps. Byron helped call attention to the boundless riffs and countermelodies behind the toasts and pilfered basslines. Yes, these were great party records, but they also turn out to be sturdy pop songs in the grand convention—for Chrissake, “Here Comes the Bride” even has a bridge.
For the climax, he brought out Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee to do “Apache” and the inevitable “Rapper’s Delight.” With the horns pyramiding behind them, the Gang showed they still have it—especially the charismatic Wonder Mike, whose doofy rhymes about spoiled food and such always were nimbler than most scat singing, not to mention the sullen raps of today’s truculent thugs. But there I go showing my age and/or my pallor. Back in ’79, the dancers in the audience might have bum-rushed the stage. The women dancing in the aisles in this older and whiter crowd waited for Wonder Mike to wave them up, and by the end the stage looked like closing night of any recent Democratic National Convention. Again, so what? This music belongs to everyone now, including jazz performers who approach it honestly and respectfully.
Reviewing a 2002 Symphony Space concert at which the Adventures Orchestra played only Sugarhill, Ben Ratliff of the Times objected that these were recordings that were never intended for live performance. Although I disagree on general principle, a vaguely similar objection could be raised against JALC’s A Love Supreme, the original 1964 version of which even most of us old enough to have witnessed Coltrane in the flesh know only as a recording (he performed it in concert only once, at a French jazz festival the following year). Singular and totemic, A Love Supreme is unsuitable for big band because what’s sacrificed if an arranger orchestrates Coltrane’s solos for the entire saxophone section, as plenty have with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, is the sense of one man’s quest being responsible for the work’s urgency and religious aura. This doesn’t stop Marsalis from pointlessly letting all the horns take turns with Coltrane’s tenor chants on both “Acknowledgement” and “Psalm,” the opening and closing movements.
This isn’t Marsalis’s first A Love Supreme. His problem in 1993, when he performed the entire suite with a quartet featuring Elvin Jones at Lincoln Center, after recording a truncated version with Jones in Japan the previous year, was that spiritual to him meant churchy. But at least he sailed blithely over the opening movement’s Latin cross-rhythms. Everything about this new version is misguided, despite the alert Eric Lewis-Carlos Henriquez-Herlin Riley rhythm section. Unlike in classical music, where a composer’s score is regarded as definitive and the goal of interpretation is transparency, jazz takes it for granted that a musician will impose his own sensibility on the material he chooses. This being Wynton, Coltrane winds up sounding like Ellington, right down to the trombone wah-wah. But not even Wynton’s crush on Duke explains the twee flutes. “Most of [Coltrane’s] innovations were not in what was written, but in how his band played,” Stanley Crouch points out in the liner notes. Exactly. So why bother revamping A Love Supreme? Because it’s in the syllabus, I guess.