Selections from the San Franciso Jazz Festival 2000
reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
Wednesday, October 25
When I took my seat at the Masonic Auditorium, I realized that this time I was seated a little further away from the stage and more around to the front of the thrust. I remember last time I was seated in the second or third row on the left aisle and now I had a little better perspective on the singers. What a pleasure to be able to see Ms. Lincoln. She has performed at Symphony Center in the recent past, but I have missed her every time—usually because I was busy working somewhere else those nights. The last time I caught a performance of her's was at the Jazz Showcase, I don't know how many years ago.
The Jazz Expressions, the backing group for the opening act who was none other than Jimmy Scott, led off the show. They opened with an original composition that was distinguished by the cool walking bass of their leader, Hilliard Greene. Their altoist, Justin Robinson, played with a clear and succinct tone, that would have been a nice foil to the listed guest, Hank Crawford, who unfortunately had cancelled. I later found out he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Mr. Scott then came on, opening his set with "Blue Skies." Far from being a set by an elderly gentleman, re-hashing old standards, Jimmy Scott gave one a glimpse of what an evening in a mid-Fifties show club must have been like. He brought a warm intimacy to the vastness of the Masonic Auditorium with his careful pronunciation and eye contact combined with a wide-open delivery. I loved the way he tiptoed verbally through "All The Way," making it clear how important a love commitment can be "...through the good and lean years, and all the in-between years." His deliberate vocals on "Motherless Child" gave this version the right amount of dramatic poignancy.
David Newman, bringing on his tenor and flute, joined the proceedings while Justin Robinson laid out and Mr. Scott took a break. He and the Expressions opened with an up-beat number entitled "Sunrise." The tempo change at this juncture was nice in comparison to the languid ones the group had played with Mr. Scott. The next tune, "Cousin Esau," saw Newman playing the flute, giving his phrasing a little more Herbie Mann than Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef. Jimmy Scott then re-joined the ensemble for a sensitive "Time After Time" and a finger-popping "I Cried For You." He and his cohorts left to a standing ovation.
Abbey Lincoln's set was preceded by a special presentation of the "Leaders' Circle Laureate," the award presented by SF Jazz Executive Director Randall Kline to both Ms. Lincoln and Jimmy Scott. Ms. Lincoln's band, led by grooving pianist Brandon McCune, started off with a highly syncopated version of Monk's "Evidence," throwing the accents in at the most interesting of places.
The lady came onstage with the tune "Midnight Sun," bringing her distinctive phrasing and lyricism to the tune. In fact, the bulk of her selections were from her most recent recordings—Wholly Earth and A Turtle's Dream. I especially liked "It's Supposed To Be Love" with its positive refrain even when she hit you with one of her side-ways glances. Also moving was her rendition of Mabel Mercer's "Lucky To Be Me."
As an encore, Ms. Lincoln chose to perform her version of Bob Dylan's "Mr.Tambourine Man" from A Turtle's Dream. Notable in the tune was Jaz Sawyer's use of mallets during his drum solo: it literally took the tune somewhere else. Ultimately, the thing that made the entire evening so interesting was observing the way both of these elders, Ms. Lincoln and Mr. Scott, interpreted their material, whether it was original or standard, using their bodies, gestures, and voices. Their work was a confirmation of the awards presented earlier in the evening.
Friday, October 27
From the looks of things, as I entered the ornate Herbst Theatre, I concluded that the opening act would be a duet of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Paul Bley, mirroring last year's interesting combination of pianist Kenny Werner and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in presentation if not style. The set opened with a Konitz solo of an original, if not on-the-spot, composition warming up the altoist with its succinct note selection and smooth tone.
Then pianist Bley soloed, marking his entrance with a piece that was sonorous at first, escalating into something a bit busier. Joining up, the two played "Sweet and Lovely," which was just that, and "I Can't Get Started." By the time they concluded with "I'll Remember April," Konitz' trademark lush, satiny tone had meshed perfectly with Bley's sometimes elliptical, always cool comping.
After a slight intermission, the house curtain opened to reveal the set-up for the second act—a highly anticipated meeting of core black music avant-gardists. Bassist Reggie Workman has used reedman Oliver Lake and percussionist Andrew Cyrille in various bands since the mid-eighties. Lake, of course, has been an on-going member of the World Saxophone Quartet, along with leading his own groups for years. Andrew Cyrille, long a member of Cecil Taylor's unit, has also been a remarkable leader in his own right. To hear these three gentlemen in concert was one of the compelling reasons behind my attendance at this Fest.
Looking at the set-up, gave me an idea of what was in store. On a piano bench center stage were laid an alto and an alto-shaped soprano saxophone. Cyrille chose to use a moderately sized drum kit with many cymbals, and to the right of where Workman's double-bass lay was a small percussion table with various "toys" laid out. The whole scene reminded me of the preamble to an A.A.C.M. concert with everything ready for the artists/musicians to play at will.
After a rambunctious opening number, the band took on an exotic mode with "Flying East of Java," a composition by long-time cohort, pianist Adegoke Steve Colson, bringing in whispery cymbal work, bells, and an ethereal voice on soprano by Lake.
A truly abstract number was the Lake composition, "Cloth," which started off in a march tempo that increased in intensity as the tune progressed. In fact, Workman laid out for a couple of Lake choruses while Cyrille handled the bottom with the kick drum and a few well chosen hits on the 18" floor tom. When Workman returned, the dramatic march beat really ensued.
Andrew Cyrille's composition dedicated to the great drummer and leader Buhaina Art Blakey, "Tribute To Bu," was a driving, blowing tune, as might be guessed. Cyrille's constant high-hat cymbal work accented every beat in the 4/4, making the mostly percussive tune sound like the bells around dancers' ankles during a celebratory tribal function—a perfect realization of theme and exposition.
Reggie Workman's contribution "Nov. 1st" ended the set; its conceptual freedom sounding something like an Art Ensemble of Chicago new music piece. The encore that followed was icing on the cake, a little more of a great thing to round out the evening.
The evening was essentially a foray into the different ways of approaching an alto-rhythm section combination. You had the cerebral and the visceral approach, with a little of each in the other. But, finally, both were wonderfully contemplative.
Tuesday, October 31
This evening promised great things. Headlined as a “Keyboard Continuum," the show included a master pianist and his new group—Andrew Hill and the Point of Departure Sextet—preceeded by the master’s protegé and his ensemble—the Jason Moran Trio. To be able to attend this performance was another reason why I was out here.
Because Hill had already performed marvelously at our recent JazzFest in Grant Park, I was anxious to see what form his new music would take here. I had only heard Jason Moran on record—as a side-man with Greg Osby, Stefan Harris, and other new young lions (on the tribute to Blue Note 60’s hard bop, New Directions) or on Soundtrack To Human Motion, his only release as leader. I liked his ideas and his style, which were both adventurous. So, to hear these two on the same bill was to enjoy a keyboard feast.
As I took my seat, I noticed downstage to my right was an artist’s easel facing the trio instrumentation of piano, bass and drums. The easel had a plastic drop cloth underneath it, so I assumed there would be some actual work taking place there. When Moran came onstage wearing a cool suit and stingy brim hat álà Monk, he introduced his group as Bandwagon. The group included artist Marlon Hightower at the easel, Nasheet Waits on drums, and Tarus Mateen on bass.
I was fortunate to be seated where I was—directly behind Hightower—and could observe what he could observe and at the same time watch what he would create. Moran opened with, coincidentally, a Thelonious Monk-style tune with quirky note selection and left hand quasi-stride work. Waits soloed about a third of the way into the number while the artist Hightower, after priming his canvas, put some swift blue strokes on display.
The second number I recognized from Soundtrack, a tune fittingly entitled “Gangsterism On Canvas," which, along with the following number, was inspired by themes from Andrew Hill as Moran explained later.
It indeed had that relaxed feel of the best of Hill’s ballads without the complexity; Mateen playing beautifully with his bow and Waits using the brushes very lightly. A McCoy Tyner influence could be heard in the chord voicings of the final measures. The Spanish-tinged lyricism of the next number suggested not Hill, but a Chick Corea influence, though the theme may have been a re-working of one by Hill.
Switching gears for a bit, Moran showed his interest in the work of Swedish pop star Bjork, performing her contemplative “Yoga," reminding me of the few times some jazz artists would perform the haunting work of Laura Nyro. Then came the piece which had been commissioned by SF Jazz specifically for this evening, something Moran called “The Oath Movements.”
Starting off with a synthesized voice that also set up the beat, the band came into play with a more-or-less funk groove, that unfortunately did not stand apart as something special. The piece that ultimately, for me, was special ended up being his rendition of the late Jaki Byard tune “Out Front,” with its overt bop sensibility. Moran and Bandwagon finished their set with another post-bop number entitled “Yojimbo," at the same time Hightower was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful ensemble portrait in blue.
After a short break, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure strode onstage and, without introductions, broke into the same number it had opened with at the Chicago JazzFest, the orchestral, lush “Sept." With its front line of tenor player Aaron Stewart, trumpeter Ron Horton, and alto sax and bass clarinet player Marty Ehrlich weaving beautifully spun lines in and out of each other at one time, and at other times playing ensemble passages in unison, this band finally ended up being a modern re-incarnation of the group from the album for which it was named.
That original grouping of Joe Henderson on tenor, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, and Eric Dolphy on alto broke new ground playing the structurally complex tunes of the young Andrew Hill. Rounding out the rhythm section this night was Scott Colley on bass (who had been with Herbie Hancock’s quartet at our recent Fest, along with doubling in Hill’s band) and Nasheet Waits who was doing a little double duty this night as well.
During “Sept," I noticed that Hill laid out on some of the ensemble passages and just observed his band, whereas in the Chicago performance he was doing a lot of comping. Asked about that in an interview later, he explained that this time he felt he wanted to create more space for the brass and to listen to what they would come up with before he would respond.
I noticed that overall, as the band performed music from his new album Dusk, this material was as dense as any he had ever written, from the albums Black Fire and Smokestack, through the middle years with Henderson and Clifford Jordan, to the later efforts with Greg Osby and other youngsters, but it was not as overtly intellectual, expressing a lushness with more sweep and purpose than before.
With a little twinkle in his eye, Hill said that over the years, things just become more refined. This was especially true of the piece the group did as an encore, the title tune from the album. Scott Colley opened the number with a small repeated bass figure, each front line member made relaxed statements and Hill rounded out the piece with his short solo answering them all, nodding at Colley to go back to the head of the tune. Colley obliged, finishing things up with the same bass figure. The performance ended as quietly as it had begun, with a refined flowering of new ideas in between. A masterpiece.
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