Kenny Garrett, Stefon Harris, Pat Martino, McCoy Tyner, Han Bennink, Cindy Blackman, Curtis Fuller, Brooklyn Jazz Underground

Martin Longley BY

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Bennink can commune with his own innate childlike nature, so he ended up sitting on the floor in front of the stage
The Kenny Garrett Quartet at Iridium

Kenny Garrett was in funky fettle. The saxophonist's latest band seem incredibly youthful, but are also armed with impressive technique and a clear understanding of several jazz satellite forms. In some ways, this second night of their Iridium residency came on like a first night, troubled by severe lateness due to an over- running early evening show. Nevertheless, this still didn't seem to mobilise anyone into a hurrying mood, and the first set ended up starting almost by the time that the second was due. Pity the poor folks queuing outside in the freeze.

Despite these problems, it didn't take Garrett long to lock into his groove. There's little fusion smoothness here. This rubbery gang of Corey Henry (Hammond organ/weebling synths), Lenny Stallworth (electric bass) and Tim Smith (drums) started to lay down some fearsome funk, interlocked with a springy tension. The stretches where this quartet snagged onto a pneumatic riff were coiled excitement in the extreme, but then there were other passages where all became untied, and the music wandered around for a while, searching for another nexus. These are the trials of improvisation. The material was loose enough to take these risks, and the pay-off was equally extreme whichever way the music went. When he wasn't arching his alto high towards the sky, Garrett also played texturising keyboards for much of the time, setting up a Miles-ian density with Henry, whose Hammond playing exuded strength and confidence throughout.

Stefon Harris & Blackout at Dizzy's Club

Like Garrett, vibraphonist Stefon Harris is concerned with funk and fusion, his Blackout five-piece dedicated to a similarly hard-edged manifestation of various groove forms. The leader is a phenomenal talent, applying more than the usual amount of aggressive thrust when skimming his mallets to make a series of precise detonations. Shifting from vibes to marimba gives Harris a broad palette, further enhanced by Marc Cary's retro keyboards and Casey Benjamin's saxophone, and bolstered by the latter's just-tipping-over-the- edge-into-cheesy vocoder-simulation routines. Drummer Terreon Gully offered several solos of immense suppleness, powering with subtlety, barnstorming with finesse. Both Kenny Garrett and Stefon Harris are taking what they need from the 1970s, then re-configuring these aspects into their own interpretations, re- born with original themes, and updated by their signature styles.

The Pat Martino Quartet & David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band at Birdland

The dapper Pat Martino makes his playing appear so nonchalant, a smile flickering across his visage as he bleeds out another extended exploration of every possible melodic tangent. The guitarist makes a repertoire dominated by standards seem somehow fresher, going about his soloing business with an almost scientific method of dissection. He's logical in his progressive escalations, and almost removed from reality, perching himself some distance from the usual axe-master grimacing. Martino is very much in his own subjective stylistic universe, standing apart from the majority jazz tone of muted mellowness, but not heading too far out towards a rock distortion. He screams inwardly. Martino's Birdland set gave full room to display an extensive range of nimble spirals, only slightly marred by a too-active (and too loud) drummer.

Existing in a completely different musical continuum is tubaman David Ostwald and his Gully Low Jazz Band, who dedicate themselves primarily to the repertoire of Louis Armstrong. Birdland hosts this residency every Wednesday at 5.30pm, and numbers were probably swollen for the 80th birthday celebration of clarinetist Joe Muranyi. It helps to have an old Armstrong sideman in your ranks, and this evening's mission was to revisit the old repertoire from the late 1960s, when Muryani was touring with the final Louis line-up. Visibly cheered by all the attention, Muranyi was playing demonically, and snatching up the microphone for several impromptu vocal numbers. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist Dion Tucker completed a dynamic front line, with banjoman Vince Giordano and leader Ostwald bouncing their wry witticisms back and forth. Drummer Kevin Dorn kept up the brightly bouncing momentum throughout. Tucker offered a heartfelt testimony, his privilege as the youngest member, and were those tears in Muryani's peepers as his flickering-candled cake emerged from the wings? Probably not, as most of this japing combo walk on the deadpan side of the alleyway...

The McCoy Tyner Quartet at The Blue Note

McCoy Tyner opened his set in trio formation, but fears for the non-appearance of tenor man Joe Lovano were dispelled by the second number. In some ways, it was Lovano's show, as he unavoidably invoked the Coltrane spirit, though concentrating on a mid-period warmth, in keeping with Tyner's early days with the old quartet. The leader himself was impressively luminous at the keys, but content to hold his powers in reserve, with plenty of soloing space also going out to bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt. This was a pleasing set, but it felt as though the quartet were tentatively establishing their common ground on this opening night.

Han Bennink at Club Midway

Dutch drummer (and could we also say performance artist?) Han Bennink never lets his energy dip. He's just about the only sticksman who can make his audience jump out of its collective skin with one of his sudden, unexpected strikes. This flamboyant bruiser is loud! He's also marvellously diverse, operating at the extremes of abstract improvisation, but always cocking one ear to the very dawn of jazz. For his first set at Club Midway, in the Lower East Side, Bennink had invited altoist John Zorn and trombonist Luis Bonilla as surprise guests, thereby slanting the music towards cathartic freedom, even if catching the latter player in this non-Latin jazz context was somewhat surprising.

The already advertised sidemen were Dave Douglas (trumpet), Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone) and Matt Penman (bass), and it wasn't long before the entire complement was howling, honking, thundering and thrashing in glorious unity. Douglas and Bonilla's tussle aimed for vaudeville sound effects, whilst Zorn and McCaslin opted for sheer audience-frightening techniques. Bennink is one of those drummers (and they are scarce) who can combine massive volume attack with an implied gentleness, an authentic feeling for every skin surface and rattling rim possibility.

This was one of those rare instances of a second set not topping a first. Zorn had slid off into the night, and the improvisations took off in a more 'predictable' direction, with the general energy levels sliding. The first set was so apocalyptic that it would have been very hard to surmount. Nevertheless, Bennink closed the evening with one of his completely solo work-outs, where all socialised restraint flies off the stage, leaving him to his unrestrained devices, both in terms of volume levels, and complete mischievousness. Bennink can commune with his own innate childlike nature, so he ended up sitting on the floor in front of the stage, legs akimbo, drumming on the ground like some primal junior shaman. He understands the very essence of sound, of wood, metal and flesh, perfectly controlled.

The Cindy Blackman Quartet at Jazz Standard

Well, I mentioned above about the rarity of a particular drumming type. But here's another one, from a different race, gender, country and musical orientation, but sharing many similar qualities with Bennink, not least her strength and rhythmic sensitivity. Cindy Blackman is underrated within the jazz sphere, possibly because she's mainly identified as Lenny Kravitz's longtime stickswoman. She's always found the time to head up her own band, though, between the bouts of stadium rock touring. Some might say that she's too loud a player, not allowing her sidemen any sonic space, and admittedly it took until the second set of this Martin Luther King Day show to adjust the balance of her keyboardist and bassist, bringing them up to a level where they could compete. She has a persistent problem with a runaway bass drum, such is her booming brutality. Blackman is in a constant state of soloing activity, but she's always implying regular time as she detonates frequent explosions at precisely the right millisecond. It would be beneficial to catch her playing with, let's say, John Zorn, John Medeski and Bill Laswell, amping up the noise extremity, but Blackman usually chooses a band that's more in the jazz tradition, even if that's at the Tony Williams end of the tradition. Just to underline: Blackman is one of the very best jazz drummers in the USA...

Curtis Fuller at Iridium

This was another birthday celebration, with trombonist Curtis Fuller now reaching his 75th year, and Iridium employing its frequent tactic of inviting out a host of guest players and throwing a party on each night of the residency, with the roster differing slightly throughout the week. I caught the Friday performance and was gratified to find trumpeter Eddie Henderson still on board, partnered by saxophonists Red Holloway and Rene McLean, the son of Jackie. Fuller made a convivial host, trotting out an abundance of hot-spring- burbling solos, agile and well-rounded. The other hornmen were all on equally good form, as was bassist Rufus Reid, who was allowed more than the customary amount of low-end exposure.

The Brooklyn Jazz Underground Festival at Smalls

Brooklyn came to the West Village, just because it's amazing how many Manhattanites rarely venture out of their borough. So, the Smalls den was brimming, and the final night of this three-day festival featured three bands, which made for a marathon barfly session, from eight until one. The Alexis Cuadro Puzzles Quartet featured Loren Stillman on alto and guitarist Brad Shepik (or however he decides to spell his name on the night!), who are sometimes guilty of Downtown Simultaneous Noodling Syndrome, where aimless themes are negotiated with systematic tightness, to no great purpose. Often this can still remain enjoyable, but can also prompt a kind of pro-bebop nostalgia response in the listener. It's arriving from Lee Konitz anyway.

Stillman was better employed (not to say that Puzzles weren't still engaging) in Bad Touch, which was billed as drummer Ted Poor's combo, but on other nights is headed up by the saxophonist. Their other advantage is the retro rumbling presence of the ubiquitous Gary Versace on electro-organ, who's totally averse to any locked-in riff-structures, only there to disrupt and rend apart into unpredictability. After the witching hour, it was violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch's band who proffered compositions of a most individualist nature, avoiding any kind of genre-boxing. Trumpeter Jacob Wick was supplying around half of the pieces, and both writers were clearly arriving from the generation who've had their minds messed up by post-rock displacements. Keen attention was kept in place via the music's persistent swerves and derailments. It's not so far from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but music lovers can sometimes become territorial food-gatherers, so this mini-fest might encourage some more subway-hopping.

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