Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 9: June 29, 2007
Diversity is fundamental to jazznot just to the styles of the jazz spectrum but also to the age groups playing the music. Day Nine of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival featured two artists separated by nearly seventy years and, like the stylistically diverse Day Eight, there were some important lessons to be learned.
Sometimes the back story is more interesting than where it leads. Diagnosed with a form of autism as a young child, Matt Savage began playing piano soon after and, in the space of a few short years (he's only fifteen now), has demonstrated a not insignificant gift. Studied in classical music and jazz, he writes music that reflects broad musical interests. His set at the 5:00 PM Connoisseur Series combined his penchant for a variety of styles including Latin and Caribbean but always played within a mainstream approach, tempered now and then by a touch of romantic classicism.
It's easy (and true) to say that Savage is a very talented artist for his age, but that raises an important question about aesthetics: is it valid to assess the work of an artist based on his or or life experiences, especially upon circumstances that are beyond the artist's control? Should we see Renee Rosnes as a great pianist because she's overcome adversities and obstacles? Or, to put it more plainly, is Renee Rosnes a great female pianist or simply a great pianist? Is Stevie Wonder a terrific blind pop musician, or simply a terrific pop musician? Is Roy Haynes amazing because of his age, or because of his playing at any age? Are we to judge the person or the artist? The artist or the art? Would Matt Savage's performance have been as well-received had he been a 35-year-old?
The answer may appear to be ambiguous to some but, upon further reflection, should not be. Artists should be judged on the merits of their art, not on the circumstances that surround it. Matt Savage may be a talented fifteen year-old, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's ready for the big stages at international jazz festivals. That's not a criticism, simply an acknowledgement that Savage has some maturing to do as an artist at a time when labels, marketing and media are constantly looking for a good story to make a young phenom today's next big thing. As a result, gifted (often attractive and photogenic) young musicians face greater challenges than ever at keeping focused on growth, even as they're forced into being stars and headliners before they're ready.
An important part of developing as a young jazz musician, not to mention as a person, has always been mentoring by older, more experienced teachers: Savage appears to be working in a vacuum. Jazz has traditionally been an orally transmitted form of artistic expression, handed down from one generation to the next. Talented Savage may well be, but to get to the next level he needs more than study: he needs models, lots of listening, and the experience of learning how to apply these experiences through working with others who have absorbed and can pass along the jazz tradition which, despite the present-day emphasis on formal education, continues to have a strong oral component. Prodigies may make brief appearances, but ultimately there are no short cuts.
Savage was certainly precocious and entertaining, introducing every song with cute anecdotes, and the audience ate it up. His writing reflected an artist who still has plenty to learnharmonically shallow and, while using complex meters ("Blues in 33/8" being an example), lacking that organic nature that lends even challenging tunes a natural rhythmic feel. His virtuosity was impressive, but there was next to no communicationvirtually no eye contactgoing on between himself, drummer Steve Silverstein and bassist David Wong (from Roy Haynes' band, and a last minute substitute when Savage's regular bassist missed the flight to Ottawa). Given that interaction is one of the foundations of jazz, it's but an additional skill Savage will have to hone.
In order to mature into an artist of merit who goes beyond an interesting back story, Savage will need to learn communication; to develop an approach to complex composition that, in the mainstream area he's occupying, absolutely has to feel natural; and to acquire stronger command of a language with its own back story, extending from Earl Hines to Art Tatum to Bud Powell to Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau. It will be interesting to see, in five years, where Savage is. He's got the potential to evolve into a fine musician but, by placing him in the spotlight too early, there's a significant risk, as has been seen so many times in the past with exceptionally talented young musicians, that the acclaim he's enjoying will not encourage him to go for greater knowledge, depth and risk. And that would be a shame because, back story aside, he's got some of the building blocks to develop into an artist of note.
Speaking of mentoring, drummer Roy Haynes, now 82, has surrounded himself with a group of musicians, none of whom can be older than their early thirties. But it's Haynes' decades of experiencea legend in jazz who's worked with everyone from past elder jazz statesman, including Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to current icons like Chick Corea and Pat Methenyand the lessons learned that may well turn saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Martin Bejeramo and bassist David Wong into potential stars of tomorrow.
Haynes has lost none of his power, elasticity and listening skills, and while it's impressive that someone his age can still play with this kind of energy and commitment, if assessing Savage's performance earlier in the day based on his young age is wrong, then neither should Haynes' performance be evaluated in the context of his advanced years. Whether he was 22 or 82, Haynes put on a performance that may well be the most memorable show of the 2007 OIJF.
While Haynes' consistently inventive drumming was the engine that drove his quartet, keeping him in the frontline at all times, he spent few actual moments in the spotlight, delivering his first of only two solos of the ninety-minute set an hour in. With a set list reflective of his experience and commitment to remaining thoroughly modern, he performed well-known jazz and pop standards but with updated twists: Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing," the Arlen/Mercer classic, "My Shining Hour," and an absolutely exhilarating version of Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," which entered Coltrane territory, with Shaw and Bejeramo delivering thrilling solos while Haynes carried the torch for the late Elvin Jones yet always sounding like nobody but himself.
Haynes also rearranged two Metheny tunesthe title track from Question and Answer (Geffen, 1990), on which the guitarist performed with bassist Dave Holland, and "James," a popular song from Metheny's Offramp (ECM, 1982). Retaining the essential lyricism of both tunes, Haynes made their familiar themes more emphatically rhythmic but, with "Question and Answer" in particular, opened them up into lengthy features for his band mates.
Early in the set Haynes stepped up to the microphone while some minor technical snags with the monitors were being worked out. When he mentioned his experiences in the 1940s to a round of applause, he asked the audience why they were applauding, and one member said "the '40s was the time for music." Haynes came right back, quoting Charlie Parker: "Now's the time." True words from an artist who could easily rest on his laurels but believes that the only way to keep the music alive is to keep moving it forward.
l:r: Martin Berjeramo, Jaleel Shaw, David Wong, Roy Haynes
As impressive as his quartet wasShaw consistently pushing the limits of the mainstream, Berjeramo running the gamut from quirky and idiosyncratic on the Monk tune to more outside modality on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and Wong a bassist with the suppleness and groove of Dave Holland but his own approach to melodism on the instrumentit was the collective interplay, with everyone feeding off the dynamic mix of energy and ideasthat made Haynes' performance so invigorating and meaningful. Expectations for this show were high, and Haynes delivered, giving the near-capacity crowd everything it had come for, and more.
Tomorrow: Freddy Cole, Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts.
Visit Matt Savage and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.