According to the JVC Jazz Fest program guide, I had booked myself a Wednesday night of homages to three of the most kinetic musicians ever to grace the earth. The action began at the Beacon Theater on New York's Upper West Side, where Birds of a Feather, a quintet of all-stars led by drummer Roy Haynes, supposedly performed a "Tribute to Charlie Parker" before the Wynton Marsalis Septet took over the stage. Then it was down to Birdland, a nightclub located near Times Square, to hear another stellar quintet "play the music of Hendrix and Coltrane." Technically speaking, Parker was indeed feted and tunes by Hendrix and 'Trane were actually performed. But anyone who attended these gigs primarily to renew their emotional investment in the legacy of this trio of giants had to be disappointed.
Birds of a Feather contain a handful of ace headliners, chief among them Haynes, who played with Parker from 1949 to 1952 and remains an inexhaustible force at age 76. But only two of the six tunes (one of them might have been "Now's The Time"--titles were not announced) lent themselves to the blistering tempos for which Parker was renowned. And even those did not adhere to the structural integrity that "Bird" and Dizzy Gillespie delivered in the course of legitimizing bebop as a lasting artistic sub-genre. Instead, the quintet followed the looser (bebop purists would say lazier) template of "hard bop," where soloists feel less beholden to the tune at hand, beyond occasional restatements and variations on the head arrangement.
There are, of course, good arguments against trying to resurrect the music of Parker whole cloth. One is simply that it can't be done: No horn player before or since has been able to couple the speed and complex logic of his aerodynamic effusions. Another is that the questing spirit of Parker is best honored by using his music as a launching pad rather than an artifact. This, however, doesn't really explain Birds of a Feather's performance of standards such as "April in Paris" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Parker's interpretations of both tunes, while certainly memorable, aren't generally considered to be the definitive versions.
Taken on their own musical terms, without the onus of Parker's shadow, Birds of a Feather played a strong, occasionally marvelous set. You know you're hearing a killer ensemble when trumpeter Nicholas Payton and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett turn out to be the relatively weak links. Payton, who comes out of Louie Armstrong and Roy Eldridge more than Gillespie, seemed to strain for significance, while Garrett--something of a John Coltrane acolyte put in the unenviable position of playing alto at a Parker tribute--was uncharacteristically restrained.
The highlights of the set belonged to the rhythm section. Pianist Dave Kikoski unearthed capable solos and beefy chordal accompaniment, but he too took a back seat to the always redoubtable Haynes and to bassist Christian McBride, the evening's MVP. McBride's solo on the opening tune was a crowd-pleasing revelation, the notes fat as hanging grapes, yet swinging with assurance and clear articulation. Once regarded as a jazz wunderkind, McBride isn't resting on his laurels. Fusing sublime technique with a fertile imagination, he's becoming a charismatic rhythmic stalwart who looms as one of the foremost practitioners of his instrument.
Last but not least there is Haynes, a freakishly spry septuagenarian who really has been playing better than ever over the past three or four years. At the Beacon, he graciously waited until the final solo of the set's final song to steal the show. How he managed to levitate the rhythm yet still embed it in the mind of the listener is a wonderful mystery.
The set by the Marsalis Septet was a potent tonic that deserves more attention than I'll give it here, especially in light of my criticism of Marsalis's dogmatically conservative style in yesterday's column. At the very least, it bears noting that the septet's opening song, a cover of Thelonious Monk's "Four in One," faithfully and refreshingly recreated the early days of bebop, when the genre still acknowledged the pervasive influence of the swing era. In that sense, it conjured up the ambiance of Charlie Parker's heyday more effectively than anything performed by Birds of a Feather.
Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane both incorporated myriad styles throughout the course of their careers, but their strongest and most obvious link was creating music of such unremitting intensity that it could be likened to religious rapture. For Hendrix, the spirit came from phantasmagorical guitar effects and feedback that expanded the contours of acid rock. For Coltrane, it was constructing self-described "sheets of sound" through the banshee wail of his tenor saxophone.
The late-night set at Birdland by Dr. Lonnie Smith and his four sidemen totally ignored this deeper realm while ostensibly devoting an evening to the compositions of 'Trane and Hendrix. Smith is a B-3 organist with a somewhat gentle spiritual bent, prone to moaning into the microphone as he alternates rich washes of harmony with funky phrases. His ensemble consisted of guitarists Mark Whitfield and Joe Beck, saxophonist Bob Berg, and drummer Carl Allen as a last-minute replacement for Smith's frequent cohort, Idris Muhammad (who was at the Dakota in St. Paul Wednesday night with Ahmad Jamal). Any relation between their loose jam session and the music of Hendrix and Coltrane seemed almost coincidental.
The group launched the set with "Tune Up," an obscure Coltrane song that's like a snifter of ether: woozy, aimless, and inexorably dreamy. The group wafted on instrumental noodling for about five minutes before Smith, whose organ tones entered into the tune on cat's feet, suddenly unloaded a church or two's worth of pipe organ sound and brought the place to life. Next up was the Hendrix classic "Purple Haze," teased into a frenzy without the emotional payoff. A string of six solos twirled, twisted, and restated the opening 4/4 rhythmic riff, without ever plunging into the churning section that immediately precedes Hendrix's vocal shout ("Purple Haze!/Cloggin' my brain.") For Hendrix fans, it was love unconsummated.
Dispelling any remaining doubts that this was a jam session and not a homage, Smith then called out a standard blues, followed by some standard funk, with solos predictably divided almost equally between self-indulgence and spontaneous inspiration.
Throughout most of "Purple Haze," Berg, a middle-aged white guy and stone hard-bopper, looked around uncomfortably as his bandmates reveled in the song's opening riff. Finally he pulled out his pocket soprano sax (his lone departure from the tenor) and literally tried to horn in on some promising interplay between the two guitarists, only to find that he was ruining the mood. When Smith called out the blues, he snatched up his tenor and almost immediately began pouring out his frustration via a torrid four-minute solo that was as linear and purposeful as a jet on a runway.
At its very best, a jazz gig gives you the chance to catch a titanic innovator like Parker or 'Trane, or, yes, Hendrix, in the midst of making history. But even when the circumstances are predominantly dire, there are almost always brief sparks of creativity that Rahsaan Roland Kirk once referred to as "bright moments." Christian McBride's massively authoritative initial bass solo and Berg's breakneck spew are the two I'll remember from Wednesday night.
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