Jazz for Obama 2012 – Symphony Space – 10/9/2012


Better than: The debates.

The pianist Aaron Goldberg has been organizing jazz benefit concerts for every presidential election since 2004 to raise money for the Democratic side. I’m the kind of person to shy away from partisan events in general, where, I’ve found, sanctimony can hang heavy in the air. But I decided to attend last night’s Jazz for Obama concert–the latest installment in Goldberg’s endeavor, held last night at Symphony Space–because he had enlisted so many remarkable jazz musicians to perform.

As it turned out, Jazz for Obama was, simply, an outstanding jazz concert, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. (According to the event’s website, it has raised $37,840; tickets cost at least $100.) There were, of course, moments to remind you that you had attended a political fundraiser: When the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who hosted the evening, sang the Isley Brothers song “It’s Your Thing” in a duo with the bassist Christian McBride, she used the title of the song to remind those in the crowd of their responsibility to vote. A good point, but probably not something you have to say to a large group of mostly middle-aged people on the Upper West Side.

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Other musicians, it seemed, expressed their politics less directly. The saxophonist Jimmy Heath, all smiles, sweetly dedicated “There Will Never Be Another You” to President Obama. In “105,” Becca Stevens sang, using a text she borrowed from the poet Jane Tyson Clement: “A Necessary evil is portioned to the heart/ We might as well acknowledge the devil from the start.” (Make of that what you will.) The bassist Henry Grimes played “Freedom Jazz Dance” in a trio with the pianist Geri Allen and the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Grimes played an army green bass, covered in stickers, and wore an Obama pin on the lapel of his suit jacket.

About 25 musicians performed last night–the youngest, if I’m not mistaken, being the 18-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, son of the Latin jazz pianist Arturo (who also played), and the oldest being Roy Haynes, 87. That’s a pretty big difference in age, but it reflects jazz’s capacity for continuity and surprise.

And most of the surprises at Jazz for Obama came from drummers. As the pianist Brad Mehldau played a Thelonious Monk tune with McBride, Watts snuck up to the drum kit, picked up a pair of brushes and joined in. Mehldau and McBride looked over with amused gratitude; it was exactly the kind of late-set move the concert needed to get re-energized.

Haynes, who wore a green jacket and velvet pants, tap danced up to the drums before sitting down to play. He dominated the song, taking a solo full of raw, one-stroke smashes. At one point, he casually left his seat to walk around and hit the other side of the bass drum with his drumstick.

About half way through the set, Ravi Coltrane played “Wise One” (a composition written by his father) in a quartet with McBride, Allen and the drummer Ralph Peterson. It’s a deep, searching tune, executed terrifically by the entire band, but Peterson’s drumming amazed the most. He delivered hurricanes of rhythm, evoking the raw power of Art Blakey and the loose intensity of Elvin Jones.

At some point, it was revealed that Peterson had driven down that evening from Boston, where he teaches, to play in the show. For one song. Right after that he was driving back north for a class the next morning. It was probably the most righteous thing anyone had done that evening.

Critical Bias: I’m voting for Obama, and I really like jazz.

Overheard: “That was a great show,” multiple times, in the bathroom.

Random Notebook Dump: The comedian Andy Borowitz, who made an unexpected cameo to introduce the show, had some funny remarks about MSNBC, which he called “Fox for vegans.” Then he likened the channel’s new slogan, “Lean Forward,” to the directions you’d hear at a rectal examination.