November 2003

David Adler By

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Gerald Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes.
Remember Shakti — Easily one of the most moving and memorable performances of the year. At the Town Hall, a rock-star reception greeted not only the great John McLaughlin, but also his fellow members of Remember Shakti — Zakir Hussain on tabla, U. Shrinivas on electric mandolin and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira (Indian tambourine), ghatam (clay pot) and mridangam (long two-sided drum). The lights dimmed as McLaughlin and his colleagues emerged, doffed their shoes and took their places on a low riser, arranging white sheets carefully on their laps. There was a ceremonial aspect to all this, but the musical interaction was quite informal and enormously fun to watch. Smiles were permanently affixed to every face, including quite a few in the adoring audience. For nearly two hours one sat in awe, listening to extraordinary flurries of notes from the two electric stringed instruments and a blitz of impossibly intricate percussion — including two lengthy, heartstopping solos by Selvaganesh and Hussain, in that order. Highlights included “Ma No Pa,” “Lotus Feet,” and even a loose adaptation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “You Know, You Know.”

Gerald Wilson — He may be in his mid-80s, but Gerald Wilson works a bandstand with more enthusiasm than a lot of musicians half his age. Leading an orchestra that featured the likes of Renee Rosnes, Charles Fambrough, Lewis Nash, Anthony Wilson, Frank Wess, Jerry Dodgion, Jesse Davis, Benny Powell, Jimmy Owens and Jon Faddis, Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes. Most of the selections can be found on his Mosaic Pacific Jazz box set: “Milestones,” “Equinox” and “Perdido” were the covers; “Viva Tirado,” “Carlos, “Josefina” and “Romance” were among the originals. The veterans in the band were kept on their toes by a few fire-breathing newcomers, including trumpeter Sean Jones.

Avishai Cohen — Celebrating the release of Lyla and the launch of his new RazDaz Recordz label, the Israeli-born bassist/composer/songwriter packed Joe’s Pub on the first of October. He began with an impressive solo double-bass piece, then brought on drummer Marc Guiliana for an arco-funk interpretation of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (which appears on the record). The two additional members of Cohen’s new quartet — altoist Yosvany Terry and pianist/keyboardist Sam Barsheshet — took the stage, and the group played a couple of pulsing, well-conceived numbers, with Cohen remaining on upright bass. Finally, the International Vamp Band, with Terry on alto, Diego Urcola on trumpet, Yagil Baras on upright bass, Eric McPherson on drums, and the leader on piano, electric bass and voice, played material from Lyla, an ambitious but uneven piece of work that draws on electronica, virtuosic jazz and melodic songwriting. While Cohen is clearly emerging as an important figure in new-millennium jazz, here he tried to convey too much information in too little time. His occasional recourse to gimmickry (a flashy slap-bass solo, for instance) won easy applause but made his music seem perfunctory, which it isn’t.

Miroslav Vitous — Roughly three weeks later, there was an altogether different vibe at Joe’s Pub: an evening with a bassist who was playing trio with Chick Corea before Avishai Cohen walked the earth. Cohen had been garrulous and outwardly enthusiastic; the great Vitous said nothing to his engrossed audience beyond “thank you very much.” This made the evening’s format — solo bass — all the more forbidding, but Vitous seized the crowd’s attention with his expansive harmonies, his cavernous sound (liberally enhanced by reverb) and his extraordinary technique. He even slapped his instrument percussively, as Cohen so often does. Vitous split his set more or less evenly between standards and originals; the former included “Autumn Leaves,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Stella by Starlight.” His originals were firmly in the ECM vein (check out his first outing for the label in over a decade, Universal Syncopations ). Now and again triggering samples with a Powerbook and small keyboard, Vitous conjured woodwind choir, vocal choir, organ and other sounds too mysterious to name. The timbre was a bit nasal at times, but hearing Vitous use these pads as springboards for improvisation proved fascinating.

Henry Threadgill — At Columbia University’s Miller Theater, Threadgill premiered a commissioned work called “Peroxide” and debuted a new ensemble, Aggregation Orb. The band sounded somewhat like an expanded version of Zooid, and in fact featured some of the same players: Jose D’Avila on tuba, Tarik Benbrahim on oud, Dana Leong on cello. The two featured soloists were vibraphonist Bryan Carrott (a member of Threadgill’s Make a Move group) and vocalist Raymond Frith (from the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble). Filling out the aggregation were JD Parran on clarinet, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Marvin Sewell on acoustic guitar, Elektra Kurtis on violin, Alan Grubner on viola, Yousif Sheronick on percussion and Reggie Nicholson on drums. In this year’s Miller Theater concert series, Threadgill finds himself in the company of Penderecki, Rorem, Birtwistle and Babbitt, among others; it’s excellent to see his music receive such highbrow recognition. While “Peroxide” proved to be quite brief (the concert lasted less than an hour), it gave listeners plenty to consider: scrapingly dissonant harmonies, unpredictable transitions and instrumental configurations, and plenty of Threadgill’s distinctive, extra-terrestrial groove. The second movement was especially enchanting, starting off with solo oud and slowly working in violin and slide guitar.

Prior to the concert, four panelists (John Szwed, George Lewis, Brent Edwards and Robert O’Meally) convened to discuss “Threadgill in Context.” Szwed described the Chicago milieu from which Threadgill emerged. Lewis elaborated on the same, but also spent time on Threadgill’s chromatic voicing system, which he described, in a nod to pop culture, as “The Matrix.” (Threadgill’s music, Lewis argued, invites one to “create the Matrix anew with each listening experience.”) Edwards had the most fun, zeroing in on the peculiar lexicon of Threadgill’s song titles (“Do the Needful,” “Paper Toilet,” “Try Some Ammonia”) and what they reveal about his artistry. O’Meally wrapped up by focusing on Threadgill’s approach to instrumentation and his specific contributions as a saxophonist.

Dave Douglas — The trumpeter/composer is always throwing curves, and his new project “Word” is perhaps the curviest yet. Featuring Myron Walden on alto sax and bass clarinet, Roswell Rudd on trombone, James Genus on bass, Clarence Penn on drums and Andy Bey on piano and vocals, this group takes its inspiration from poetry; Bey sings verses put to melodies. It’s the closest thing to a songwriting project that Douglas has done, although the music is thoroughly jazz-like in feel and complexity. The soloists and the ensemble colors were radiant at the Village Vanguard, where this new music enjoyed its premiere. Bey’s weighty baritone brought out the inherent music in Adrienne Rich’s “Final Notations,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Progress,” Basho’s “Village of No Bells,” and more.

Michael Hashim with Andy Bey — Bey in fact had to rush downtown to the Vanguard after this spirited tribute to Billy Strayhorn at the Thalia at Symphony Space, featuring saxophonist Michael Hashim, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Kenny Washington. Hashim — quite the colorful emcee in his green jacket, purple pants and fedora — played a hard-swinging alto and exhibited a Bechet-like bite on soprano. Bey drew ecstatic and well-deserved applause for his luscious vocal treatments of “Pretty Girl” (aka “The Star-Crossed Lovers”), “All Roads Lead Back to You” (aka “Lotus Blossom”), “Satin Doll” and “Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin’.” When Bey hits his higher register and pushes upward in volume, he almost sounds like a soul singer; one may even hear faint traces of Stevie Wonder (as a baritone). The effect on an audience is electric. It was Bey’s unaccompanied rendition of “Lush Life” that left the deepest impression, however. Hats off, too, to Kenny Washington for his marvelously subtle mallet playing on “Absinthe” (aka “Lament for an Orchid”).

The Trumpet Shall Sound — This series, which paired Roy Hargrove with four lesser-known, highly promising trumpeters, provided some of last year’s top musical highlights. The Jazz Gallery wisely chose to repeat the series last month, with Keyon Harrold, Jonathan Finlayson, Sean Jones and Maurice Brown in the hot seat.

We were able to catch only Finlayson, of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, who led a quintet with the fiery Jacques Schwarz-Bart on tenor, Vijay Iyer on piano, Reggie Washington on bass and Damion Reid on drums. Sporting an extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary) haircut, the trumpeter played one fiery original before bringing Hargrove up to join for a swinging piece called “Boston Trailer Park.” Hargrove then displayed a lovely singing voice on the plaintive ballad “Prisoner of Love" (shades of Billy Eckstine). But before Finlayson could call the next tune, Hargrove launched into “Rhythm-a-Ning.” Here’s where the leader issue got sticky. Finlayson appeared a bit miffed as the band reluctantly joined Hargrove on this unplanned detour through up-tempo rhythm changes. Things got back on track with a thorny, mid-tempo funk chart called “Reorientation Conversation” and a rubato epilogue which closed the set. A superb player, Finlayson is far more introverted than Hargrove. This pairing didn’t allow his talents to shine through as brightly as they might have.

Jonathan Kreisberg — The guitarist has a weekly Wednesday gig downstairs at La Lanterna , a small café/bar/restaurant in the West Village. We heard him there with bassist Gary Wang and drummer Mark Ferber, all playing with passion and abundant chops on tunes like “Just In Time,” “Nefertiti,” “Secret Love” and “How About You?” Kreisberg also sounded superb on ballads like “Moon River,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Blue In Green,” often smuggling in original conceptions in the form of vamps, unaccompanied interludes and other surprises. Although they weren’t regulars on the gig, Wang and Ferber got deep inside Kreisberg’s head and displayed a remarkably quick response time. Kreisberg had just come off a recording session with his breathtaking quintet, and in late October he joins the Criss Cross family via a trio date with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart — both of whom of course made up Metheny’s rhythm section for a time.

Liberty Ellman — The guitarist has a brand-new release on Pi called Tactiles, and he celebrated its release with a fiery gig at the Gallery. Eric Harland and Stephan Crump play drums and bass, respectively, on the record (along with Greg Osby on three tracks), but Ellman had a different and equally powerful live rhythm section in Brad Jones and Derrek Phillips. Mark Shim brought the session to a rolling boil with his throaty, high-velocity tenor. Ellman’s writing has never sounded better: witness the shimmering ballad harmonies of “Body Art,” the rapidly unfolding lines of “Ultraviolet,” the slow, suggestive dance of “Rare Birds,” and the convoluted grooves of “Grass Loops” (which didn’t make it onto the album). Guitar-wise, Ellman was lucid and energetic, spiking his raw single-note phrases with unpredictable changes in timbre. At times he sounds like a funky incarnation of Joe Morris.


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