Although live jazz gives me more spiritual and emotional pleasure than I can say here, I admit to being hard to please. Maybe it’s because I have heard so much transcendent music on records (from James P. in 1921 to the newest releases) and in person. My memory is inconsistent, but I have lasting,sharp recollections of club dates. The night at Condon’s where Ruby Braff kicked off “I Would Do Most Anything For You” at a wickedly fast tempo and drove the band across the finish line by simple stubborness. When Benny Morton played the melody of “When You’re Smiling” two feet from my ear.
So the bar (to use one of a dozen cliches) is set quite high, perhaps impossibly so. And I am often discontented by my surroundings. When I’m at a club, I wish the people around me would sit down and be still; when I’m at a concert, I long for the freedom musicians have to take chances and make mistakes they don’t always find while playing in a large hall.
But something interesting happens — neurological or psychlogical or just idiosyncratic. When I’m listening to jazz in performance, if I’m not transfixed, critical thoughts pop unbidden into my head. I don’t invite them and wish they would go away and lie down. All of these thoughts might seem unfair, of course, coming from someone who still aims for sub-amateur status on any of half-a-dozen instruments. But I think, “That player has so much technique: when is he going to sing us a song? Too many notes!” “You — why don’t you lay out so we can hear what X is playing?” Or “That tempo is too slow.”
I don’t say these things aloud — I hope for a long lifespan — but the Beloved has had to put up with a good deal of sotto voce grumbling. However, here’s the redeeming part I myself don’t understand: give me twelve hours, and the flaws, if they’re not mountainous, fade away. Emotion recollected in tranquility, perhaps? But the music takes on a golden sheen, and I think how fortunate I was to have been there.
Last night was a special occasion: another of Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” concerts — celebrating his thirty-sixth anniversary! — held at the congenial Tribeca Arts Center (a pleasant hall in the Borough of Manhattan Community College).
This, for faithful blog-readers, is the concert that Phil the groundhog was so insistent about. I’m going to take him a jar of Trader Joe’s almond butter next time I visit him in Pennsylvania, to say thanks.
Jack was energetic, enthusiastic, and loquacious as ever — but all these are good things. It’s a delight to see someone so genuinely animated by the music he is presenting, and jazz is sadly lacking in such commitment these days. He told us that next year might be his final season — mournful news — unless more funding comes through. Are there any wealthy jazz angels out there? I’ll give you Jack’s phone number.
The first half of the concert was given over to David Ostwald’s Birdland band, augmented by pianist Mark Shane — Jon-Erik Kellso on cornet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on banjo, Kevin Dorn on drums, and David on tuba. LIMEHOUSE BLUES started the good works with some Krupa-flavored tom tom work from Kevin that got us sitting forward expectantly before anyone else had sounded a note. And this hot version was subtly shaped by a one-chorus duet between Jon-Erik and Mark, perhaps recalling Louis and Earl or Ruby and Dick Hyman. LONESOME ROAD had a lovely Shane solo and some extraordinary broad-toned playing from Wycliffe, who (for sheer abandon) must be the most accomplished trombonist on the planet. A rocking YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY (which David dedicated, with a grin, to the concert’s producer) began with the verse — a boon! — and Kellso pulled off a floating Louis bridge, a great suspended arch in the sky, during his second chorus. (In the middle, there was a fascinating duet for clarinet and piano, one set of lines weaving around the other.) Since young players don’t get tired, Anat stayed onstage with the rhythm section for a gallop through Morton’s SHREVEPORT STOMP which showed how she and Howard could improvise, conversationally and contrapuntally, at top speed. For his feature, Wycliffe chose something so familiar that it’s rarely played as itself — I GOT RHYTHM, which gave him an opportunity to sing, something he does with great charm. During his three vocal choruses, he made his way by great leaps from a respectful reading of the lyrics to great Leo Watson figures. He stayed at the vocal microphone (with a sheet of lyrics helpfully provided by David) for a brooding WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, which began and ended with touching four-bar miniatures by Shane and had an interval of moody growling obbligato by Jon-Erik. They closed the first half with a romp through ATLANTA BLUES (also known as “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”) — with a hilariously intent solo by Kevin.
That would have been enough for almost anyone — but the second half provided other delights. One of them was the presence of Dick Hyman, now 82 or thereabouts, up from Florida, his virtuosity undiminished. He performed two standards — BODY AND SOUL and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (the latter with its pretty verse), showing how fertile his imagination is, how unbounded his energy. Tatum, Bach, and McKenna, fugues and waltzes all put in appearances, but the result — sprawling and ingenious — was recognizable at every turn as pure Hyman. In between, he paid tribute to the young man from Davenport with his original THINKING ABOUT BIX. During his solo set, I became aware that the hall and the listeners were so quiet that the loud sound of Hyman’s tapping foot reverberated throughout the room. Fats Waller got his nod with AFRICAN RIPPLES — a choice that made the gentleman next to me say happily to his Beloved, “I have the original 78,” beaming. Hyman’s version was illuminated from within by his own ideas — it wasn’t a copy of the record — with a wonderful bounce. A pensive, twining duet with Alden (now on guitar) on SOFTLY, IN A MORNING SUNRISE brought us from mid-Thirties Harlem to more harmonically exploratory lands. It reminded me of one of my favorite recordings, the Pablo “Checkmate” — duets between Joe Pass and Jimmy Rowles.
Then came the moments I had been waiting for. I knew Joe Wilder (who will be 87 this month) was scheduled to play duets with Dick, and we could see him in the wings, his horns gleaming, waiting. He came out and joined the fun for a fast SECRET LOVE, an inquiring, calling-in-the-highlands HOW ARE THINGS IN GLOCCA MORRA?, and SAMBA DE ORFEO. Joe is a relentless critic of his own playing, and his brow was furrowed at some points, but a Wilder solo with a note or two that cracks is still a work of art — Joe, swimming upstream against the demands of metal tubing, lung power, and embouchure, is my hero.
And the evening closed (as is Jack’s habit) with everyone on stage for a strutting performance of Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN, David Ostwald’s happily unhackneyed choice. The band was flying, but the best part of this cheerful performance was that Mark and Dick did piano-acrobatics: you take the treble and I’ll take the bass; now, let’s switch; let’s each play sixteen bars. Splendid, accomplished, and swinging.
It was frigid out last night — winds that would have done Coleman Hawkins proud made us all feel vulnerable and under-dressed. But this concert let us warm ourselves through the music. They don’t call it HOT JAZZ for nothing. Highlights all ’round!