Sunday, May 10, 2009

David Murray @ Birdland

Absolutely thrilling. David Murray has more chops and stamina, not to mention ideas, at 60 than most musicians have at 25. I'll add to this, but for now I'll just say that this was a great, long set featuring a beautiful Chelsea Bridge and some bass clarinet work that made Chris Potter's (which I rave about below) look amateur.

I love seeing these older masters well after they've been around the block a few times but before their skills drop off. The combination of absolute comfort on stage and incredible technical prowess makes for the best performance. I was lucky enough to witness it a few months ago with Frisell, Carter and Motian, and it was on full display here as well.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Dead with Branford Marsalis @ Izod

I trekked out to the Meadowlands last Wednesday to see The Dead. I wasn't expecting much. Its no secret to all but the [brain]deadest of deadheads that these guys don't have much left in the tank. Phil Lesh still impresses me and I always like to see a good Phil & Friends show, but as The Dead, these boys just about live up to their name in 2009. With tickets ringing up at about $100 a piece, these guys are officially a nostalgia act aimed at the baby boomers who grew up with them and can afford to shell out for a the three hours they can handle reliving their youth.  Thing is, with the Dead its worse in a way, because they're missing the band's centerpiece and the object of most fans' nostalgia. (update: as I'm finishing this post, my little bro informs me the band is absolutely tearing apart the Spectrum in Philly for the second night running--my apologies to all deadheads.) 

That said, this is the music and the scene of my adolescence and I always have a good time at these shows. As an added bonus, Branford Marsalis showed up and sat in for all but a few songs.

After a shaky start that found the band fumbling through Touch of Grey (just a touch??), they loosened up and found a groove. They played pretty well and I loved the setlist. Overall, the show struck me as Lesh-led. They played a lot of those disjointed, ambient jams that Phil tends to favor, culminating in a slow and measured meander through Terrapin>Drums>Space>Wheel>Terrapin.

Branford was, as always, an excellent addition.  They should really try to snatch him up for an entire tour like Phil did with Greg Osby not too long ago.  It's certainty clear that while he could play these licks in his sleep, he enjoys being up there.  After all, for all the accolades tossed his way as essentially jazz royalty, Branford probably doesn't often play for 15,000 fans dancing their asses off.  

That and he just adds so much to the band.  My little brother, who is many times more knowledgeable about The Dead than I am, pointed out to me that their current guitarist Warren Haynes is an odd choice to fill Jerry's shoes.  He's a work horse and as well-respected as anyone in this scene.  He's a member of psychedelia's other band of elder statesmen, The Allman Brothers.  But, probably informed by his southern rock roots, he rips through his solos, riffs when he should, but lays out much of the rest of the time.  Not so with Jerry, whose constant 'noodling' was more or less the Dead's signature sound.  What Branford does well is fill in a lot of that space Warren leaves open with his great melodic sensibilities.  Moreover, he knows, like all great jazz soloists, exactly how much space fill.

Perhaps the highlight of the night for me was hearing Warren and Branford trading licks on Deal.  Something about those bay area hippies and that prince of New Orleans jazz banging out the country-ish Deal captures a certain spirit of American music that I love.  Yes -- it's an affected, stylized kind of roots music, but that's the history of American music.  It's a history of borrowing, cobbling, melding, stealing...only someone still chasing the cipher of authenticity couldn't enjoy the standard bearers of two distinctly American musical traditions jamming on a third.  

these guys back in '94
I especially loved seeing a Marsalis involved in that exercise in Americana, since members of the Marsalis family acted for so long as sole arbiters of what is real and what isn't and whatever.  Wednesday night's show, and things like Wyton's work with Willie Nelson, are indices of a less defensive jazz elite.  Jazz has long been accepted as a major -- if not the major -- American art form.   More-or-less traditional, boppish jazz is thriving, if not in record sales, than in sheer talent and volume of excellent music produced.  It has co-opted some elements of both free jazz and fusion, dispensed with others, and is no longer in competition with either for primacy.  That all means that purists can let their guards down.  Jazz can take its place alongside other American vernacular music without fear that its importance will be diminished or misapprehended.  Jazz can comfortably open itself  to outside influences -- surely its natural disposition -- without fear that it will be diluted or its essential art tainted.  Not every experiment or electric amplifier is an affront to past masters anymore. Not every collaboration is some sort of implicit admission about where jazz falls in some imaginary musical hierarchy.

Maybe I'm setting up a straw man by assuming there is still a great debate about what is jazz and what it means, who it belongs to, etc. Maybe those days are over. Was that one three hour dead show as perfectly evocative as I'm describing it in retrospect?  Probably not.  Was it really a sign of anything?  Definitely not (Brandford first played with The Dead two decades ago, and his stint on the tonight show proves that even back in the heyday of the jazz wars he was willing to simultaneously embody and embarrass jazz).  Also, Branford is not his younger brother, whose braggadocio and self-righteousness occupies its own plane.

In any case, I enjoyed the show.

Potter @ Jazz Standard

I caught Chris Potter's Underground last night at the Jazz Standard in NYC. They played a short, sweet, five-song set that left me grinning wide but wanting more. Highlights included some pitch perfect, rapid fire soprano work on Ultrahang (the title track of the band's new CD due out in June) and a nice version of Ellington's The Single Petal of a Rose. I'm occasionally underwhelmed by Chris's ballad style (while usually overwhelmed by everything else he does).  His playing just doesn't connect for me at slower tempos or with sweeter tones.   I get the sense that he's straining to break through emotionally, whereas his faster and fiercer stuff is more like emotion by brute force. Single Petal, however, worked. I think it was the bass clarinet. Hearing its woody, reedy tone on an Ellington standard summoned a time--Duke's day--when the clarinet was still a major voice in jazz. That classic, supple sound embedded in the persistent, low electric grind of Craig Taborn's Rhodes and Adam Rogers's guitar made for a nice effect.

Also, Nate Smith could not have been better. His style, in many ways, captures much of what I look for in a modern jazz drummer. I'll save that for another time.

Chris Potter, looking demure as always, at Newport '08 I'll leave last night's set at that, but I'll just add something about Chris Potter. There is a reason why he is among my favorite musicians that I think is worth sharing. He is just so down to earth. Even with his immense talent and the complex compositions--their odd time signatures, long, angular melodies, etc.--on full display, his modesty and self-effacing nature underlie every performance. The result is just plain fun. No matter who he's playing with, it shows that he's enjoying himself.  That vibe is contagious, because it serves as a subtle but constant reminder that jazz and blues were devised as something to get down to, not to stare at like a painting on a wall. With his Underground group that attitude is especially evident. I don't think its a coincidence that he picked a group of guys conspicuously younger then he is, guys who play electric or just plain loud, and whose musical interests at times skirt the edges of jazz and move beyond. These guys were hand picked to give and to have a good time with no pretensions.

Don't get me wrong..I don't claim that 'down to earth' is the only or even the best way to present jazz (just ask Sun Ra--a great jazz performer doesn't even need to be from Earth), but it is one way.  For Chris Potter, it works. 

I was with a friend last night whose first meaningful encounter with jazz was last August when I took her up to Newport.  She liked the festival--loved Chris Potter.  In fact, we caught 4 of his 5 sets that weekend (sorry chris, went with Mr. Rollins over Mr. Benevento).  Potter's energy is such that I could escort this jazz virgin right past the Bottis of the festival and straight to the good stuff, without worrying that it might go over her head or just plain bore her. Last night they had us looking for a dance floor.
To stay that accessible and so simply fun without compromising one ounce of musical integrity or artistic drive is a special quality.  Keep these guys together Chris, and keep it up.  

Underground is at the Jazz Standard through the weekend.