Heroes at Work


A new organization called Jazz Alliance International produced “Made in America,” a jazz concert to benefit “the heroes and victims of September 11,” on December 5 at Town Hall. No financial details were supplied, except that it raised—obviously not from tickets alone—$260,000, which was given to the Robin Hood Foundation to aid “lower income victims.” Save one mercifully brief speech by a JAI executive and an equally brief intermission, the program presented three hours of music, each performer or band appearing for one number and then disappearing or remaining as part of the next configuration. None of the music was shabby, which is pretty impressive for an event of this kind; even more amazing was the program’s overall smoothness. However successful JAI may or may not be at raising money (empty seats dotted the hall), it knows how to organize a show; the only failing was the overmiked sound. Rhetoric was reserved for a booklet with musician bios, lists of board members and absentee politicians, and a statement of purpose. The musical numbers were allowed to turn like pages in a novel, breezily unmolested, and it was impossible to re-enter the night without thinking that jazz is far healthier than it’s usually made out to be.

Despite minimal press coverage and no commercial broadcast presence at all; despite records that don’t sell and clubs that depend on tourists who don’t know the exchange rates; despite stars whose cumulative luster can validate festivals but who individually cannot be counted on to pack major halls; and despite desperate crossovers and the slander of jazz lite, mainstream jazz seemed on this evening to be rock solid—knowing, optimistic, spirited. There was not a single blow-your-mind, never-to-be-forgotten moment. But though that might be deadly at the usual jazz festival, in this admittedly poignant context, it redounded to the event’s credit. What we got instead was a steady outpouring of insouciant inspiration. Even inept sound (Town Hall’s jazz-friendly acoustics were buried in amplification), which made the upper reaches of the piano sound like clattering silverware and sucked any group of more than two into fog, could not dim the general eloquence. Dullness had few chances to wax.

Mainstream jazz is always a vexed concept, as the mainstream is thoroughly reconstituted every decade or so. Still, the boomer unity showed off the richness and diversity of what some might consider the narrow boomer perspective, which gets most of its fuel from bebop as reconceived by Davis, Monk, and Coltrane. Of pre-bop swing (forget earlier idioms) not a note was heard; post-bop approaches were accessed in digested and polished form. The 1940s avant-garde is roots to this sensibility, the 1960s avant-garde pretty much standard fare. The bona fide avant-garde of 2001 was entirely absent, as was downtown’s mix-and-match eclecticism, midtown’s neoclassicism, and uptown’s blues-and-ballads earthiness. Also in conspicuous short supply was the living-legend generation; the only musician over 70 was Benny Golson and the only other ones over 60 were Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. Except for Jane Monheit, callow youth stayed away, and she came off less callow than usual.

Songwriter choices were notable: no Ellington or Strayhorn, no Kern or Gershwin or Berlin, though Hoagy Carmichael, Woody Guthrie, and Peter Gabriel were sung. Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman were played, but the favored jazzsmith of the night, surprisingly, was Charlie Parker—”Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Confirmation,” and by association, “Cherokee.” I do not cite these limitations critically. The jazz audience has been so balkanized for so long, it was intoxicating to hear clamorous approval for a program that was at once various and like-minded. A few ringers would have sustained interest. But jazz is a language with many dialects, and “Made in America” showcased a lingo most likely to restore JATP enthusiasm to the broad base the JAI means to reach. We are, sadly, much better behaved than JATP fans—no catcalls, only one rising to the feet, at the very end—but the audience was unmistakably absorbed.

Partly because of the sound soup, duos came off especially well, and the show began with a strong one—Greg Osby and Jason Moran. Moran’s swinging arpeggiated sweep of the keyboard and in- and out-of-sync phrasing with Osby kicked up the adrenaline and mandated another number that didn’t come. No time to complain, though, because Moran was then joined by Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, and Joe Lovano for a brisk, bustling deconstruction of Coleman’s “Broadway Blues,” almost comically aggressive as it hurtled along on its sturdy bass vamp. Terence Blanchard, Kenny Barron, and Ron Carter joined with Nash to back Monheit, who caused a few moans by opening with the bridge to “Over the Rainbow,” but, buoyed by exceptionally precise comping from Barron and an ardent Blanchard trumpet solo (a bit heavy on the whimpering during his obbligato, though), made good on her choice, demonstrating greater rhythmic control and fewer mannerisms than on her record; the band hit a serious groove, which she did not disable. The groove intensified as Nicholas Payton, Benny Golson, and Paquito D’Rivera (on clarinet) joined the rhythm for “Confirmation,” taking two sage choruses each, trading fours, and playing the ensemble variation with drum breaks.

Banjoist Bela Fleck came out alone to play the first of the evening’s several anthems, turning the national one into a kind of chaconne, with a reference to the Minuet in G amid the Bach, an impressive feat that stretched the jazz boundary, but no complaints. His million-note solo on a quartet version of “Ah-Leu-Cha” was more a stunt than a variation, but the matchless team of Carter and Nash, the former hugging the ground with loping double-stops, reaped another whirlwind and Blanchard rode it with the kind of burning panache you rarely hear on his records—another highlight. It was followed by an even more engrossing duet by Barron and Regina Carter, whose work together has developed into something telepathic. They exchanged notes—she plucking one, he staccato-chording the next—on the head of “Misterioso,” and then settled into an astutely elemental blues, deep and abiding, with terrific interplay, expected Barron elegance, and a perhaps less expected swinging vivacity from Carter, whose energetic riffs, sustained high bowing, and violin vocalisms (recalling Clark Terry’s Mumbles) were underscored by good time and dynamics. Carter, too, should be making better records.

And so it went: Kenny Werner entered to a smattering of applause to play a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” and left to cheers, not for patriotism, but because he turned them into coherent blues, sustaining rare feeling and closing with lightly tapped piano keys that sounded like whistling. Rubén Blades lent his big voice to (I think) a Panamanian ballad, backed by Danilo Perez, who stuck around as Brian Blade and John Patitucci came out to back the ineffable Wayne Shorter, whose elliptical phrasing on the soprano saxophone maintained an almost constant understated suspense. The trio responded with depth charges, locking into the fiercest rhythmic storm of the evening, powered by the patented Tony Williams funk march and focusing the leader’s storytelling fragments. Cassandra Wilson and her trio followed with the exceedingly prolix “Waters of March,” and, joined by Fleck and Regina, “This Land Is Your Land,” which had more vamp than dynamics, though the poor sound sabotaged the risky arrangement, if not Regina’s rhapsodic solo.

A Michael Brecker-John Scofield quartet armed itself with Coltrane ecstasy, but also had to fight audio mud and, after a strong showing by Brecker and a clouded one by Scofield, collapsed into a teeming Patitucci bass solo. Brad Mehldau, with the mood and restraint of a slow-blues player, soloed on “New York State of Mind,” but couldn’t escape the head, which he repeated relentlessly; he did better reuniting with McBride and Blade in Joshua Redman’s old quartet (“Rejoice”), a controlled virtuoso display for which Blade unleashed none of the explosions that riveted Shorter. K.D. Lang joined them on “Skylark,” opening her considerable pipes to mine the great release, but holding on to certain notes a tad longer than necessary, compromising swing and never quite settling in as she does when she works with country bands. The finale found Diane Reeves in stunning voice, lending her vivid, clinched melisma to “In Your Eyes,” giving more than she got from it; she is primed for a greatness she keeps eluding.

Better to close with the trio that preceded her: McBride, Gregory Hutchinson, and Kenny Garrett frying “Cherokee” to a crisp, in a long-meter venture at racehorse tempo, with Garrett’s slightly acrid timbre essaying the tune as written, then laying it into the flames, his phrases burbling a millisecond behind McBride’s staunch beat, before challenging Hutchinson to a contest of stormy eights—the kind of thing that loses steam on records, but can make a concert hall hiss with satisfaction. Too bad it took a national tragedy to bring together so many heroes of one of the nation’s great prides. But the best jazz events these days are routinely benefits or memorials—paradoxical evidences of its undaunted life.