July 2003


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Ornette emerged from the wings in his lavender suit, and Carnegie Hall went wild with cheers and an unhesitant, unanimous standing ovation. Not a note had been played.
Schedule overload and a poorly timed bout of illness forced me to miss Carla Bley’s big band fun at Iridium, as well as tenorist Bill McHenry’s Village Vanguard debut, playing trio alongside Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (and on a different night, fronting his sextet with Motian, Ethan Iverson, Duane Eubanks, Reid Anderson, and Ben Monder). Big congratulations are in order.

JVC Snapshots:

Ornette Coleman — He emerged from the wings in his lavender suit, and Carnegie Hall went wild with cheers and an unhesitant, unanimous standing ovation. Not a note had been played. How could it have been otherwise? There aren’t many jazz figures of Ornette’s stature still among us, still performing at full strength. I don’t think I’d ever seen such an appropriately boisterous welcome from a crowd before. After the show it struck me that I’m not sure I ever will again.

At a late date Ornette decided to add a second bassist, Greg Cohen, to his advertised trio lineup of Tony Falanga and drummer/son Denardo Coleman, whose kit sat behind a plexiglass screen. The group’s music possessed a breathtaking purity. Falanga often played arco with virtuosic authority and pinpoint melodic focus, contrasting vibrantly with Cohen’s rumbling pizzicato. There was a moment when Denardo stopped playing as the bassists continued; at that moment you could hear, stripped away, the tightly coiled machinery that propelled this variegated, absolutely cutting-edge free jazz. Ornette was forceful yet unhurried, fully inhabiting every phrase and change of direction, picking up the trumpet for brief asides when the mood struck. Every piece ended with a kind of offhanded perfection, leaving the mind centered and pleasure-filled. The energy between the audience and the stage was electric. When the house lights came up after well over an hour, Ornette simply launched into another tune. He had no intention of stopping.

Charlie Haden’s American Dreams band opened for Ornette; the main attraction here was pianist Kenny Barron, who draped the material with pearls of harmonic wisdom. Rodney Green handled the drum chair with finesse, and guest star Michael Brecker reached a few dramatic peaks on Brad Mehldau’s “Ron’s Place” and Keith Jarrett’s “Prism.” But like the album, this set was weighed down with treacly accompaniment from the Berklee String Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Matt Glaser. Closing the set with a ponderous “America the Beautiful,” Haden and company could not have seemed farther away from the uncompromising originality represented by Ornette Coleman. (Might that partly explain the riotous ovation that greeted Ornette right after the break?)

Wayne Shorter — Three nights later, Carnegie Hall hosted a tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying evening with the great Wayne Shorter. The first half opened with the quartet (Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade), a group that richly deserves all the praise showered on it over the past two years. After two or three pieces played en suite — during which airy, ingenious harmonic invention and thrilling dynamic shifts were well in evidence — the quartet called it a night. But then, with a silent gesture, Wayne presented Herbie Hancock, who walked on to play a celestial duet with Shorter on soprano sax. With that, the first half was over. Forty-five minutes had not yet elapsed.

The quartet retook the stage for the second half, joined this time by the Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robert Sadin. These arrangements were expertly crafted and not without moments of exultation, but the quartet’s loose and fiery interaction took a backseat to the dictates and encumbrances of a large-ensemble production. (That said, this ensemble included brass and woodwinds and was a step up from Haden’s strings.) Sadin’s physical enthusiasm during quartet-only passages was quite distracting. Hancock returned to play electro-acoustic piano on two numbers, and tap wunderkind Savion Glover made two effective, if over-miked, guest appearances as well. But on the whole, the second half scratched too many surfaces without plumbing any meaningful depths. Ornette’s performance seemed to rest on that delightfully simple formulation from over 40 years ago: “This is our music.” Wayne allowed too many voices to obscure his equally powerful message.

Tony Scott — Hats off to producer Jim Eigo for bringing clarinet guru Tony Scott back to the U.S. for the first time in decades. The “Legends of the Clarinet” summit happened to open on Scott’s 82nd birthday (leave it to Scott to dip his clarinet into the birthday cake and then lick it off). Pianist Bill Mays, bassist Martin Wind, and drummer Matt Wilson did a masterful job backing the extremely unpredictable Scott and a series of guest clarinetists, including the still-marvelous Buddy DeFranco, Perry Robinson, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Kenny Davern, and more. Scott seemed to have the time of his life; one got the sense he’d have been just as verbose and over-the-top with five people in the audience. When it came to blowing the horn, his unbridled energy was surely an asset, as his solos on “Lover Man” and “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” revealed.

Ray Barretto/Los Van Van — Five years of Spanish classes, and for what? I couldn’t understand a word that Cuban superstars Los Van Van were saying, and this reduced me to a wallflower at what turned out to be a Carnegie Hall house party. The predominantly Latino audience had no intention of sitting through this set: people flooded the side aisles, stood up at their seats, and moved their bodies. Bassist Juan Formell and the band couldn’t have been saddled with a worse mix, but their vibe was still irrepressible. Highlights included a mesmerizing, extended vamp on “Ay Dios, Amparame!” (Oh God, protect me).

Ray Barretto divided his half into “two worlds” — the first a fiery jazz set with Luis Perdomo on piano, Myron Walden on alto, John Bailey on trumpet, Johannes Weidenmuller on bass, and Vince Cherico on drums; the second a larger ensemble playing straight-up salsa music, featuring vocal sensation Adalberto Santiago. The 74-year-old Barretto led his youthful quintet on a spirited charge, playing music in part from his excellent Sunnyside tribute to Art Blakey.

Randy Sandke’s Inside-Out — At Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse, this three-band bill offered an engaging take on the mainstream-meets-new music question. Ben Allison led off with a retooled incarnation of Medicine Wheel, featuring cellist Rufus Cappadocia in place of Tomas Ulrich, Peck Allmond in place of saxophonist Ted Nash, and no pianist (Michaels Blake and Sarin remained in place). The set was over too quickly, but one could still get a sense of the breathy, open sound Allison was after on tunes like “Peace Pipe,” “Third Rail,” “Hot Head,” and a promising brand-new one. Allison’s use of his instrument as a compositional tool remains largely unequaled.

Saxophonist and composer Daniel Schnyder followed with his “Worlds Beyond” trio, featuring Kenny Drew, Jr. on piano and David Taylor on bass trombone. Schnyder, who has worked extensively with the new-music-purveying Absolute Ensemble, admits that he tries to write “impossible” music — and indeed, what this trio did was shockingly complex, beyond just about anyone’s wildest imagination. The figures were blindingly fast, the intervals wide, the rhythms endlessly tangled; Randy Sandke, who remained on stage to turn pages for Drew, quipped that this alone was the hardest gig he’d ever had. Still, dynamics and outright soul saturated this music. In particular, the brash delivery of Taylor, who barely seemed to be reading his parts, conveyed a sense of fun. If extreme skiing were music, it would sound something like this.

Sandke’s nine-piece Inside-Out Collective closed out the evening with a solidly entertaining but sedate set. With Sandke on trumpet, Ray Anderson and Wycliffe Gordon on trombones, Marty Ehrlich, Ken Peplowski, and Scott Robinson on reeds, Uri Caine on piano, Greg Cohen on bass, and Dennis Mackrel on drums, the group brought together an intriguing cross-section of personalities and jazz approaches, from downtown to neo-trad. The music, culled mostly from the group’s 2002 Nagel-Heyer release, was more inside than out; highlights included Caine’s waltz “Whispers In the Night,” Peplowski’s feature on Morton Gould’s “Piece No. 8,” and Robinson’s smoking baritone solo on his own “Comet Call.” Robinson, in fact, was the hands-down star here, playing the gargantuan contrabass sax on Sandke’s “Plumbing the Depths” and theremin on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” and Sandke’s distinctly Ellingtonian “Outside In.” The double-bone blast of Anderson and Gordon was also a rare treat.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello/India.Arie — Among JVC’s several pop-oriented bookings this year, one stands out. Ndegeocello is one of the most profound, searching singers and bandleaders of our time. She is not one to run down a song from an album without expanding it, interpreting it, allowing her band to recreate it from whole cloth. Nor does she strut out in front, playing the star, like India.Arie. At Me’Shell’s side were Raymond Angry on organ and keyboards, downtown scenester Oren Bloedow on guitar, Jesse Murphy (of Seamus Blake’s Bloomdaddies) on electric bass, Chris Dave (of Kenny Garrett’s Standard of Language band) on drums, K’alyn on backing vocals and additional guitar, and a percussionist and female backing vocalist whose names I didn’t catch). This compact unit delivered just under an hour of musical massage therapy: abstract grooves, informed by dub and hip-hop and jazz and pure funk. No top-40 hits, no vocal theatrics or melismatic overkill — just a purifying dose of underground R&B mysticism, ebbing and flowing like the seasons, lifted heavenward by Angry’s inspired harmonic tangents. “Take it home, take it home,” said Me’Shell to the band, when it was time to close the set. And with a piquant written figure, they did — and she walked off, without a word, her job done.

Was this a diva move? Perhaps, but it wasn’t nearly as off-putting as India.Arie’s haughty attitude toward her musicians and obsequious stagehand. Arie writes good songs and has a beautiful voice, rich and low. Like Norah Jones, she has infused today’s pop music scene with some fresh air. But for her the stage is a self-absorbed perch, where she can lord it over her band, not to mention her audience. She appears to love stardom dearly, and stardom is something no one should ever get used to.

Beyond the Festival:

Black Rock Coalition Tribute to Nina Simone — At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, an all-female troupe gathered to render powerful song after powerful song in honor of the recently departed legend. In addition to being one of jazz’s most outspoken civil rights figures, Simone gave us a prophetic and far-reaching synthesis of jazz, blues, and soul during the course of her career. Her profound influence on each of the BRC singers — Lenora Zenzalai-Helm, Imani Uzuri, Maritri Garrett, Lisala Beatty, Tamar-kali, Alice Smith — could not have been clearer. Smith’s “Sugar In My Bowl,” um, climaxed with a string of high notes that brought the crowd to its feet. Helm, Garrett, Uzuri, and Beatty teamed up to portray each of Simone’s famous “Four Women.” Garrett offered a hypnotic, Joni Mitchell-esque reading of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Uzuri had the honor of singing “Mississippi Goddamn,” which zipped along righteously before segueing into “Backlash Blues.” The entire company assembled for Simone’s piece de resistance, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” followed by the triumphant sendoff, “I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive.” Hats off to bassists Jeannie Oliver and Maximina Juson, guitarist Tiffany James, drummer Lucianna Padmore, the strings of Julia Kent, Genea Bell, Mazz Mlani Swift, and Tarrah Reynolds, and the unruly horns and percussion of Toli Almasi, Shanelle D. Jenkins, and Dawn Drake of The Femm Nameless. Coordinating a lineup this large is no easy task, and the evening was not without its rough spots and awkward lulls. But Tamar-kali deserves an extra nod for her outstanding musical direction (not to mention her haunting rendition of “Wild Is the Wind”).

Martial Solal — At Iridium with Francois Moutin on bass and John Riley on drums, Solal took apart standards like “Lover Man,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “When Lights Are Low” in a busy, florid manner that brought Moutin’s colleague Jean-Michel Pilc to mind. Solal’s quotes snapped like firecrackers, sending the listener into a state of giddy information overload. Moutin and Riley manipulated the tempos like putty, jumping from written themes to rhythmic fits and starts that suited Solal’s reveries perfectly. Solal sits at the keyboard nearly motionless except for his hands, making it look easy indeed. His music is very put-together, but it sounds like it’s falling apart.

Adam Rogers — The guitarist had people lining up in heavy rain at the Jazz Gallery to hear his hard-hitting quintet with Chris Potter on tenor, Ed Simon on piano, James Genus on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Late last year, with Scott Colley and Clarence Penn in place of Genus and Harland, Rogers recorded the follow-up to 2002’s Art of the Invisible. (Liner notes will be by yours truly.) Most of the music at the Gallery, save for an extended up-tempo romp through “Long Ago and Far Away,” was from this new, as yet untitled record. Potter’s intuitive bond with Harland made for lava streams of invention during “Phyrigia.” We didn’t hear from the brilliant Simon nearly enough, although he did shine on a reflective rubato piece with the working title “Free.” Mainly this was a showcase for the technically prodigious and impeccably musical playing of Rogers and Potter, the demons of the frontline. Minds were blown.

RKM Label Launch — The Jazz Gallery hosted a three-night showcase in honor of RKM Music , a new label run by Ravi Coltrane, fellow saxophonist Michael McGinnis, and Coltrane’s wife, Kathleen Hennessy. McGinnis opened the series with his Between Green ensemble (had to miss it). Trumpeter Ralph Alessi followed with a rhythmically intense gig featuring Don Byron on clarinet, Andy Milne on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums (a couple of under-rehearsed moments didn’t detract overall). Finally, Ravi Coltrane closed with the RKM Collective, an ad-hoc group with David Gilmore on guitar, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Damion Reid on drums; highlights included an odd-metered version of Wayne Shorter’s “Blues a la Carte,” an affecting ode to the late Zoe Anglesey, and a romp through Luis Perdomo’s hard-swinging “Book of Life.” (I had just seen Perdomo perform at Carnegie Hall with Ray Barretto that very night. Look for Perdomo’s quartet record on RKM in the fall, featuring Okegwo, Miguel Zenon, and Ralph Peterson.)

Short Takes:

Andrew Rathbun — Rathbun’s pleasingly loud, full-bodied tenor sound continues to grow. His quartet, with Gary Versace on Rhodes, Drew Gress on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums, played Cornelia Street and did an excellent job with Rathbun’s probing original work, as well as an insightful 7/8 rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt.”

Trio 3 — At Brooklyn’s Up Over Jazz Café, these three greats (Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille) presented several works from their Palmetto release Open Ideas, including Lake’s “Valley Sketch” and Workman’s “Prophet’s Path.” Lake blew ferociously on alto and soprano, but he also recited some excellent poetry — first an unaccompanied, sung-spoken piece presumably titled “What Can I Do?”, and later an evocative childhood reminiscence called “Breaking Glass,” set against Workman’s rumbling bass and Cyrille’s loose and sinuous traps.

Jenny Scheinman — A rapturous quintet gig at Makor with Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, Russ Johnson on trumpet, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. (Scheinman, a forward-thinking violinist and composer, had the pleasure of recording with Melford just days after this live date.) The group navigated purposefully through a 10-tune set that drew upon tango, country, funk, Jewish niggunim, portentous harmonium-driven drones, and circusy themes — all centered by Scheinman’s engaging and quite challenging compositional directives.

Tim Berne’s Big Satan — At the Knitting Factory Old Office, Berne joined with guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey for a fervent trio set. This music lacked the robust, four-dimensional quality of Science Friction, but it did impart Berne’s flair for carefully written passages amid extended bouts of free blowing. Ducret’s post-Frisell sonics kept things decidedly electric, in a lively and unpredictable contrast with Berne’s alto and Rainey’s traps. Rainey stared straight ahead in a daze, his long arms flailing.

Richard Sussman — A timely three-night reunion at Sweet Rhythm of the pianist’s Free Fall quintet, featuring Jerry Bergonzi on tenor, Tom Harrell on trumpet, Mike Richmond on bass, and Jeff Williams on drums. The tunes, including “In Your Own Sweet Way,” were driving and evocative, although poor Harrell still seems unable to hold it together (see last month’s column). Losing direction during his solos was the least of it — at one point he blew aimlessly through only his mouthpiece; at another he began frantically air-drumming, causing his bandmates no small amount of worry. It grieves me to say we might be witnessing the end of Harrell’s performing career. (Recording and composing may be another story.)

Recommended Discs:
  • Keith Jarrett, Up For It (ECM)
  • Pat Metheny, One Quiet Night (Warner)
  • Michael Musillami, Beijing (Playscape)
  • Alex Sipiagin, Mirrors (Criss Cross)
  • Tin Hat Trio, The Rodeo Eroded (Ropeadope)
  • Pablo Ziegler, Bajo Cero (Khaeon)

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