Umbria Jazz: Days 7-10, July 16-19, 2009
There was one notable exception, one moment where the ensemble came alive: on Tyner's "Blues on the Corner." Bartz and Frisell took the theme in unison, making it resonate, and the guitarist took a stinging four-chorus blues solo, followed by a smokier, more thoughtful one from Bartz that nonetheless grew more ardent as it progressed. It was effectively a challenge for the other players, and Gravatt tackled it with a four stunningly melodic drum choruses that morphed every four measures. Next came Tyner, unaccompanied, with a gnarled solo that complicated the blues harmonies weirdlyand beautifully. After two such choruses, the band came back in for five more by the pianist, the last two with him working a key above the rest; Gravatt came back for two more choruses, followed by two more from Tyner in a short but awesome battle royale before the ensemble moved back to the head.
Alas, "Blues on the Corner" stood in sharp relief to the rest of the set, and only made it that much more disappointing. Even the greats, one supposes, have their bad days.
Disclosure: I grew up in James Taylor's home state of North Carolina, and graduated from his alma mater of UNC-Chapel Hill. Not only was "Carolina in My Mind" the state and the school's unofficial anthem, played at any and all public events, but when sick on campus I went to James A. Taylor Student Health Services. In those circumstances, getting sick of James Taylor is inevitable.
So it was a pleasant surprise when Taylor's sold-out concert at Arena Santa Giuliana proved a shot in the arm after the afternoon's dismal McCoy Tyner set. His brand of sensitive, vulnerable folk-rock reinforced just how much difference the artist's emotional investment makes in the delivery of his/her art. (Answer: all the difference in the world.)
Taylor's set, predictably, was a wall-to-wall greatest hits session. The "new" material consisting of songs from his 2008 Covers (Otis Redding's "It's Growing," Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog"); the next most recent songs were 1991's "Shed a Little Light" and "(I've Got To) Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That." The rest were the stone-cold classics, including his double signature songs of "Sweet Baby James" and "Fire and Rain."
Taylor didn't have a huge ensemble backing him, just a quintet (guitarist Mike Landau, bassist Jimmy Johnson, keyboardist Larry Golding, drummer Steve Gadd) and backup singers Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz, and Andrea Zonnwho also played gorgeous violin on several songs. Even these generally stayed out of Taylor's way: Though he was never entirely unaccompanied, his voice and acoustic guitar were almost always the focus on songs like "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" and "Up on the Roof." Backup could be minimal, limited only to the singers on "You've Got A Friend," or full, as in the subtle country jam on "Country Roads." Either way, Taylor's mellowness remained intactso much so that it could be amusing. His version of the nasty blues "Hound Dog" was odd in its gentleness, the backup singers softly chanting "Hound Dooooog" on the choruses; between songs, when rabid fans hooted loudly from the front, Taylor replied in a near deadpan, "Yeah. That's what I'm talkin' about. Right there."
Then, just when you'd forgotten he was capable of it, came "Steamroller Blues," a mean, Howlin' Wolf-style urban blues that had Taylor donning his electric guitar and growling happily into the mike. "I'm a CHURNING URN of BURNING FUNK," he hollered, barely the same man. Golding joined the proceedings with a greasy church-organ solo, followed by a jaw-dropping blues guitar from Landau that for one moment transported one and all away from the laid-back soft rock of the evening. "Shameful excess," Taylor acknowledged afterward.