August 2003


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If Grimes had stuck around New York and simply toiled for the last 30 years, would he have been able to land an Iridium gig?
David S. Ware/Henry Grimes — Much has already been said and written about the return of veteran bassist Henry Grimes, found living in poverty in California after a three-decade disappearance. Grimes returned to a New York stage for the first time at the Vision Festival in May, but it was at Iridium, during a three-night double bill with David S. Ware’s quintet, that he was able to play for an extended period and present himself to an eager public. Joining the enigmatic bassist were Rob Brown on alto, Roy Campbell on trumpet, Andrew Bemkey on piano, and Michael Thompson on drums. Grimes was in excellent form on bass — rough around the edges, to be sure, but with a full, round tone and a very clear sense of musical direction. The music was free yet extraordinarily sensitive, with clearly delineated solo rotations and perfectly intuited peaks and valleys. This was a quintet without a weak link. But one could not help wondering: if Grimes had stuck around New York and simply toiled for the last 30 years, would he have been able to land an Iridium gig?

Ware’s accomplished group, with Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, and Guillermo E. Brown on drums, did not disappoint. Wednesday’s first set found them playing material from their recent Aum Fidelity reworking of Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite. Parker and Brown were at peak rhythmic intensity, pushing every groove as hard as they could. The band has arrived at a very consistent live mix; they sounded good in the big, brick-walled space of the Vision Festival, and they sounded equally good in this far smaller room. Ware sets the volume of his clip-on mic to teeter just on the edge of overpowering. His solos should be ear-splitting, but they’re not — they blend with the other instruments and stop just short of blood-on-the-walls volume. Ware, interestingly, is not one to resolve his solos neatly. He’ll reach the summit of overtone screams and then simply disengage, put his horn on its stand, and sit down off to the side (he has a bad leg). Quite a spectacle.

Greg Osby — Joined at Birdland by Megumi Yonezawa on piano, Matthew Brewer on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums, Osby continued to expand jazz’s horizons and his own, playing music from the new St. Louis Shoes (Blue Note) and a number of older tunes, as well as a vigorous reading of “Bluesette.” His new band is fresh and inventive. McPherson speaks Osby’s rhythmic language with particular fluency (the drummer waited till the end of the set to tear down the house, and tear it down he did). Yonezawa, following in the footsteps of Jason Moran (and, on the new album, Harold O’Neal), seems to have her own take on “percussive school” piano; her low- to mid-register tones on Andrew Hill’s “Ashes” were a thing of beauty indeed. Brewer held it all together and managed not to clash with Yonezawa’s sometimes heavy left hand.

One might not expect Osby, an M-Baser at heart, to turn around and offer “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” with notated 1920s drum parts and all. But it’s Osby’s ability to confound categories that keeps every project interesting. His alto, moreover, has become one of the most identifiable sounds in jazz.

Cecil Taylor Trio — With bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall, Taylor played nearly 90 uninterrupted, tsunami-like minutes of music, and that was only one of four sets over two nights at the Knitting Factory Main Space. Taylor’s choreography of the hands, his body language, is electrifying. He often appears to gesture wryly in Krall’s direction, but he could just as likely be connecting with some far-off muse. Between grand thunderclaps of bass notes and random clusters, one may hear rivulets of post-Impressionist harmony and other fleeting sounds that suggest a cunning method behind the madness. But given Taylor’s power at the keyboard, and the relative smallness of the room, there was no need for the piano to be so hotly miked. Even the soft passages sounded loud, making one gradually numb to the finer points of the trio’s interplay.

An additional word about the Knitting Factory, which seems to have made belligerence toward the customer an official policy. To enter the venue is to find oneself constantly berated by this or that staff member, for this or that infraction. The crowd for Taylor’s concert, rather than forming a line, was ordered to herd into the bar area adjacent to the Main Space. Now and then a bouncer would bellow at everyone to move farther inside the bar, threatening not to open the Main Space doors if we disobeyed. One ticket-holder gave another staffer some lip, and the latter shouted back, “If you don’t like it, you can leave the club.” That’s rather excellent advice, come to think of it. Here we have what’s supposed to be a space for creative music, being run like a high school for troubled teens. The Knit has been like this for a while, but it appears to have gotten completely out of hand. (And another thing: How hard would it be to mop the men’s room and stock it with paper towels?)

Renee Rosnes — Here was one of those phenomenal New [email protected] moments: the captivating pianist joined by Joe Locke on vibes, Buster Williams on bass, and Al Foster on drums. It was the final set of the week at the Village Vanguard, and the gloves were off. The set opened with Tony Williams’ “Lawra,” an obscure piece from the V.S.O.P. book. Right away, Locke seized the attention of everyone in the room with his joyful, strutting confidence, spine-tingling chops, and harmonic brilliance. Later, Locke and Rosnes traded some of the most blistering, unpredictable blues choruses in recent memory, followed by an unaccompanied showstopper of a solo by Buster. Rosnes’s originals “Land of the Five Rivers” and “The Quiet Earth” conveyed plenty of magic, and an up-tempo arrangement of “Summer Night” brought it home. Tain Watts and Adam Nussbaum sat on the banquet right next to Foster, soaking in the swing; Maria Schneider, Ingrid Jensen, and Mike Mainieri were also in the house. The big grins on everyone’s faces confirmed it: music like this is what it’s all about.

Joe Maneri — “I just want to say... that I love you,” Joe Maneri told a fairly small and surprised audience at Tonic. The eccentric master improviser went on to thank us for our presence and our receptiveness to the spirit that is free jazz. “If you have a negative vibe, throw it up here,” Maneri continued. “We’ll destroy it. Not you, just the vibe. Because we still love you.” And off he went, playing tenor, alto, and clarinet in the company of Mat Maneri, drummer Randy Peterson, and, for the first time, bassist John Hebert (not exclusively an “out” player by any means). This set consisted of three parts and moved between bustling ensemble playing and intimate unaccompanied passages. The midnight set was a bit different: Peterson and the two Maneris remained, joined by Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar, Matt Moran on vibes, and Liberty Ellman on guitar. Ellman, also not a regular on the “out” circuit, took to this music with ease. A quick look at his charts (yes, there were charts) after the show revealed sparse bass lines, tricky clusters of rhythm, and even written melodic themes. As the music played, the line between the composed and the improvised seemed all but invisible.

Jazz In July — Dick Hyman directs this annual six-night series at the 92nd Street Y. It’s a buttoned-down affair to some extent, with musicians clad in black tie and audiences tending toward senior citizenry. But Hyman finds interesting ways of bridging the old and the new, and this year’s program was exemplary in that regard. Opening night, billed as “Venuti, Bix and Lang at 100,” kicked off with a marvelous “Swingin’ the Blues” duet by guitarist Howard Alden and violinist Andy Stein. The ensemble grew incrementally larger, with Hyman, bassist Vince Giordano, saxophonist Dan Levinson, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, and percussionist Arnie Kinsella dropping in and out for numbers like “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Tiger Rag.” The first half’s highlight, however, came when Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli paired up for a recreation of Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson’s 1929 recording “Guitar Blues.” Bucky went on to play a transcription of Bix’s “In a Mist,” and Alden answered with his own transcription of “In the Dark.” The second half belonged to Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, whose take on early jazz is note-perfect and stunningly authentic but never stuffy. Highlights included “Three Blind Mice,” “’Taint So, Honey ’Taint So,” and the closing “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”

Two nights later, in an altogether different program simply called “New Stuff,” bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhart got things off to a witty, offbeat start with songs from his one-man show “The Bass Lesson.” Then, as Leonhart remained on stage, Dick Hyman and clarinetist Ken Peplowski joined for an impromptu trio suite in three movements, a kind of free-jazz, third stream colloquy that set the tone for what was to come. The ensemble expanded to a nonet for the world premiere of Hyman’s “Gold Coast Variations,” featuring strong alto playing by Chuck Wilson. After intermission, James Chirillo (who happens to be a fine guitarist) came on to conduct a full big band in a concerto written for and performed by Ken Peplowski. Chirillo shared the story of how his composition teacher, Johnny Carisi, helped him get the piece off the ground, then passed away before its completion. The mournful tones were unmistakable. Finally, after three solo piano interludes by Hyman, trumpeter Randy Sandke premiered his big-band suite “Subway Ballet,” with movement titles like “Dance of the Downtown Punks,” “Dance of the Midtown Career Women,” and so on. Expert playing was heard from Lew Soloff and Virgil Jones on trumpets, Ted Nash on alto and flute, and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, among others. While it’s always a pleasure to hear Hyman play, his solo pieces went on too long, requiring Sandke to cut at least one movement from the suite.

Rebecca Martin — The gifted singer-songwriter (and wife of bassist Larry Grenadier) journeyed a few blocks north and west of her usual haunt, The Living Room, for this special showcase at Joe’s Pub. While Martin’s high, sparkling clean voice was out in front, this was very much a band music. And not just any band: guitarist Steve Cardenas, keyboardist Peter Rende, tenorist Bill McHenry, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Dan Rieser brought a nice harmonic edge to Martin’s high-concept art-folk. There’s an eerie, deliberate quality to Martin’s writing at times. The tempos tend to be slow but they don’t bog down. Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note Records was seated nearby, taking it all in.

Bilal — A highly imaginative R&B and hip-hop stylist, Bilal made a strong impression with his vocal guest spots on John Ellis’s revelatory Roots, Branches & Leaves (Fresh Sound, 2002). He also appears on pianist Robert Glasper’s Fresh Sound debut, Mood. This is a young singer with the potential to move the neo-soul/jazz nexus to the next level. He’s less persuasive with material like “Autumn Leaves,” “Four,” and “Body and Soul,” which he sang with mixed results in a special showcase at the Jazz Standard. N’dea Davenport, formerly of the Brand New Heavies, joined Bilal for a pleasant but ultimately directionless duet on Donnie Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Where Is the Love?” The gig would have been something of a clunker if not for the scintillating support of Glasper, bassist John Sullivan, and drummer Damion Reid.

Robert Glasper — Appearing a week or so later at the Jazz Gallery with bassist Josh Ginsburg and drummer Damion Reid, Glasper revealed a dynamic, muscular touch at the keyboard. What sets this pianist apart is his powerful projection. Every phrase, every blistering line, jumps out at the listener and arrives in the ear as clear as a bell. Glasper is a promising composer and a frequently astonishing improviser — quoting “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” and implying a different tempo during “In Your Own Sweet Way,” for instance. Later in the same tune, Glasper substituted whole-tone for suspended harmonies in the C section and began referencing “JuJu,” making everyone’s head spin. This guy’s more than ready for prime time. Look for him on Terence Blanchard’s Blue Note debut, Bounce.

Omer Avital — With Jason Lindner on piano and keyboards, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, and Marlon Browden on drums, the powerhouse bassist made a special appearance at the Gallery, playing a kind of funky, electro-acoustic house music with Latin elements. The mood was highly experimental and loose, although the compositions (by all involved) boasted hooky melodies and complex, well-rehearsed ensemble figures. Cohen played through an arsenal of effects including wah-wah and delay, while Lindner emulated Moog, Rhodes, and beyond with his XP-80 as well as a signal processor on the piano itself. At times it all turned to mush and seemed rather lightweight for the brilliant Avital. But the set was not without moments of elevated interplay.

Recommended Discs:
  • David Binney, South (ACT)
  • Abdullah Ibrahim, The Journey (Downtown Sound/Chiaroscuro)
  • Kaufmann/Gertz/Bergonzi, Dreaming Out Loud (Whaling City)
  • Joe Locke, 4 Walls of Freedom (Sirocco)
  • Joe Lovano, On This Day... Live at the Vanguard (Blue Note)
  • Spring Heel Jack, Live (Thirsty Ear)

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