Venues and Value
I had seen George Clinton and his sprawling band, Parliament-Funkadelic, a half-dozen times. I'd experienced the Mothership Connection tour, when a spaceship glided on wires over the audience and landed onstage; gotten used to seeing guitarist Eddie Hazel (R.I.P.) perform in nothing but a pair of diapers; and reveled in the sweat lodge of a P-Funk dance floor for nearly four hours at a time in three separate states. But I knew there would be nothing quite like the harmonic convergence of Parliament-Funkadelic playing the Apollo Theater.
There is no other patch of real estate in the world better suited than the Apollo to accommodate the musical, political, and philosophical aesthetic of P-Funk. Both the ensemble and the theater are ostensibly long past their prime, their legacies already written in the annals of black musical history. Both are obviously aging, ill-kempt, and shaggy around the edges. But last Thursday night, band and building conjured up a performance more vital, life affirming, and relevant to tomorrow than the current market will bear. By contrast, when the trendsetters or the bean counters take their best shot (Britney at Madison Square Garden? Eminem at MTV's Summer Jam?) it'll be another manifestation of the Placebo Syndrome Clinton warned us about more than 20 years ago.
The Apollo is smaller than the televised talent shows would make you believe--about the size of St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. Clinton and his typically massive troupe started slowly, in part because the early closing time for JVC Jazz Fest gigs mandated they take the stage about 8:30 p.m. in order to give the crowd its proper 150 minutes of funk. "I used to skip school to come over here," Clinton said, surveying the musty premises. Now well into his 60s, he was sporting his rainbow dreads and a florescent-hued, floor-length robe that that said, "Free your hind...And the stank will follow."
Twenty minutes in, the band launched into "Flash Light," and I ditched my notebook under the seat and started to dance along with every other person in sight. In true P-Funk fashion, the set list morphed into a steady porridge of music while the sweaty crowd slapped palms, shook asses, and sang along. "Give Up the Funk" became "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" became "Up on the Down Stroke." A guitarist blasted out a molten 20 minutes of "Cosmic Slop"-style wankery that would have made Yngwie Malmsteen blush. He was followed by another guitarist, who was just a few bars into recreating Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" when the amplifier blew up (insert your metaphor here). Clinton was leaning over, slapping palms with the aged 15-65 throng down front, telling each, "I want to FUNK wit' you tonight."
In short, it was a typical P-Funk throw-down, and one that was given a spiritual goosing by where it was held. As for those who think these shindigs are so much retro-based nostalgia, Clinton dropped a little spoken-word interlude into the middle of the proceedings. In reference to the war on drugs, he said, "There is more profit in pretending that we're stopping it than there is in selling it. America eats [her] young and she's a maggot-brained bitch. And we are all America."
The next night I attended two shows that pointed out how much the venue and one's place within it can affect the value of the concert experience. The first gig was a star-studded, high-concept affair at Carnegie Hall, featuring Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker, and others performing "Directions in Music: The Music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane." It seemed like a fortuitous mating of personnel and subject--except that, in accordance with what became a disappointing theme of the JVC Jazz Fest, the music and sonic signature of those being honored (in this case Miles and 'Trane) were generally ignored or reshaped beyond recognition. More significant, my $45 ticket landed me two-thirds of the way up Carnegie Hall's balcony, which seemed to be about a football field's distance from the stage.
The impeccable acoustics in the hall gave me a faithful, if faraway, hearing of the ensemble's interplay. But much of the charm of live jazz is gleamed through intimacy. Up close, you get the tactile timbre and resonance of the notes. You can see the way the hands and fingers dance to create them, and watch the subtle smiles of appreciation and grimaces of concentration as musicians react to one another's improvisations. All members of the band played well--bassist George Mraz was in particularly fine fettle--but I couldn't connect with the tunes the way I'd anticipated, and the ensemble didn't seem to exceed the sum of their considerable parts. Maybe it was because the group was composed of big-name stars making grand gestures in a high-profile showcase, players who have become less accustomed to producing the more subtle, supportive wrinkles that smooth out the seams and goad new patterns and chain reactions. Or maybe it was because I was too far removed to appreciate the full spectrum of jazz-making going on down there.
Almost without exception, jazz musicians are not adequately compensated for mastering a complex, challenging art form, so I don't begrudge the Hancocks and Hargroves of the world for charging high prices for distant seats in big venues. Especially when astute jazz fans can still catch a simpatico ensemble of unsung heroes in a setting utterly conducive to optimal performances.
That what happened later Friday night, when I attended a set by the Charles McPherson Quartet at Birdland. McPherson is an alto saxophonist who came on the scene in the 1950s, so it is not surprising that Charlie Parker was a pronounced influence on his style. A subsequent association with Charles Mingus broadened his palette, and steady gigs in a variety of relatively obscure settings has produced further depth and maturity, especially in his approach to ballads. In recent years, he has produced solid recordings for small independent labels like Xanadu, and is as well-regarded by his peers as he is unknown to the general public.
The other members of his quartet almost guaranteed great, synergistic music. Like McPherson, pianist Sir Roland Hanna (knighted in Liberia) is a Detroit native with a Mingus pedigree and a proclivity for lyrical bop phrases. Drummer Lewis Nash is a versatile dynamo who had played and recorded with McPherson in the past and ranks among my five favorite timekeepers in jazz. Bassist Peter Washington is young but already in high demand, a good listener who excels at melodic nuance. For the same $45 I spent for a nosebleed seat at Carnegie Hall, I could land a spot at a table 20 feet from the stage, dead center, and partake of a couple of $5 bottles of beer.
The set was superb, delivering on all of its promise. McPherson's take on the ballad "These Foolish Things" was sentimental but never cloying; his tone imbued with a smoky, slightly bitter finish, like fine whiskey; his phrases by turns clipped and lilting, dappled with little swoons. Three songs later, his own composition, the aptly-titled "A Tear and A Smile," was an equally delightful but markedly different ballad. While McPherson delivered the melancholia, Hanna provided the mirth with prancing phrases and brisk single-note runs. Nash seasoned the mix with inventive brushwork on the cymbals, and Washington's bass was the portable anchor that kept everything in place.
In between these ballads, McPherson honored his former mentor with a rendition of Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," featuring a perfectly arched solo by Hanna--who started at a legato pace, steadily stoked it into a shimmering, two-handed effusion, and just as seamlessly glided back to the theme. There was a version of "Spring Is Here"--which was "done fast, because spring has already come and gone," McPherson explained to the audience--and a rousing closer capped by jaw-dropping solos from Washington and Nash.
Would I have preferred the star power of Hancock-Hargrove-Brecker to the synergy of McPherson-Hanna-Nash-Washington at an intimate spot like Birdland? In a perfect world, where such things could happen for $45, yeah, probably. But the bottom line is that I got far more value for my money with McPherson's band at Birdland than from Hancock's ensemble at Carnegie.
And P-Funk at the Apollo was priceless.
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