Before getting started, a word about the news of tenor saxophonist Bob Berg’s death. Recently departed greats like Ray Brown, Mal Waldron, and Roland Hanna were blessed to lead long and productive lives. Berg’s end came early, and violently. It is a horrifying tragedy and a grievous loss for our community.
Fortunately, I have fond memories of hearing Berg live — most notably with a Joe Chambers quintet at Caramoor in 1997, and with a reassembled Steps Ahead at the Blue Note in 2000. When Steps had finished their set and the members of the Mike Stern band were taking the stage, Berg briefly crossed paths with bassist Lincoln Goines. “Lincolnian!” Berg exclaimed, in a tough-sounding New York accent. For some reason, that affectionate greeting has stuck in my mind ever since. Now that Berg is gone, oddly enough, it’s this one word that will keep him alive in my mind, perhaps as much as anything he played.
For the two weeks stretching from Christmas to New Year’s, Iridium belonged to McCoy Tyner. The first week featured the McCoy Tyner Big Band, back in New York for the first time in roughly 10 years. New Year’s Eve and the earliest nights of 2003 featured Tyner with his trio and special guest Michael Brecker. Judging from the line stretching up the stairs, out the door, and nearly around the block (on a Sunday night, no less), the Big Band enjoyed a successful run. The late set began with a full-tilt “Passion Dance” and continued with “Blues On the Corner,” Steve Turre’s ballad “Juanita,” bassist Avery Sharpe’s bright 5/4 vamp “January in Brazil,” and more. To hear Tyner’s modal vocabulary in an orchestrated context was often gripping; sometimes the least expected voices would leap out, particularly on the middle eight bars of “Passion Dance.” While the saxophones sounded over-miked and harsh, the band held the crowd in rapt attention, with John Stubblefield, Frank Lacy, Sharpe, and Tyner himself offering the strongest solo statements. Percussionist Richie Flores was hidden away in the back, but he came through clearly and added quite a lot.
Early in December, the Jazz Standard featured some of the best and brightest from the Palmetto Records roster in a week-long label showcase. Andrew Hill played two nights, first with a quartet and later in the week with a sextet. Trumpeter Ray Vega, the only non-pianist leader of the week, played on Saturday with his sextet.
David Berkman’s quartet set featured Steve Wilson on alto and soprano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and the ubiquitous Nasheet Waits on drums. The band was crisp, the music moving; Wilson covered for a few technical flubs with his inspired blowing (this was to have been Sam Newsome’s gig, after all). Berkman, always reliably intelligent, humorous, and swinging, reached back to his 1998 debut Handmade for “Slides” and “Not a Christmas Song.” But mainly he drew upon his latest, Leaving Home, offering the stirring “Knots,” the ballad “Forever Astor,” and a glowing solo rendition of “Embraceable You,” along with a new piece called “Penultimatum.” Look for a new Berkman offering on Palmetto in early 2003.
Orrin Evans’s turn came on the night of a snowstorm, unfortunately. But the newest member of the Palmetto family rose above the circumstances and played a strong show, backed by saxophonists Ralph Bowen and Rob Landham, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Gene Jackson. Evans is a hard-charging pianist; he takes plenty of rhythmic chances and tends toward long, adventurous takes on the bandstand. His second set began with “Sluice,” a new piece in a driving 6/8, and continued with the title track from Meant to Shine and a funky reading of the standard “I Will Wait for You.” Taking advantage of the super-informal atmosphere, Evans then invited a parade of friends to sit in on his early up-tempo blues “Dorm Life.” Trumpeter Duane Eubanks, altoist Kwame Hall, and vocalist Allison Crockett all came up to solo, spurred on by the ferocity of fellow Philadelphian Ari Hoenig behind the drum kit.