One of the most talked about jazz events of the year, the Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary tour, rolled into Chicago on a rainy Friday night in late February 2004. The all-star septet was to play the beautiful and historic Chicago Theatre that night, and having awaited this moment for months, I could not have been more excited. Sitting in my 14th row center seat anxiously awaiting the start of the show, I could not help but notice the large number of empty seats throughout the theatre. Even with a grand event such as this, it is sad that jazz, being such an important and beautiful piece of Americana, suffers from neglect and lack of support from the general public, even in Chicago where so many core elements of the music were created and nurtured. But this was not a night to let negativity prevail, for we were about to be treated to two sets of incredible music by some of the music’s most talented musicians. I had only seen two of the musicians in person before, so while still fully expecting a stirring evening of great jazz, I was excited to see many of these musicians on stage and in person for the first time.
The band emerged in full for the opening number, and although this was to be a leader-less collective of some of jazz’s most prolific players, I immediately felt the sense that the band was revolving around James Moody. Not only was the great multi-instrumentalist the elder statesman of this band, but his dynamic personality shone through every time he was on stage. The other band members, particularly saxophonist James Carter, seemed to always look in his direction after their solos, as if non-verbally asking him, “how did I do?” And Moody commands respect. At 78 years old, he carries a youthful vibe as well as a legacy that any musician would be eternally proud of. And as we all heard that night, the man can play. The band played in various configurations throughout the evening, and the pieces with Moody were all solid. He played “Take the A Train” in a duet with bassist Peter Washington that was inventive, playful and very hard-swinging. Another Ellington tune, “C-Jam Blues” found Moody and James Carter trading measures on tenor, and Moody did some of his best playing of the evening here, clearly being edged on by Carter. But the ultimate James Moody moment of the night came during the second set, with his vocal performance of “Moody’s Mood for Love” which turned into a full-blown hip-hop rendition of the same song! Moody was dancing across the stage, while rapping, scatting and singing smiles and laughs into everyone watching him. It was an unforgettable moment. Moody stuck to tenor the entire evening, and while I was hoping to hear him play some alto, there are no complaints from this jazz fan about James Moody’s performance that evening. He is a class act, a living symbol of what jazz is all about, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to hear him play music.
Randy Brecker, another musician who I’d never seen live before, was on trumpet. My father, who attended the show with me, is a big fan of the Brecker Brothers and was excited to see Randy Brecker perform live after more than 20 years. One thing I noticed right away about Brecker was his beautiful, brassy tone. He has one of the nicest, cleanest tones I’ve ever heard emerge from a trumpet, and he demonstrated his mastery right away on the ballad “I Can’t Get Started”, which featured him with the piano-bass-drums configuration. However, it seemed that during the first set, Brecker was not quite in prime form. While his horn always sounded nice, he seemed to struggle a bit with building ideas in his solos, most notably on “C-Jam Blues”. But during the second set, he emerged revitalized, delivering a searing solo on “Woody N’ You” to start things off, and later playing one of the finest solos of the evening on “Firm Roots”. His beautiful horn sound always fit in perfectly with the ensemble, and overall, he delivered a fine performance.
Rhythm sections in jazz combos, although often giving up the spotlight to the more out-front horn players, are absolutely key in making the music sound good. And with Cedar Walton on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums, one would expect this rhythm section to do everything right. Well, they did this, and so much more. I was absolutely blown away by this trio of players, for their individual talents but even more so for the incredible synergy they displayed. Each player was able to play in his own way, yet together they sounded organic.... like one. Whether they were holding down the groove, comping, pushing the soloists or giving performances as a piano trio, it seemed that these three masters could do no wrong. Cedar Walton was in absolute top form. He led Washington and Nash through his two trio pieces with style and grace. Walton’s solos were concise, well-developed, and often beautiful. His sense of harmony was evident as his solos would slowly develop and would often times sound like entirely new compositions. He would do this solo after solo, and it was bewildering to me. On top of that, his comping was always interesting, and his interaction with Washington and Nash provided a perfect musical carpet that any soloist would be privileged to walk across.
Peter Washington was the anchor of this band who kept it all swinging hard. While he delivered some solid bass solos, his strength every time I’ve seen him has been to keep everything together in an interesting way, and this time it was no different. His sense of time was excellent, he grooved hard, and his playing was never, ever boring or repetitive. He’s a musician’s musician, a player that you’d always feel lucky to have on your team. Seeing him up there, its no wonder that he is one of the most in-demand bassists in the world. And what is there to say about Lewis Nash that has not already been said? He’s simply one of the greatest drummers around, and I sincerely believe that its because of how tasteful he is. He always knows what he has to do and he does it right. Way too many drummers nowadays seem to be interested in showing off their technique and playing flashy or loud. Nash is a musical drummer, and he plays what the music demands from him. With his ride cymbal always making you feel the pulse, Nash lays low until he has to. He seems to have a sixth sense for knowing where his soloists are moving, and he pushes and guides, always empowering but never overplaying. This was evident on every song that he played on, especially on Lester Young’s “Tip Toe”. And as a soloist, he delivered the goods over yet another Ellington vehicle, “Caravan”, where he played an incredibly musical and swinging solo beginning with sticks, then using his hands on the kit before seamlessly moving on to brushes, mallets, and back to sticks again. Lewis Nash can do it all, and as a drummer, there are few in his league. Guitarist Howard Alden is the only member of the all-star septet that I just wasn’t digging. By no means do I think he is a bad guitarist. His playing was pretty on “Single Pedal of a Rose” and he provided good rhythmic support to the ensemble as well as to James Carter during their duo performance of “A Flower is a Love Song”. But there was just something about his mellow style that was not moving nor exciting to me. On the faster numbers, he sounded a bit out of his element. He seemed to have some good ideas, but was unable to execute them fluidly. However, he did not in any way hinder the group dynamics nor decrease the high quality of music that was being played that evening.
But when all is said and done, the night belonged to James Carter. He emerged as the superstar of the group, and solo after solo, blew absolutely amazing musical statements that were repeatedly flooring the audience as well as his band mates. Right off the bat on the first number, Carter stole the show with fantastic, multi-tonal solo on baritone sax that included a quote from “Love For Sale”. On “C-Jam Blues”, he switched to tenor and spared with James Moody and ended up pushing the elder veteran to his highest musical peak of the evening. By listening to Carter, I got the sense that he was influenced by many, many musical forms. My father made a valid point that Carter has clearly studied the playing of the old-school rock n’ roll sax players, such as those of the Chubby Checker era. With his grunts and growls, complete control in the highest and lowest registers of his horn, and his smooth execution, his mastery of the instrument is evident. Towards the end of “A Flower is a Love Song”, he was using his baritone sax in a percussive way, with a series of pops and clicks that sounded like Indian percussion. Of course, being able to coax unheard of sounds from your horn is one thing, but to be able to use them in a context that makes sense in a musical way is another. And none of Carter’s pyrotechnics ever sounded superficial or misplaced. His strong knowledge of the blues was shown in “Birk’s Works”, the show’s closing number. But the highlight of the entire evening was undoubtedly his solo on “Tip Toe”. Playing his soprano sax, after stating the theme, he launched into a frenzied solo that seemed to encompass everything that jazz is about. Spurned by Lewis Nash and going from screeching to bluesy to everything else imaginable, Carter released an onslaught of notes that few horn players on this planet even have the technical ability to execute. He was forcing out sounds on his soprano that I didn’t even know that horn had the ability to create. Going from Sidney Bechet to Roscoe Mitchell in a matter of seconds, this was undoubtedly one of the top five best saxophone solos I’ve ever heard. He gave the audience the highlight of the evening, our own “Paul Gonsalves Newport 1956” moment if you may, and the crowd responded with a huge applause and standing ovation the second his solo ended. In an evening of amazing moments, this one stood out as the best.
The show that evening in Chicago lived up to the Newport name by showcasing the finest that jazz has to offer. Generations of past and present came together to create, and to enjoy this treasured art form. With people like Newport producer George Wein and the many others involved with and dedicated to bringing the magic of jazz to the masses, the music will always endure and be available to anyone willing to let all the beauty that jazz has to offer into their soul.
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