Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pianomania at JVC New York

By kindofblue

I didn’t plan it this way — and I have a feeling the festival people didn’t either — but my experience of the JVC Jazz Festival in New York this year has been remarkably piano-centric.

Over the course of three nights this week, I got to see Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson, two of the outstanding jazz pianists of the under-40 generation, as well as Herbie Hancock, who needs no introduction (but who could have used a little guidance on how to organize a concert; more on that below). Earlier I had seen Cecil Taylor, George Cables, and (as part of a tribute to yet another pianist, Alice Coltrane) Geri Allen. And that’s not to mention the great pianists I didn’t get a chance to see: Kenny Barron, Hank Jones, Dick Hyman, and probably a few others whose names escape me at the moment.

It was probably just a coincidence — after all, none of the advertising or publicity put any particular emphasis on the wealth of pianistic talent. And this is not to suggest that there haven’t been some great performances by musicians who play other instruments. But coincidence or not, this year’s JVC bash has been an unusually sumptuous feast for lovers of great piano playing.

Brad Mehldau is always worth seeing, and to say that there was nothing out of the ordinary about his June 22 concert at Zankel Hall is not a criticism but simply an observation. He had his usual accompanists (Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums), as keenly attuned to the nuances of his playing as ever, and he was his usual thoughtful but not cerebral self, never flaunting his considerable technique but
always using it in the service of his fertile imagination. There was, on the other hand, something decidedly unusual about the June 24 concert at the New York Society for Ethical Culture by Ethan Iverson’s band, the Bad Plus.

I know, I know — the Bad Plus is a collective trio and technically not “Ethan Iverson’s band.” But the pianist is inevitably the center of attention in any piano-bass-drums trio, and however important the contributions of bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King (as composers and musicians), Iverson tends to be the focal point of the Bad Plus, and he tends to make the most of that position.

This concert was quite different, though, because the Bad Plus was joined by a fourth musician, the amazing guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. (For the occasion the group was unimaginatively billed as the Bad Plus 1.) Given how smoothly the Bad Plus functions as a unit, the potential for a train wreck was always there, but it never materialized: Rosenwinkel was seamlessly integrated into the group, and the other musicians for long stretches of time lay back and happily functioned as nothing more or less than a very sympathetic rhythm section. The chemistry was impressive.

Chemistry, sad to say, was sorely missing at Herbie Hancock’s eagerly awaited Carnegie Hall concert on June 23. As one of the very few musicians to achieve success in the pop market without jeopardizing his status as a jazz great, Hancock has certainly earned the right to present whatever kind of concert he wants to. The main problem on this occasion was that he tried to do too much and didn’t stay in one bag for too long; as a result the concert had a diffuse, unfocused feel.

He had two singers with him to do material from his albums of Joni Mitchell songs and pop collaborations. The Mitchell songs would have sounded better with a more thoughtful singer than Sony Kitchell, but the U2 song “When Love Comes to Town,” though competently sung by Amy Keys, seemed more than a little out of place at a Herbie Hancock concert. At least he performed “Maiden Voyage” (in an impressionistic unaccompanied performance), “Cantaloupe Island” and a rousing “Chameleon,” which still sounds fresh more than three decades after its blend of jazz and electrified funk shocked the world. But the patchwork nature of the evening left a lot of listeners — including this one — scratching their heads.

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