November 2003

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Gerald Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes.
Remember Shakti — Easily one of the most moving and memorable performances of the year. At the Town Hall, a rock-star reception greeted not only the great John McLaughlin, but also his fellow members of Remember Shakti — Zakir Hussain on tabla, U. Shrinivas on electric mandolin and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira (Indian tambourine), ghatam (clay pot) and mridangam (long two-sided drum). The lights dimmed as McLaughlin and his colleagues emerged, doffed their shoes and took their places on a low riser, arranging white sheets carefully on their laps. There was a ceremonial aspect to all this, but the musical interaction was quite informal and enormously fun to watch. Smiles were permanently affixed to every face, including quite a few in the adoring audience. For nearly two hours one sat in awe, listening to extraordinary flurries of notes from the two electric stringed instruments and a blitz of impossibly intricate percussion — including two lengthy, heartstopping solos by Selvaganesh and Hussain, in that order. Highlights included “Ma No Pa,” “Lotus Feet,” and even a loose adaptation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “You Know, You Know.”

Gerald Wilson — He may be in his mid-80s, but Gerald Wilson works a bandstand with more enthusiasm than a lot of musicians half his age. Leading an orchestra that featured the likes of Renee Rosnes, Charles Fambrough, Lewis Nash, Anthony Wilson, Frank Wess, Jerry Dodgion, Jesse Davis, Benny Powell, Jimmy Owens and Jon Faddis, Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes. Most of the selections can be found on his Mosaic Pacific Jazz box set: “Milestones,” “Equinox” and “Perdido” were the covers; “Viva Tirado,” “Carlos, “Josefina” and “Romance” were among the originals. The veterans in the band were kept on their toes by a few fire-breathing newcomers, including trumpeter Sean Jones.

Avishai Cohen — Celebrating the release of Lyla and the launch of his new RazDaz Recordz label, the Israeli-born bassist/composer/songwriter packed Joe’s Pub on the first of October. He began with an impressive solo double-bass piece, then brought on drummer Marc Guiliana for an arco-funk interpretation of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (which appears on the record). The two additional members of Cohen’s new quartet — altoist Yosvany Terry and pianist/keyboardist Sam Barsheshet — took the stage, and the group played a couple of pulsing, well-conceived numbers, with Cohen remaining on upright bass. Finally, the International Vamp Band, with Terry on alto, Diego Urcola on trumpet, Yagil Baras on upright bass, Eric McPherson on drums, and the leader on piano, electric bass and voice, played material from Lyla, an ambitious but uneven piece of work that draws on electronica, virtuosic jazz and melodic songwriting. While Cohen is clearly emerging as an important figure in new-millennium jazz, here he tried to convey too much information in too little time. His occasional recourse to gimmickry (a flashy slap-bass solo, for instance) won easy applause but made his music seem perfunctory, which it isn’t.

Miroslav Vitous — Roughly three weeks later, there was an altogether different vibe at Joe’s Pub: an evening with a bassist who was playing trio with Chick Corea before Avishai Cohen walked the earth. Cohen had been garrulous and outwardly enthusiastic; the great Vitous said nothing to his engrossed audience beyond “thank you very much.” This made the evening’s format — solo bass — all the more forbidding, but Vitous seized the crowd’s attention with his expansive harmonies, his cavernous sound (liberally enhanced by reverb) and his extraordinary technique. He even slapped his instrument percussively, as Cohen so often does. Vitous split his set more or less evenly between standards and originals; the former included “Autumn Leaves,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Stella by Starlight.” His originals were firmly in the ECM vein (check out his first outing for the label in over a decade, Universal Syncopations ). Now and again triggering samples with a Powerbook and small keyboard, Vitous conjured woodwind choir, vocal choir, organ and other sounds too mysterious to name. The timbre was a bit nasal at times, but hearing Vitous use these pads as springboards for improvisation proved fascinating.

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