Some snaps from a cool event on January 30th. Looks like they’ll be running it back again in April.
Every once in a while, someone asks me where they can go for an “authentic” experience of live jazz in New York; “you know,” they say, “some great music, a small cover charge, no tourists.” (When the inquirer is from out of town, the irony of that last criterion invariably seems lost on them.) I usually reply, “well, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola is pretty touristy,” while what I’m actually thinking about is how dope, in fact, one or another upcoming show there will probably be. In general, this kind of question usually makes me defensive. “If the music is great,” I think about retorting, “why should it be cheap?”
So as far as I’m concerned, $25 was a more than reasonable ask for Theo Croker’s album release show at the Jazz Standard this past Tuesday. I didn’t go hungry, but if I had, I probably would have dropped another $25 on some of those ribs, too. Still, I’ll cop to a small bias. When an older cat two seats down from me pressed a bottle of red wine to his cheek to check the temperature (it was too warm and he sent it back), and when the host asked me if my wallet, which I had stuffed in my front shirt pocket, was “recording,” I wondered if I had missed the venue and slipped into an annual meeting of Kappa Beta Phi instead. As a Vanguard enthusiast, I also have mixed feelings about the “no talking” rule. Jazz is participatory music, and I don’t want to feel like my first grade teacher is going to come around with a ruler to make sure I’m using my 12-inch voice. Still, if what Janice said at work about Tom yesterday is more important than what my man is saying on his horn about heartbreak right now, then you really do need to take it outside.
Here’s the beautiful thing though: whatever degree of control over the vibe that a venue or a crowd tries to exert, a good band always holds the trump card. And on Tuesday night, DVRK FUNK ran the room. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what makes a live performance so compelling, but this one was easy. The group—Croker on trumpet, Irwin Hall on alto saxophone and alto flute, Seth Johnson on guitar, Sullivan Fortner on keyboards, Eric Wheeler on bass, Kassa Overall on drums, Jerome Jennings on percussion—had that deadly combination of energy and effortlessness that commands attention. The room was lively, dancing in seats, talking back to soloists, hollering for more. Mr. Croker engaged with the crowd just enough between tunes, contextualizing the compositions with synopses that ranged from the sincere—a phone call to idol Roy Hargrove, asking him to sing (that’s right, sing) on the record a piece Mr. Hargrove wrote for his father—to the surreal—an extraterrestial journey (although maybe I have that backwards). His mother was in the audience, and their call-and-response was endearing and funny, and when Dee Dee Bridgewater arrived to close out the set, well, I’ll keep the beauty and hilarity of that particular moment just between those of us who were there.
What I mean by all of this is that the spirit of the performance, at least for me, transcended any explicit or implicit directives from the venue about how one should experience jazz. DVRK FUNK gave us energy, like bottles of barbecue sauce for those $25 ribs, and invited us to slather it on and chow down. And if you spilled a little on the table cloth or forgot to use your inside voice, so what?
At long last, the conclusion to my Winter Jazzfest series.
As great as the concerts on Wednesday and Thursday nights were, the highlight of the Winter Jazzfest was the “marathon,” a two-night festival of over 90 groups featured in various venues throughout the Village. Programming such an event is an unenviable task; it’s a safe bet that just about everyone in attendance opened the program, scanned the lineup, and at least once muttered, “why would they schedule those groups at the same time!?”
My own night at the Revive Music Stage at Groove. Sharel Cassity, a brilliant alto saxophonist, led her group, featuring the stalwart Cyrus Chestnut on piano, whom I last saw years ago, if I recall correctly, with Jon Faddis and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars at the State Theater in New Brunswick. It was great to get to hear her stretch out a bit more after she burned up the bandstand the night before.
I stepped outside the box a bit for the next two performances, heading over to Judson Church to take in Nat Baldwin and then to Le Poisson Rouge for Dawn of Midi. I first heard of the latter when they were featured on Radiolab last summer and then bought their latest record. They remind me in many ways of Nik Bärtsch’s RONIN, one of my favorite groups. Dawn of Midi’s Jazzfest performance was enjoyable, although they didn’t quite hit the same highs and lows that the boys in RONIN always do in live performance. But I look forward to hearing if and how they develop their concept over time.
I stuck around LPR for the rest of the night, taking in the elite duo of Jeff “Tain” Watts and Lionel Loueke and then the Roy Hargrove Quintet. Mr. Loueke dazzled as usual, but I especially loved hearing Tain in a context different from those in which I’m used to hearing him. Mr. Hargrove’s band was easily the most hard-hitting and polished post-bop group of the festival. The group featured mostly younger musicians; I’ve heard from folks in the know that pianist Sullivan Fortner is the next one to watch out for. So keep your eyes and ears open.
On Saturday night, my good friend and colleague Frank joined me for the marathon, and we began in the tightly-packed Bitter End for Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-uba project. Her band boasted the inimitable Tyshawn Sorey, a fellow NJPAC Jazz for Teens alum, as well as a trio of batá players. The arrangements were beautiful, and Frank, a scholar of black Atlantic religion, recognized some of the songs and the deities to which they are sung.
Next, it was back over to Groove, this time for a stage sponsored by OKeh Records, which Sony relaunched last year as a jazz label. Trumpet player Theo Croker was up first with a great band featuring my friend Irwin Hall on alto. It was a brilliant performance, highlighted by the wonderful Dee Dee Bridgewater joining them for a killer version of “I Can’t Help It.” Mr. Croker’s record is due out on OKeh in May. Then, it was the highlight of the festival for me: the Jeff Ballard Trio, featuring Mr. Loueke and Miguel Zenon on alto. Something funny happened with the programming; they started early and ended even earlier, playing for only about 35-40 minutes. The level of musicianship and sensitivity to the moment that this group displayed was really unparalleled. See them live as soon as possible, and in the meantime, get the record.
A quick dash over to LPR to see Gretchen Parlato‘s ensemble, featuring Taylor Eigsti on piano, Alan Hampton on bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums, one of my favorite bands going today. We ended the night with two trips to New Orleans: Big Chief Donald Harrison‘s band at LPR and Craig Handy‘s back at Groove. For Frank’s money, and in a deep twist of irony, Mr. Handy (not a NOLA native) brought New Orleans harder and more “real” than the Big Chief did. I’m tempted to agree, but I think a lot of it have could been attributed to the venue; LPR, while lovely, is cavernous and dim and didn’t quite foster the intimacy that the hot and cramped Groove did. Mr. Handy also engaged the crowd in call-and-reponse during just about every song; if I were applying the Tom Turino paradigm to these two performances, Big Chief’s was more presentational, and Mr. Handy’s was more participatory.
Before calling it a night, we caught our breath back at the NYU Law building and the tail end of Chris Morrissey‘s set. It was an almost surreal change of environment and an unusual conclusion to my festival experience, sitting on the floor, surrounded by paintings of—and I’m only guessing here—dead lawyers. Over the course of the weekend, I’m sure I missed more good music than I heard. Jazz is alive and well, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Please, buy their music. Support jazz in all its guises.
This is the third and last in a series of posts.
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.
January 7-11, 2014 marked the 10th Anniversary of the Winter Jazzfest in New York City. The growth of the festival has seemed almost exponential since its inception in 2004, when it presented 19 groups on one night; this year’s event began on Tuesday evening and continued each night until early Sunday morning, showcasing over 90 groups in total. Although the marquee events on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights were highlights, the centerpiece of the festival was the two-night marathon in the Village, presented at venues ranging from the sizable music and art space at Le Poisson Rouge to the narrow confines of Groove (or, as Craig Handy jokingly dubbed it during a rowdy call-and-response with the audience on Saturday night, “The Groove Lounge”).
Pace Bobby Previte’s Terminals, I began the festival with the Blue Note Records 75th Anniversary concert at The Town Hall on Wednesday, January 8. In recognition of the record label’s inaugural recording session featuring Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, present-day luminaries Robert Glasper and Jason Moran opened the performance with a couple of boogie woogie classics. Each pianist showcased a unique style; Mr. Glasper favored tone clusters, lyrical melodies, and an adventurous sense of rhythm and time, while Mr. Moran built lively, angular phrases with complex polyrhythms and a razor-sharp attack. The first half of the concert also featured a “battle” of sorts, as Mr. Glasper and Mr. Moran took turns interrupting one another, often with a recognizable riff or melody (some of which, as Harmonious Assembler over at Revive Music pointed out, may be best known to some as hip-hop samples), a moving tribute to their mothers that featured each musician taking a turn at the Rhodes, and “Retrograde,” a composition from Mr. Moran’s Blue Note debut Soundtrack to Human Motion. In between pieces and even in the middle of a few, the pianists joked both with the audience and with one another. Their presence was engaging and infectious: serious musicianship with a not-quite-so-serious manner; professionalism without pretentiousness.
The second half of the concert brought Ravi Coltrane (ts) along with the pianists’ fellow HSPVA alums Alan Hampton (b) and Eric Harland (d) into the mix. The all-star group hit first with a take on “Toy Dance” from Ornette Coleman’s underrated 1968 Blue Note sessions. They were then joined on stage by Bilal, a vocalist who, while not quite attaining the mainstream popularity of some of his “neo-soul” [sic] contemporaries, has recently distinguished himself as an adventurous and wide-ranging singer, both as a leader and in collaborations, including several with Mr. Glasper. The all-star group worked through three more tunes: the jazz standard “Body and Soul” (an arrangement that Bilal and Mr. Moran worked out on a gig in Brooklyn several years ago), Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross,” and “All Matter” off of Mr. Glasper’s Double-Booked. Bilal’s soaring vocal on the latter was a standout moment, although I do wish there had been more space for Mr. Coltrane throughout the second half of the concert. The group closed out the night with another of Mr. Glasper’s tunes, this one from Canvas, his own Blue Note debut and a fitting conclusion to the concert.
The buzz in the building that night was palpable, and it reverberated like feedback as the concert unfolded. My sense was that many of the attendees had designs to attend more of the Winter Jazzfest events, but maybe more had come to this concert as a one-off. The promotional material had drawn specific attention to the legacy of Blue Note and the Lewis/Ammons session in particular, and I wondered before the concert if any of the audience members had come expecting a showcase of boogie woogie and other period styles or perhaps even a retrospective of some iconic Blue Note recordings from its 75-year history. I wondered whether such folks would trust this titanic legacy to the hands of these expert yet still relatively young musicians (at 48, Ravi Coltrane was the elder statesman of the group). And I wondered how they were digesting the music, which looked more forward than back, as the musicians tipped their hats to the ancestors but celebrated their own eminently contemporary sounds and styles. But my sense, as I left the auditorium, was that most people, like me, were simply rejuvenated. Perhaps more than anything, this concert honored the spirit of Blue Note Records, especially its legacy of bonding together the vibrancy and power of live music, the accessibility and intimacy of recorded music, and the iconography and style of jazz’s most engaging figures and forms.
This is the first in a series of posts.
One of my resolutions for the new year is to make a more concerted effort to blog. To that end, I’m working on a relatively substantial post about the 2014 Winter Jazzfest, which I attended last week. Look for that soon. In the meantime, enjoy some photos.
In the wake of a great discussion about race that I had with my New School students yesterday morning, I had the privilege of listening to Barbara Fields and Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about Prof. Fields’ recent book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life in the evening. The conversation moved quickly through a variety of topics, from blood typing to President Obama’s response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, but my overall impression of the importance of racecraft was that it offers us a critical vocabulary for talking about issues of race and racism in our society. I hope that the book is read widely. I already bought my copy.
Of course, one moment I found particularly interesting was when the conversation turned to music, and Mr. Coates and Prof. Fields used the cases of R&B singer Teena Marie and country singer Charley Pride to interrogate what it means when someone says a singer “sounds black” or “sounds white.” What interested me most about these cases is the extent to which their very genres are symptomatic of racecraft. As Karl Hagstrom Miller has argued in his book Segregating Sound, genre names like “country” and “race music” that emerged in the early 20th century were invented as purportedly racially authentic distinctions that reinforced in American musical life the segregation of whites and blacks elsewhere and, in the process, obscured (and in many ways devastated) a musical milieu in which white musicians played in blues form and black musicians played the music of Tin Pan Alley. Racecraft means that we understand these distinctions not as arising from the perception of racial difference but rather as (re)producing that perception.