Friday, June 29, 2007

Ron Carter celebrates 70th with all-star ensembles

Photo: Ron Carter in 2005.

By kindofblue

It’s a little unfair to compare Ron Carter’s 70th-birthday JVC Jazz Festival concert, June 27 at Carnegie Hall, to Lee Konitz’s 80th-birthday fete two nights earlier. (And by the way, why did the festival people have such a fetish this year about birthdays — or, more accurately, birth years, since none of the people being so honored were born in June?) Carter and Konitz are very different musicians with different styles and different career arcs. And conceptually the two concerts were apples and oranges, Konitz’s as elaborate and ambitious as Carter’s was simple.

But over the course of the Carter concert, I found it hard to keep myself from thinking, “This is the way to do it.”

Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste. (Surely it is, since many of the critics disagreed with me.) But for me, Carter’s choice of ensembles to perform with — a trio, a duo and two quartets — made for a much more accessible and enjoyable concert than Konitz’s mélange of small group, string quartet, nonet and big band. And although Carter is a sideman by nature and Konitz a soloist, the economical size of the ensembles allowed Carter to shine more brightly, and more clearly, throughout his concert than Konitz had during his.

Indeed, although Carter is an exemplary bass soloist — surely one of the best in jazz — and not exactly shy about showing it, I appreciated the restraint he showed in not giving himself a solo on every number. His reputation is due at least as much to his sensitivity in a supporting role, and that was always evident at Carnegie.

The concert was not perfect. It could have easily been 20 minutes shorter. The second segment, in which Carter played duets with the great guitarist Jim Hall, had some lovely moments (especially an exquisite “Body and Soul”) but never quite caught fire. And the third segment, which held by far the most promise — it reunited Carter, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the three surviving members of the great mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet — was disappointing.

The all-star quartet never quite jelled; Shorter seemed strangely diffident, his solos ending almost as soon as they began; and while Billy Cobham on drums was appropriately (and surprisingly) restrained, he didn’t always give the proceedings the kick they needed. Only when Carter and Hancock played “Stella by Starlight” as an impressionistic duet did things really click.

But the first segment, with Mulgrew Miller on piano and Russell Malone on guitar, was exemplary small-group jazz. And the final set was a most impressive showcase for Carter’s current quartet (Stephen Scott on piano, Payton Crossley on drums and Rolando Morales-Matos on percussion). The mood was so low-key as to border on the sleepy at times, but the music was expertly played and quietly moving. This is definitely a group to watch.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Spotlight wanders at Lee Konitz celebration

By kindofblue

My main problem with the JVC Jazz Festival’s 80th-birthday concert for Lee Konitz, June 25 at Zankel Hall (or “Lee Konitz’s Beautiful 80th Birthday Party,” as it was billed — presumably to distinguish it from “Eartha Kitt’s Fabulous 80th Birthday Party,” being held next door at Carnegie), can be expressed succinctly: Not enough Lee Konitz.

Konitz has a sound on alto saxophone like nobody else’s — they used to call it “cool,” but it sure sounds warm to me, and endlessly captivating if a little bit sardonic or quizzical at times. He also has an approach that would be considered daring in a musician half his age: every time he improvises, he really does try to play something he’s never played before. And even though the strain of thinking too hard sometimes manifests itself in solos too abstract to be enjoyable, far more often than not he comes up with truly remarkable musical statements.

[Photo: Konitz at JVC Newport, 2004. © Michael Kurgansky]

So as long as the emphasis was on his playing — as it was in the first of the concert’s four segments, when he performed with just Steve Swallow on bass, Paul Motian on drums, and either Ted Brown or Joe Lovano on tenor sax (his interplay with Lovano was remarkable) — all was right with the world. Things were pretty sublime in the second segment, too, when Konitz was accompanied by a string quartet: in particular, he played the shit out of a jazzed-up version of Debussy, the strings complementing his golden sound sweetly.

Things broke down for me in the second half, when the evening suddenly became more about Ohad Talmor than about Lee Konitz. Mr. Talmor, an adequate saxophonist and clarinetist and an exceptionally creative composer and arranger, has been working with Konitz for years, and he was all over this concert.

After intermission, two ensembles — first a nonet, then an airtight big band imported from Portugal for the occasion — were brought in to play Talmor’s arrangements. (He wrote the arrangements for the string quartet as well.) And though Konitz remained the featured soloist, he kept getting lost in the mix. He is a musician who thrives on simplicity; too often at Zankel, things kept getting too complicated for his (or at least my) comfort.

It’s clear that Lee Konitz admires Ohad Talmor’s work. And to be sure, some of his writing is very clever (and the big band played flawlessly). But for my taste, it was mostly too busy, and often seemed to be getting in Lee’s way.

Lee Konitz is not a musician who courts the spotlight; at his so-called birthday party (his actual 80th birthday isn’t until
October), it would have been nice if more effort had been put into keeping the spotlight on the guest of honor.

Surprises are consistent with Keith Jarrett trio

By kindofblue

Quietly, Keith Jarrett’s so-called Standards Trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, has become one of the longest-lived small groups in jazz history, right up there with the Modern Jazz Quartet: they’ve been together for 24 years. They have some similarities to the MJQ, too, like a tendency to keep the volume low and a fondness for ballads.

But with the MJQ, you pretty much knew what you were going to get every time you went to see them — what the repertoire would be, what the solos would sound like. (I say that with all due respect; sorry if it sounds harsh, but it is a fact.) With Jarrett’s trio, it’s always a surprise. Which, paradoxical as it may sound, is one of the things that make this group so consistent.

I’ve seen this trio many times — including pretty much every one of its appearances at the JVC Jazz Festival — and there have always been at least a few moments in every concert where Jarrett, his sidemen, and/or the trio as a unit played something I had just plain never heard before. Their June 21 JVC concert at Carnegie Hall was full of such moments.

[Photo: Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette take a bow, Perugia, Italy, 2000. © Giancarlo Belfiore]

As many times as I’ve seen them, I had never thought of it quite this way before, but what’s most impressive about Jarrett’s playing in this context is that he places himself totally in the service of the songs (which, this night, included “Yesterdays,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “I’m a Fool to Want You,” a few beautiful tunes I didn’t recognize, and a few happy surprises, like the Dave Brubeck novelty “It’s a Raggy Waltz”). He looks deep inside the songs to find what they’re all about, rather than using them as a vehicle for flaunting his technique or hauling out his patented Keith Jarrett Licks.

Sure, he fired off plenty of those million-note runs he’s famous for, but he chose his spots well. And he was just as likely to play a single long, sustained note or chord, or even to play nothing at all and let the silences speak for themselves.

Gary Peacock is a rock. And Jack DeJohnette communicates more power through the discreet use of brushes and mallets than many a bashing drummer does by playing all over the kit. Put the three musicians together, it’s perfection. Or close enough for me, anyway.

Dwelling in the past? Not a problem at Ruby Braff tribute

By kindofblue

Ever since the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York City in 1972 and became what is now the JVC New York Jazz Festival, detractors have been accusing it of dwelling in the past. They’ve always had a point, and they still do. But considering how much great jazz was produced in the past, dwelling on it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Whether focusing on the past causes the music of the present to get short shrift is an important question, but I’m not going to attempt to answer it now. I come not to get deep but simply to praise the “Salute to Ruby Braff” at the Kaye Playhouse on June 20, one of the first concerts of this year’s festival. It was hot.

Well, not hot in the burn-the-roof-off-this-dump sense. Maybe “warm” is a better word: I didn’t notice anyone breaking a sweat, but they sure did play with a lot of heart. Anyway, it cooked.

Ruby Braff, a trumpeter and cornet player known for his remarkable lyricism and laid-back swing, passed away in 2003. He was himself often accused of dwelling in the past. A contemporary of Parker and Gillespie — actually he was seven years younger than Bird and 10 years younger than Dizzy — he bypassed the beboppers and looked all the way back to Louis Armstrong as a role model. That stance was far less fashionable in the late forties and early fifties, when Braff was first on the scene, than it is now; these days the arguments about which school or style of jazz is “better” have largely subsided, and time has proved that Ruby wasn’t as square as he seemed at the time. He just
happened to love a good melody, written or improvised, more than anything else.

[Photo: Ruby Braff and George Wein, Berlin 1969. © Karlheinz Klüter]

Appropriately, the Kaye Playhouse stage was overflowing with neo-traditionalists equally fond of melody, from Braff’s
contemporaries (including the festival honcho himself, George Wein, who played some decent piano and even sang a little) to former Young Lions, now middle-aged but still leonine, like guitarist Howard Alden (who co-produced the concert), tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton (who became famous in the seventies for being a young guy who supposedly played like Lester Young and Ben Webster, but who these days clearly plays like Scott Hamilton), and especially Warren Vaché, a cornetist solidly in the Braff tradition (which is to say the tradition of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and all the other great pre-bebop trumpeters and cornetists).

They all played their asses off, even if they didn’t look to be breaking a sweat. If the evening had few electrifying high points,
it also had few dull spots. I’ll settle for that.