Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Sextet was missing a bassist the last time I heard them (at Caramoor). It had seemed a truncated performance, and after catching the group at the Standard, I know why. This time Alex Blake all but stole the show, strumming and grooving and using the bass essentially as a percussion instrument, all while sitting down. Percussionist Neil Clarke, in place of a trap drummer, gave the band an agile, uncluttered feel. Trombonist Benny Powell was at his best muted, on the ballad portion of “Hi-Fly”; special guest Regina Carter sprung into action when the same tune, after a trick ending, turned into a bouncy 6/8 jam. And T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe), on alto and soprano, blew heatedly over Weston’s intriguing vamp-based vehicles, as well as a brisk minor blues to close. Weston, for his part, played beautifully but in brief spurts, opting mainly to stay out of the way.
John Hollenbeck’s show at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, adjacent to Symphony Space, came on the heels of the Toronto premiere of “Folkmoot” the week before, at the IAJE conference. Back in New York, Kirk Nurock conducted “Folkmoot” and two additional works for four trumpets, four trombones, five woodwinds, Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, Gary Versace on piano, Matt Moran on vibes, and Hollenbeck on drums and electronics. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann joined the group for “A Blessing,” the beautiful lyrics of which are from an Irish benediction Hollenbeck found on his grandmother’s funeral mass card (it begins, “may the road rise to meet you”). “Regen und Gnade” (rain and grace) cycled between dissonant, overlapping horn passages and a calming, uplifting melodic passage, with clicking keys at the end simulating the sound of rain on a rooftop. Each piece found Hollenbeck striving to incorporate the unusual touch, the distinguishing feature that would lift the performance decisively above the ordinary.
But the main event was “The Drum Major Instinct,” Hollenbeck’s musical treatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1968 sermon. Cloaked in complete darkness, Hollenbeck and three trombonists (Jacob Garchik, Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert) followed the cadences of King’s oratorical tour de force. Ageless in his moral clarity and conviction, King drew upon the bible and psychoanalysis to build a case against racism and war. (These words were all the more powerful post-Trent Lott and pre-Gulf War II.) The darkness, intended partly as a metaphor for color-blindness, had the effect of heightening the aural sense and thus the emotional impact. Movement and gesture also played a role: The trombonists made full use of the stage, ambling back and forth to modify the sonic balance. One was startled, when the lights came up, to see them arrayed in a straight line as at the beginning — but with their backs to the audience.
Makor observed the MLK holiday with a two-night tribute to “Strange Fruit” — both the song and the new documentary by Joel Katz. The first night brought a flock of hip-hop acts to the stage, beginning with Guillermo E. Brown and the Beat Kids, who offered a brief, spacey set of electro-acoustic jams. Best known for his drumming with David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Rob Reddy, and other out-jazzers, Brown is also immersed in electronica; his Blue Series album, Soul at the Hands of the Machine, is an exceptionally creative entry in the field. Here his keyboards and samples jelled with live bass and drums, while Latasha Diggs (of Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar) provided vocals and additional samples. The project seemed new and unpolished, but not without potential. An eerie, fragmented rendition of “Strange Fruit” brought the rather animated conversation at the bar to an abrupt halt. Rounding out the evening’s lineup were J-Live, Djinji Brown (Marion Brown’s son), and A-Drift, at least two of whom hail from the Seven Heads roster (“Home of the New-Age B-Boy”). J-Live, sporting a gray sweatshirt and a hair pick, won over a slender crowd and managed to pair references to Lady Macbeth and Bela Karoli (you know, the Olympic gymnastics coach).