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Made in America

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America has responded to September 11 in song, and it hasn’t necessarily been pretty. From the MTV generation came a contrived all-star remake of Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Goin’ On," with new rap lyrics courtesy of, among others, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst ("I can’t be watchin’ people die!"). And from the heart of Middle America came Lee Greenwood, the country-pop crossover singer, who kicked off game four of the 2001 World Series with his jingoist anthem "God Bless the USA." A relic of Reagan-era vintage, the song has a way of resurfacing whenever American bombs start to drop. Greenwood sang it while clad in a star-spangled, red-white-and-blue motorcycle jacket.
What a welcome relief when jazz luminaries gathered at the Town Hall in New York on December 5. The occasion, a benefit called "Made In America," was sponsored by the Jazz Alliance International, with proceeds to support the Robin Hood Foundation. In no way did the event shy away from patriotism — its chosen symbol was the ubiquitous lapel ribbon in the colors of the flag. But Made In America presented an alternative to the marshmallow musical sentiment that has surfaced in response to our national crisis. By supporting the Robin Hood Foundation, the event drew special attention to the needs of low-income New Yorkers affected by the disaster. And in the best cases, the artists rose to the occasion with utterly distinctive statements, giving national pride a very good name.
Several unusual, one-time-only collaborations stood out. k.d. lang, no slouch among the "legit" jazz singers, performed "Skylark," accompanied by pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade, with Joshua Redman blowing tenor smoke rings around the vocal. Dianne Reeves closed the show with her remarkably authoritative version of Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes"; she also was joined by Mehldau and McBride, with Gregory Hutchinson on drums. Along the way, Michael Brecker and John Scofield teamed with Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci for an incendiary "Blues to You," from the Coltrane Plays the Blues LP, prefacing the tune with a stormy rubato passage of their own invention.
The evening also included acts with a previously established rapport. Kenny Barron and Regina Carter played their inventive "Misterioso" arrangement, while Danilo Perez and Ruben Blades offered "Solo Contigo Basta," a song that they recorded together back in 1992 on Perez’s debut album. Joshua Redman reunited his MoodSwing band of 1994, with Mehldau, McBride, and Blade, carrying off a stirring rendition of "Rejoice." And best of all, the Wayne Shorter Quartet (with Perez, Patitucci, and Blade), which rose like a phoenix this past year to become the most explosive small group in jazz, brought down the house with the classic "Masqualero."

Three unaccompanied performances brought out the best of the American spirit. Pianist Kenny Werner fashioned a medley from "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," elegantly reharmonizing both and adding his own melodic break, which he whistled along with. (Werner has whistled on records before — such a simple idea, yet no one else seems to have done it.) Brad Mehldau tackled the obligatory "New York State of Mind," sticking closely to the melody and chords until the end, when he broke into an original, vamp-based coda and filled the room with his unmistakable self. Bela Fleck also enthralled the crowd with a stunning solo-banjo rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," knitting the melody into a dense fabric of shifting, ethereal harmonies, rapid arpeggios, and classically influenced lines.

All eagerly awaited the appearance of Cassandra Wilson, who was slated to sing Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land," pointedly including three rarely heard verses. First Wilson’s small acoustic ensemble took the stage — bassist Marvin Peterson, guitarist Marvin Sewell, and percussionist Jeffrey Haynes. Wilson joined them and began with a slow, stylized version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "Waters of March," her sultry voice sounding not unlike a tenor saxophone. Regina Carter and Bela Fleck joined in for the Guthrie song, which received an airy, jazz-inflected treatment, with a distinct touch of the American prairie. The moment was diminished, however, by Wilson’s unfamiliarity with the lyrics. Between songs, with a nervous chuckle, she made mention of the "cheat sheet" lying at the base of her microphone stand. Unfortunately, she proceeded to peer down in that direction throughout much of the song.

Guthrie’s song is somehow safe enough to have become a staple of the American classroom and summer camp. Yet it does not simply celebrate America; it also implicitly challenges the country to live up to its promise of equality. In this alternate verse, Guthrie makes his agnosticism unmistakably clear:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple By the Relief Office I saw my people [Wilson sang "Welfare Office"] As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if This land was made for you and me.

With these words Wilson shed light on a political aspect of American folk history. She also summed up why she and her fellow artists were there, donating their talent: to support Robin Hood and encourage America to meet the needs of its poorest, even as it mourns.

Wilson has dealt with American roots music before; consider, for instance, her unique treatment of Hank Williams’s "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," which appeared on her 1995 album New Moon Daughter. Her interest in white country and folk pioneers is of a piece with her immersion in black spirituals and the blues. Add to that the jazz tradition in all its hybrid complexity, and the fullest meaning of "Made In America" begins to emerge.

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