I should have known better than to allow writing these Winter Jazzfest posts to drag out past the start of the spring semester. I’ve been back in the classroom for two weeks now, and the planning and prep work—especially for my new course at Princeton—has kept me plenty busy. Add to that preparation of a couple of conference paper abstracts, and, well… better late than never, I suppose. Fortunately, so many of the impressions are still fresh.
The last time I saw Wallace Roney was at the 2007 Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington. DE. I haven’t closely followed his work since then, but I was looking forward to hearing his orchestra, conducted by David Weiss, open for the Revive Big Band at Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday night. They presented three pieces Wayne Shorter originally wrote for Miles Davis, and if Roney is to be believed (and I don’t see any reason why not), Shorter trusted him alone to present this music faithfully. Roney was masterful, and it was also a treat to see some young talent on display, including (I think) Roney’s 9-year-old nephew (his brother Antoine’s son) Kojo on the drums. The orchestra as a whole needed some fine tuning on this night, but here’s what I can say for sure: Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Shorter. Dig?
It’s a bold move, I think, to start a big band set with a big chord. It can make a real statement if everyone hits his or her pitch, but it can also sound like not everyone has quite gotten warm to the room. It’s cool, though; a sign of a good band is how quickly everyone adjusts, and with Igmar Thomas and the Revive Big Band, things heated up fast. Over the course of a blistering set, they featured several great guests, including living legend Greg Osby and Sean Jones, who sat in on Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core” (from one of my favorite Messengers’ records). Raydar Ellis and Bilal both made appearances, the latter reprising his performance of “Criss-Cross” from the night before. Can’t sleep on the band, either: Marc Carey. Frank Lacy. Otis Brown III. How about a front line of Marcus Strickland, Tia Fuller, Sharel Cassity, Dayna Stephens, and Patience Higgins; who’s beating that?
But the main event was Dr. Lonnie Smith. He led them on “Play It Back” and the whole place got down. At the Town Hall the night before, Josh Jackson had hinted (in not so many words) that Esperanza Spalding would be making an appearance. Whoops. It’s probably for the best, though, since the 71-year-old organist made off with the show almost as soon as the Leslie started whirling.
On the one hand, I developed a sense that there’s a subset of Revive’s audience that has a real taste for jazz but isn’t necessarily steeped in “the tradition.” While the show was wonderfully forward-looking, the moments when the musicians tipped their hats to the ancestors, the audience response was somewhat flat. When Roney paused to tell us the story behind Wayne’s music, he was drowned out by chattering until a welcomed wave of “shhh!” spread throughout the club. During the big band’s set, some folks didn’t seem to know the tunes (only one other guy besides me called out the “The Core!” when Mr. Thomas asked if anyone knew the record). And not that he didn’t deserve every bit of it, but Bilal drew a bigger cheer than Greg Osby; that doesn’t happen in the Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery.
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see so many people out in support of jazz and the experience is enhanced by the varied sensibilities that folks—musicians and listeners—bring to the music. I think Igmar Thomas has a keen sense of this; before he brought out Dr. Lonnie Smith, he told us that many of us would likely know his music from “samples.” If that’s not an indication of a new generation of jazz fandom, I don’t know what is.
This is the second in a series of posts.