The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band in Concert
Mellon Jazz Fridays
The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
April 21. 2006
Quite frankly, jazz fans, I really don't know how to review this concert, other than to relate my impressions as they come to me. So much was going on. In aesthetics, there is a concept called "abhorrence of space, wherein some medieval church artists filled in every nook and cranny of a wall or altar with minute detail, creating a claustrophobic, schizophrenic sensation. Similarly, this evening at the Kimmel, in addition to the music, was filled with raucous humor, a bit of chaos, and a huge birthday cake for Slide Hampton (not to mention birthday wishes to several other men in the band.) The music itself had a bit of everything and everybody in it. A lot of "dizzy business, I thought in quiet retrospect.
I first heard the original Dizzy Gillespie band live in an open-air setting at Music Inn adjacent to Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the late 'fifties. Dizzy played that weird trumpet with the bell bent upward, but the originality and power of that band and Dizzy's brilliant solos were manifest and unforgettable. The current All-Star Band pays frequent homage to Dizzy, but lacks his well-thought-out and brilliant creative impulse. Instead, it bears the mark of the leader, Slide Hampton, in the power of its swing, and even the arrangements, though mostly by others, were, like Slide himself, more in the "big band than the "bebop tradition. Moreover, the soloing incorporated nearly every style from swing to bebop to post-bop to blues. It was exciting, and there was great virtuousity, but there was almost no consistent attempt to develop an overriding form and a theme.
The evening began with a "twilight pre-concert discussion of Dizzy led by Kimmel Program Director, Mervon Mehta, with John Lee, the band's bassist and CEO, Dennis Mackrel, the drummer; and Pacquito Rivera, the Cuban phenomenon who played with Diz in the latter's United Nation Band (they kept saying United Nations, but the name of the band does not refer to the UN but to Dizzy's Bahai faith, which believes, among other things, that we are all one nation.) There was wonderful humor and lovely reminiscences about Dizzy's kindness and "lightness of being, but little about the music itself. Unfortunately, a high school big band was playing in the atrium lobby, and the sound carried right into the Merck Education Center, where the discussion was held. (The Kimmel staff ought to either soundproof that space or limit discussion groups to quieter times.)
The concert itself got off to a lively start with Ernie Wilkins' swinging arrangement of "Dizzy's Business. The Hampton style was evident here. This was followed by drummer Dennis Mackrel's arrangement of Todd Dameron's "Hot House, which, as explained by Slide, uses the "double chromatic diminished chord (two diminished chords separated by a half tone) which is important in modern improvisation. Jimmy Heath (what an honor to hear him) did a very "chromatic solo to fit the piece. Slide then told us that Dizzy's tune, "Con Alma, was based on "All the Things You Are. (Diz and Bird and the other beboppers loved to use the chords of standards in secretive ways, as if in a mysterious cult.) James Moody, Antonio Hart, and Claudio Roditi soloed beautifully on this number, which was alternately driving and sonically lush.
Pacquito Rivera then joined the band, playing clarinet on "I Remember Dizzy, a piece he wrote on Dizzy's passing in 1993. Rivera outdid himself with a remarkable extended cadenza that went back as far, perhaps, as Mozart. Pacquito's outlandish sense of humor on stage could easily obscure his sensational musicianship. As my friend, vibes player Tony Miceli, likes to say, "This guy has the whole package.
Greg Smulyan did a phenomenal baritone sax solo on Dizzy's "Things to Come that brought the house down, where, in addition, the entire trumpet section came forth to do solos in honor of Diz. Oddly, this was the first time in the concert that one could palpably feel Dizzy's musical influence.
Following the intermission and the "surprise presentation of a birthday cake for Slide, he, Pacquito, Jimmy Heath, James Moody (on flute), John Lee, and Duke Lee took solos on Dizzy's composition, "Montaku, in a terrific angement by Gil Ford. Then, the vocalist sensation, Roberta Gamborini came on with the Hoagy Carmichael standard, "Stardust, arranged by Slide Hampton. I first heard Gamborini with a small group at the Jazz Standard in New York City a few years ago. Even then (she had just come over from Italy), she obviously had star potential. Gamborini has perfect pitch, the voice of an operatic coloratura soprano, and an absolute understanding of jazz interpretation. She sings "scat miles above Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, even to the point of doing perfect renditions of Dizzy's solo transcriptions. She has such a lovely, modest way about her that I'm afraid her brilliance may have been missed by the audience. Ms. Gamborini is simply a jazz phenomenon. She then did "Moody's Groove, composed and arranged by Jimmy Heath, with a sax solo by Moody and an eloquent trombone solo by Steve Davis in the style of Curtis Fuller. Moody and Gamborini did some marvelous "trading fours" scatting on Dizzy's "Blues 'n Boogie, which was followed by Moody's hilarious singing on "Moody's Mood for Love. The set concluded with Heath's "Without You, No Me: To Dizzy, with the entire trumpet section once again paying tribute to Diz. Then there were encores. I don't even know what time the gig ended! Considering there are a couple of guys in the band over eighty years old, it's a wonder the paramedics weren't called in!
So, what can a serious-minded reviewer like me say about all of this? Like, hey, it was a celebration! Go for the gusto, man, but then let's go to a small club and hear each of these guys do their fine artistry in a more intimate setting.
PERSONNEL: Slide Hampton, trombone and Musical Director; James Moody, tenor saxophone, flute, and vocals; Jimmy Heath, tenor sax; Frank Wess, alto saxophone and flute; Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone and flute; Diego Urcola, Claudio Roditi, Greg Gisbert, Frank Greene, trumpets; Steve Davis, Jason Jackson, Jay Ashby, trombones; Jeff Nelson, bass trombone; Monty Alexander, piano; John Lee, bass and Executive Director; Dennis Mackrel, drums; Duke Lee, percussion; Roberta Gambarini, vocals. Guest artist: Paquito D'Rivera