Jazz Institute of Chicago

Elvin Jones at Yoshi's, April 2003

Elvin Jones at Yoshi's, April 2003
reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris

Elvin Jones brought his Jazz Machine to Yoshi’s in Oakland for six nights of shows starting Tuesday, April 15. I figured as long as I was there to catch some of the SF Jazz Spring Season, I might as well avail myself of a chance to hear a band whose music I hadn’t heard in a long time.

On the strength of the personnel listed on Yoshi’s website—including Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Delfayo Marsalis on trombone—I asked a friend to reserve seats for Friday’s first set. I was not disappointed when I arrived at the club and found that another frequent collaborator, reedman Pat LaBarbara, had replaced Marsalis. Rounding out the line-up was bassist Gerald Cannon and pianist—and Chicagoan—Anthony Wonsey, past pianist for trumpeter Nicholas Payton, another former Jazz Machinist.

I was slightly surprised to see how thin Jones was after he had been introduced by the club’s announcer. I was used to the well-built look of the man over the years, a look necessary for the driving, intense sound Elvin is known for.

Now he appeared as unobtrusive and reserved as a Japanese sage. He spoke of the music the band was to play and graciously thanked the audience in the same gravelly voice as before, but with a softness to it, as if reserving energy for something yet to come. And that something ended up being "something else."

As soon as Elvin got situated behind his glittering gold Yamaha drum kit, he grabbed two mallets and began a floor tom drumbeat to intro the first of the announced tunes, Juan Tizol's "Caravan."

Not to fear that this master musician was choosing to perform what some would disparagingly call a "war-horse." In the way he had announced the bands intention to play "Caravan" and, later on, "Body and Soul," you could feel that there was going to be something special about their performances.

There is always a wholeness to Jones' interpretations that you somehow don't sense in a lot of modern performances. Maybe it's the vamp he usually likes to intro with, some beautiful ensemble expository work—complete with Elvin's trademark contrapuntal grunts—to bring out the theme of the piece and, by the end, there is the final accent cymbal hit bringing things to a certain conclusion.

During "Caravan," the famous theme played by the two harmonizing tenor saxophones gave that opening a semblance of a big band front line, what with Jones' mallet work and Cannon's heavy bass providing a propulsive bottom.

And then during "Body and Soul," Mark Shim's hyper-active sixteenth-note tenor solo juxtaposed with the band's traditional languid tempo, aptly aided by Jones' casually masterful brush work, was a model of imaginative contrast. Continuing his experimentations in melding styles, Jones battered the floor toms like a focused Taiko drummer to introduce the band's version of the Japanese traditional song "Soran Bushi."

In describing his playing throughout this tune, as well as the entire program, you cannot get away from the term "explosive," the same term writers used describing his work with John Coltrane, and later, his work with the short-lived but seminal trio of reedman Joe Farrell and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

That same explosiveness was there in the recent Trio Fascination collaborations with Joe Lovano and bassist David Holland. It shows a strong dedication to the music to come to the stage every night and give your all, even at 70-plus years, and literally not miss a beat.
The audience for the first set stood for two or three minutes after the band left the stage, not so much in demanding an encore, but out of pure respect for the man and the work of his bandmates.

When they returned, I thought it was to take another bow, but they sat down and put an exclamation point on the set by performing the Ellington tune "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," Elvin proving once again, as if it needed proving, that he is a master of the idiom.

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