Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter JazzFest Brings Parrot Out of Hiding

Well, I'm not going to make any grand announcements like "the parrot squawks again", because who knows, this could be a dead parrot bounce. But one reason I quit posting a year ago or more (I guess more) - aside from the big one of starting other blogs and not being able to keep them all up at once - is that I was getting away from the social issues I was really interested in and often ended up writing performance reviews - which was not the original point. And I really want to get back to the heavy stuff. But what always seems to drag me back to the flogosbeer is a good concert or cultural event.

Thus I find myself more tempted to talk about the Jazz Festival I went to last night, and some of the great performances I saw there - or should I say great performers - than about, say, the question of who Coldplay plagiarized, if anyone, or the death of the music industry, or whether Herman Rosenblatt is a horrible person for writing a "memoir" in which the main character (him) turns out to be partly fictional. So that's what I'll do, for openers, only I'll adopt an entirely new practice for this sort of post: keeping it down to what an ordinary person can read in 15 minutes. I know, I know, what an unreasonable demand to impose on myself, I should be more realistic... nevertheless, here goes.

So I said great performers, not always great performances, by which I do not mean that the performers were having an off night. But something was off - usually a microphone. Start with Will Calhoun and his Native Land Experience
(which was actually the last act I saw): due to technical problems - which turned out to be a misbehaving mike cable - they ended up having time for only one full number, and then basically (as far as I could tell) improvised for 5 minutes until they were all but literally given the stage hook treatment. That one number (a fairly long one) pretty much brought the house down. And if the last 5 minutes was indeed an improv, it still blew away a shitload of performances by lesser groups. To their credit they attempted to make up for the fact that jazz fans stood around for half hour to hear one tune by tossing free CD's to the audience (sort of the like blasting teeshirts into the stands at a baseball game - of course, I was no more successful at being in the right spot this time than I was at the last teeshirt blast). Their one song, I have to say, left the impression that this is best damn fusion group I've heard since I saw Weather Report at Northwestern 35 years ago. This I say despite the fact that I was ever so slightly disappointed that Pharoah Sanders didn't make an impromptu appearance at the gig. Who'm I kidding? Myself, I guess, but not without cause. Will Calhoun, the incredible drummer (think Buddy Miles, Billy Cobham, Michael Walden, Alfonse Mouzon - that sort of incredible) for Living Color, as well as leader of his own band, recorded five tracks of his Native Land Experience album with Sanders. I saw the Pharoah, too, back in the good old Chicago days . It seemed like a reasonable miracle that he might grace me with his presence again. Alas, no Pharoah, and barely any Calhoun. Nevertheless, an amazing short concert.

Next, take the guy I happen to be listening to right now on, Lafayette Gilchrist - incredible piano player, who reminded me of yet another decades-old Chicago-area music experience, Sunnyland Slim at (long-defunked) Alice's Revisited. (
If you are getting the impression that the Chicago music scene left more of an impression on me than the illustrious faculty at Northwestern, you are paying attention.) Not that their styles are so similar, Gilchrist is quite modern, and not blind either, but both riveting keyboardists with a few similar moves. Anyway, Kenny's Castaways, the unlikely host of a third of this jazz festival (the others were Le Poisson Rouge, a big space in a charming basement direclty across the street from Kenny's, and Sullivan Hall, another oblong cave around the corner) obviously has little or no experience with acoustic jazz pianists, perhaps having had nothing softer than some alt-country grundge in 30 years, since the piano (such as it is) was miked about two feet above the keyboard, with the lid closed - the predictable result being that you could barely hear Gilchrist at all. Thus, as I was saying - incredible performers, not always great performances, when you take technical and other factors into account. Though, ignoring those factors, the performances that nobody heard were no doubt exceptional. Especially the ones that were merely underamplified.

We also saw (and for the most part heard) Theo Bleckmann (vocalist, in various popular and show tunes backed by expressionistic string arrangements), Jason Moran's Bandwagon (whose style I lack a ready vocabulary to describe, but much of it was impressive), Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely (not jazz, and a bit long on attitude for this sort of environment, but energetic, unapologetic and well-played soul-pop), a bit of Don Byron Ivey-Divey Trio (very creative and refreshingly non-technical contemporary stuff with tenor sax or clarinet), and a dose of Tar Baby (very decent if not exactly earth-shaking post-bob jazz). All this for $25 and a tip for the Sullivan Hall men's room attendant. (I think they're practicing for the 4-star restaurant they'll be opening as soon as the economy improves, at which they'll serve cheeseburgers, onion rings and a goat cheese-mesclun salad with truffle oil).

The festival was sponsored by APAP - no, not Tylenol (I know some of you wiseacres who are not modern jazz fans are just waiting for an opening ) but the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. I'm assuming, from the crowds that packed nearly every concert, especially the later shows (it's the Village, after all) that the presenters made out like bandits, especially if everyone consumed as much alcohol as my small collective of five friends.

As I said, that's what I'm tempted to write about, but I'm not going to indulge myself. Except this time. Because there are issues of Great Social and Political Import that need to be addressed. Though another idea I had when I started PL was to talk about the arts in a context that related to NYC, which I guess I was a bit more successful at. So on that score the APAP Winter JazzFest is more relevant than, say, the question of whether Coldplay stole a riff from Joe Satriani. Nevertheless, see my next post...

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