Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis
Friday, April 20
Better than: Fighting the jazz wars.
“My father was the family bassman,” sang Paul Simon on a song from Simon and Garfunkel’s last album, a line as true as confessional poetry. Like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, Simon grew up as the son of a bandleader (who led a big band for years under the name “Lee Simms”), and he would watch backstage at the Roseland Ballroom while his father prepared charts by Ellington and sequoias of swing, explaining to his son how he would rotate the keys of each song so that the listener—whether musically literate or not—would feel refreshed. (Paul Simon explained this method to Dick Cavett when he was trying to come up with a bridge to “Still Crazy After All These Years.”)
Even though Simon has a couple of decades on trumpeter-bandleader-racounter-ambassador Wynton Marsalis, when Simon and his band joined Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a J@LC benefit concert entirely devoted to selections from the Simon songbook, he surely must have also remembered the thrill of being backstage at dad’s shows when he was a kid. Just as he and Artie were falling in love with doo-wop, the Everlys, and Elvis, he was also in awe of his father’s big brass band: a harmonic mountain to be climbed much later. Straight out of Queens College, Simon proved to be immediately sophisticated as a pop songwriter, an underrated rhythm guitarist and, eventually, a genre-busting polymath of rhythm from each side of the equator and back again. After going deeper into rhythmic adventures from South Africa to Brazil to the local splendors of Steve Gadd (author of the “Fifty Ways” drum trope), Simon has written hip chords (“Still Crazy” with a Michael Brecker sax solo, “I Do It For Your Love,” hauntingly covered by Bill Evans and turned inside out years later with Simon and Herbie Hancock). But while he has played with multinational percussion virtuosi, he never quite navigated the harmonic waters of the big brass managed by his family bassman father.
In 2002 with Jazz at Lincoln Center, he sang two odes to New York in a concert commemorating the one-year anniversary of 9/11: his own “American Tune” and Rodgers and Hart’s “We’ll Take Manhattan.” Simon wore a Mets cap and a tux and put himself into Marsalis’s hands, homeward bound at last. On Friday night, their collaboration was bigger and bolder. Simon is now a sagacious 70, yet at the Rose Theatre his voice had never been so supple or emotive, sashaying with more ease then he ever had when he was the young and angsty bard of “The Sounds of Silence,” originally written in his parents’ Queens bathroom, now rechristened with Marsalis playing question and answer, with perhaps less room for silence, but more room for newer sounds, deeper inquiries.
Much of the show was like that. Rather than the two song gig of 10 years ago, Simon was not necessarily completely turning his material inside out (as he did with Hancock), but allowing room for more thought, then afterthoughts. If there was a familiar brass section in, say, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (with a quavery but righteous Aaron Neville, who appeared on the original record), “Late in the Evening,” or “You Can Call Me Al,” you could get the caress of the familiar with the shock of new flourishes: longer solos, stranger elaborations, far enough from pop and close enough for jazz, and even closer, it turned out, to Paul Simon.
I have never seen him so giddy. It’s not that he transformed his songs into jazz, but that his songs—with his band, all of whom traveled, practiced, and played, as a wise woman once sang, real good for free—held up to jazz. The complicated guitar part that opens “The Boxer” is not usually used in performance, but Marsalis on a trumpet transcription pulled it off elegantly. Such miracles occurred on every song: the gospel purgation of “Gone at Last,” the Carrie Fisher fallout of “Crazy Love Vol II” which was given many more volumes in this Criterion Collection edition; and the Neville lead vocal on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which came closest to the Aretha version that Simon—sorry, Art—regards as definitive.
In a speech, Marsalis praised Simon, not only for his philanthropy and his coolness, but also for sharing a musical vision so expansive, it reminded him of Miles Davis. Simon then thanked Wynton for reading the speech he wrote, even as he wasn’t sure if how the Miles line would come across. (Ha!) Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, goes the notable quotable from “The Boxer.” Simon sang it that night just as he has been singing it for 42 years, but he is not that man. He’s not disregarding anything, even if it’s hard—especially if it’s hard. Simon is still listening, still grooving, still crazy.
Two bands met for a couple of nights. There was no collision, no stepping on anyone’s toes. Genre binaries were demolished that night, and it sounded so sweet. “If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal,” sang Simon in a wonderful song that inspires some of the worst older white-guy dancing you’ll ever see. But nothing could kill this buzz. “You Can Call Me Al” has an absurdist proposition for a chorus, but it’s also an exchange: I’ll do something for you, you’ll do something for me. It doesn’t always work that way. Once, when young upstart Wynton Marsalis crashed a Miles gig in the 80s, the Prince of Darkness rasped into the mic: “Get the fuck off the stage!” Miles left this world 20 years ago, and he was reincarnated that night as a man of peace. Whatever Miles-like quality Marsalis apparently saw in Simon, Simon was there to support jazz and to have a ball doing it. The jazz wars themselves seemed irrelevant. The fighters still remain.
Critical bias: I have seen Simon five times and did a phone interview with him last year.