Another, very different, kind of big band also played NYC in June. One of the more commendable things the organizers of the Vision Festival do is have official days of recognition for elder statesmen musicians while they are still living. 2006's honoree was the inimitable Sam Rivers, who performed at the beginning and end of the second night (Jun. 14th) with his Floridian big band and his regular trio. Most of the players in the big band were unknown to listeners here in the Northeast but Rivers is particularly loyal to them, the band having been together for over a decade. There were a couple commendable soloists in the trumpet and saxophone sections and of course Rivers' usual rhythm section of Doug Mathews (solely on electric bass for the set) and Anthony Cole (drums) were their usual exuberant selves. But the theme of the evening was primarily that of the big band sound, most of the evening's set devoted to charmingly ragged group skronk. Rivers played relatively little, usually only at the beginning and end of the pieces and then only on soprano, in order to be heard over the din. "Monsoon was a soupy melange, a fast-paced groove. "Flair had a percolating funk intro and had the most open passages. "Melange was driven by a constantly ascending theme and was Rivers' best soprano moment. The closing "Spunk was another funky number that featured the Rivers Trio unaccompanied for portions, a delicious precursor to their set that closed the evening's festivities.
~ Andrey Henkin
Minton's Playhouse, one of the most storied locales in the history of jazz but shuttered since 1974, recently reopened in its original Harlem space on West 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. While today's innovators may not yet be holding court there like their bebop forebears did, the venue is a welcome addition to the upper Manhattan jazz scene. Tenor saxophonist Patience Higgins has a regular Wednesday night gig at the re-born club and recently played for a small crowd of locals and tourists (Jun. 14th). Higgins and his Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet - Marcus Persiani (keyboard), Andy McCloud III (bass) and Billy Kilson (drums) - took the stage in front of Minton's historic mural of a woman in a red dress (rumored to be Billie Holiday) lying on a hotel bed next to four jazz musicians mid-jam. The group gave a spirited samba feel to Barry Harris' "Nascimento , with Higgins and Persiani stretching out for lengthy solos and Kilson letting loose. Introducing Monk's "Bemsha Swing , Higgins delivered a mini history lesson on Monk's residence in San Juan Hill before it was Lincoln Center, then launched into a solo with a perfectly clean and robust tone. The quartet breathed life into the warhorse "Satin Doll by playing in alternating 6/8 and 4/4 time. Guest vocalist Ulysses Slaughter brought some Sunday church to Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone , during which Higgins displayed an adept ear for imitating Slaughter's falsetto scat phrasing note for note.
If there were an award for most intriguing title of an ongoing performance series in New York City, "Harlem in the Himalayas would definitely be a contender. The all-acoustic concerts are co-presented by the Jazz Museum in Harlem and the Rubin Museum of Art and held in its acoustically magnificent basement theater. On Jun. 9th, Gene Bertoncini performed two sets of solo nylon-string acoustic guitar. An initial crop of Strayhorn and Ellington tunes gave a glimpse of Bertoncini's command - thick, strong hands moving effortlessly and producing colors that almost couldn't have come from just six strings. He played a Chopin prelude, chastely, followed by a driving "How Insensitive , showing how Jobim based his bossa on Chopin's melody and chords. One of the night's peaks came when Bertoncini had the house play an excerpt from a chant by the otherworldly Tibetan singer Yungchen Llamo, then delivered his own improvisation built on the chant's pentatonic tune. Dropping his guitar's E string down a step to D, he hit the low pitch repeatedly like a monk's deep, monotonous drone and built toward agitated dark minor chords. If Robert Schumann had been at the Rubin for Bertoncini's sublime rendition of "Traumerei , he would've wished to be reincarnated in the age of jazz harmonies and rhythms. Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Edelweiss , evoking the Alps, slightly west of the Himalayas, was a peaceful and perfect close to the evening.
~ Brian Lonergan