Is All That Jazz?

Savoring the variably spicy JVC jazz festival

What is jazz? Over the course of 13 days and 39 concerts under the banner of the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, jazz was whatever festival producer George Wein said it was. As someone who buzzed around the city for more than half of those days, attending about one-third of the gigs on the menu, I can say that Wein's catholic curiosity and intuitive discernment, coupled with his lengthy track record as an impresario extraordinaire, made JVC Jazz an extravaganza to be savored, not defined.

And I savored it. I talked my editors into green-lighting a jaunt to New York because I wanted to listen, not schmooze or compare notes with fellow critics. I had to hear if Lauryn Hill's socioreligious declaration of independence at her spring MTV concert was a temporary snit or a profound change in style (her Carnegie Hall gig proved it was the latter); and to hear if George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic at the Apollo Theater could live up to its potential as a performer-venue match made in funk heaven (it could). I wanted to hear Orquesta Aragon and Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta band resurrect the magic of Afro-Cuban charanga music that they had first brought forth in the mid-20th Century; and to hear the Bad Plus tweak the neoconservatives, the latter day "mouldy figs," with bent renditions of "I Will Survive" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Before paying tribute to the sounds of the Fifties and Sixties at JVC, he helped define those decades: Herbie Hancock, 1964
Francis Wolff
Before paying tribute to the sounds of the Fifties and Sixties at JVC, he helped define those decades: Herbie Hancock, 1964

None of this was necessarily textbook jazz. From a strict, stylistically technical point of view, Hill, P-Funk, Palmieri, and many other acts were logically better-suited to some other Wein showcase, such as the (now-long defunct) Newport Folk Festival, the Essence Music Festival (celebrating African-American culture), or the New Orleans Heritage & Jazz Festival. But the music at JVC glowed when Wein burned the textbook.

This does not mean that JVC shorted the fundamental legacy of jazz, especially with respect to the iconic innovators who crystallized and molded bebop in New York City during the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Among the gigs on my "must-hear" list were performances by Birds of a Feather, a band paying homage to Charlie Parker, led by former Parker drummer Roy Haynes; a tribute to the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane by a star-studded ensemble featuring Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker, and ex-Davis sideman Herbie Hancock; and an evening of Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix tunes from a quintet assembled by organist Lonnie Liston Smith.

Ironically, all of them disappointed me by not demonstrating enough fidelity to the artists they were honoring. I wanted Birds of a Feather to chart a flight path through such Parker staples as "Ornithology," "Koko," and "Now's the Time," and to invoke the quickening of bebop at the time Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were first inventing it. Instead, most of their set dealt either with original tunes or more broadly identifiable standards such as "April in Paris" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?"

With Haynes teaming with resplendent bassist Christian McBride, underrated pianist Dave Kikoski behind saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton roiling hard bop, however, Birds of a Feather gave Parker a better shake than those supposedly feted in the other two tributes. The gig by Smith's quintet was primarily a loose-knit, funky jam session that used head arrangements from Coltrane and Hendrix as jumping-off points for riffs and grooves. And the Hancock-Hargrove ensemble tribute to Miles and 'Trane at Carnegie Hall was a high-profile commercial bait-and-switch.

"You might know by now that the tunes associated with Miles and Coltrane don't sound like them," said Hancock after the ensemble's third number. "They never copied somebody else's arrangements. So we decided we'd do what we could to emulate that perspective." By that logic, Hancock shouldn't have formed an all-star tribute band in the first place--Miles and 'Trane never would. Why cut a CD the same year both titans would have turned 75, then fill half of it with brand-new songs and much of the rest with Davis and Coltrane tunes that have been substantially rearranged?

Suspicion that the whole thing was a marketing ploy was strengthened by the announcement that Verve labelmates Hancock, Hargrove, and Brecker would be autographing that particular CD--and nothing else--for 30 minutes after the Carnegie show. Ironically, Verve is the label that ignited this tribute-mania a decade ago with Joe Henderson's Lush Life disc, an exquisite series of Billy Strayhorn covers that did both Henderson and Strayhorn justice. Hell, Hancock's tribute to Gershwin a few years back (on Verve) synergistically showcased Hancock's interpretive prowess while giving Gershwin's body of work its proper due. The saving grace of the Carnegie performance occurred when Brecker was left alone onstage. After a heartfelt anecdote about how he came to understand and love Coltrane's music, the saxophonist spun an impassioned solo rendition of 'Trane's "Naima" that was suffused with affection and the reasons for it.

The shared intimacy among members of the straight-ahead jazz fraternity could be gleaned without hype or high concept at JVC's numerous club gigs. Those versed in the history of jazz can't help but get a thrill when emerging from a crowded subway at midnight, walking a block to Birdland--the hallowed club Charlie Parker made famous more than a half-century ago--and hearing a consummate pro like pianist Kenny Barron in musical telepathy with his trio. There was no "Tribute to Thelonious Monk" adornment on Barron's gig or even a mention of the song's title when Barron embarked upon the familiar melody of Monk's "Well You Needn't." But as Barron caressed the ivories with deconstructed phrases that would have made Monk smile, the torch of tradition, of improvisation, burned a little brighter. Twenty-four hours later in the same venue, fellow Detroit natives Charles McPherson and Sir Roland Hanna paid interest on their mutual debt to Charles Mingus with a revelatory cover version of Mingus's own tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."

These are, in all seriousness, the moments that make life worth living. It's the moment Lauryn Hill turns the gospel hymn "Sometimes I feel/Like a motherless child" into "Sometimes I feel/Like robbing a church/When you know that people are dying/Preachers are lying/Children are crying." It's the moment George Clinton tells the Apollo crowd about the drug war: "There's more profit in pretending to try and stop it than there is in selling it." It's the moment I see two music students nudging each other with mutual glee as Kenny Barron spools out another solo, or watch a middle-aged Cuban gentleman stomp his feet and holler in ecstasy to the rafters of Carnegie Hall as three flautists from Orquesta Aragon mix and match charanga riffs. It's the reason Wein staged this festival, why I traveled thousands of miles to see and hear it, why you are taking the time to read this. We're all looking for clues and directions to the avenues of musical bliss. Is it jazz? Who cares? Why not?

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