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Excerpt: 'Weather Bird'

Cover image from <i>Weather Bird</i>
Cover image from Weather Bird

Political writer Alan Greenblatt includes this title, a selection from 14 years' worth of Giddins' discontinued Village Voice column, in his nonfiction recommendations for summer. The author remains an enthusiast, never giving up on jazz, an art form that has been declared near death for most of my listening life.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Tender Moments

I didn't attend many events at the JVC Jazz Festival this year, in part because of other commitments and in part because there wasn't much I wanted to hear. From what I saw, the staid schedule was given a lackluster presentation. My sense of foreboding was triggered opening night when I noticed that the usual program was replaced by a JVC brochure in which pride of place was given not to greetings from the "organizer," George Wein, but to the sponsor, JVC president Hiroshi Sano. The general absence of Wein at the concerts was also notable: His enthusiasm can usually be counted on to impart a touch of festiveness. Too many of the disc jockey announcers, on the other hand, recalled Zippy: Hey, kids, are we having fun yet? One of them obliviously advised the audience to attend an Oscar Peterson concert that had been canceled weeks earlier. The venues were troublesome as usual, excepting the marvelous Weill Recital Hall. Most nettlesome was the rudeness of latecomers who, per usual, were encouraged to flounce in whenever they liked. Still, there were tender moments even amid the chaos, and lessons to be gleaned.

Dizzy Gillespie and his United Nations All-Star Orchestra were preceded by Marcus Roberts and a band so repressed by its own dignity it might have been playing conservatory etudes. The best pieces were an Ellington blues and an original called "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back," which featured an exacting, vigorous trumpet solo by Scotty Barnhard, who alone seemed determined to get some sparks flying. Roberts himself was most engaging in an unaccompanied version of Monk's "Misterioso," with supple guitar-like washes and a brief stride interlude, and even then his touch was chilly. Contrast Gillespie, who floated out playing a miked trumpet while the orchestra asserted the various rhythmic figures of "Manteca," turning Carnegie Hall from blue to Caribbean red. Having announced his own preeminence in a characteristically jostling solo, combining introspective timbre and dazzling pyrotechnics, restoring the inclination to dance and revel, he served as host for the specialty numbers that followedÑJames Moody hurtling through Gillespie's Afrocentric "Kush" and his own "Moody's Mood for Love" (for which Dizzy sang the woman's part); Paquito D'Rivera employing clarinet and alto on a "Latin American Suite" that also showcased Slide Hampton, Claudio Roditi, and a rousing young pianist from Panama named Danilo Perez; Jon Faddis and Gillespie splitting the atom on "And Then She Danced" from Gillespie's undervalued album Jambo Caribe. Flora Purim dispelled the magic, but a conguero named Giovanni Hidalgo restored it. The sound was boxy.

The sound was exactly what it's supposed to be at Carnegie Hall the following evening for a flamboyant set by the World Saxophone Quartet. The absence of amplification allowed all the nuances and dynamics to resound the way the players intended. After the opening theme, "Steppin'," David Murray reached back to his gospel past for a dedication to Nelson Mandela, played over a rigorous vamp stated first in real time and then in double time by Hamiet Bluiett's baritone, while Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe meshed their altos in response. Oliver took the lead on "Sittin' on the Dock of the Play," defining a backbeat so palpable you could hear the drums that weren't there; Bluiett showed off his extravagant command in a cadenza to "Sophisticated Lady," melding pianissimo undertones, popped keys, stentorian barks, and siren whistles (all in dramatic service to Ellington's melody), before the ensemble filled out the release. A cadenza by Blythe led into a fast, swing riff with diverse voicings and a free episode. Murray, backed by humming chords, played top to bottom on a ballad, working up an array of blazing harmonics. Together and individually, the WSQ makes the blood roar.

I appreciated the opportunity to hear, on the same bill, Steve Reich and his ensemble performing Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Music for 18 Instruments, two pieces written in the mid-`70s. But I'm not eager to hear them again. Imagine Red Norvo's "Dance of the Octopus" played repeatedly for an hour. The subtle shifts in rhythmic figures and the glacial articulationÑespecially in the latter piece, which combined four voices, cello, violin, and two clarinets with rotating pianists and xylophonistsÑwere intoxicating for minutes at a time, occasionally conveying the white light given off by Gregorian chant. Yet at length, the goal seemed to be to induce a trance, the last thing I want from music. At times, the ceaseless malletting suggested a confluence of drills, a visit to the dentist. Yet the blending of clarinets and strings was tantalizing; arrangers could do some happy fishing in this pond.

Perhaps the week's most exhilarating surprise took place in direct contravention to what was intended. "An Evening of American Song," at Town Hall, promised restrained interpretations of all the usual suspects. But Barbara Lea, who was supposed to sing Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter, switched to Vincent YoumansÑfor the most part, obscure Vincent Youmans at that; and Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman, who were scheduled to perform songs from My Fair Lady, did for a while, then switched to Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Two acts makes for a long first set. Gerry Mulligan, who wasn't aware of the changes, came out after intermission and announced that since we'd been hearing all that Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter, he'd play his own materialÑwhich is what he'd been scheduled to do all along. A few Tin Pan Alleycats grumbled, but not for long. Mulligan was in peak form as player and composer. He introduced several new pieces from an upcoming album that had the tangy lyricism and rhythmic gait of his best work, among them "Lonesome Boulevard," which has the solid ease of a country air; "A Gift for Dizzy," a heady samba; "Sun on Stairs," which combines swing riffs with a delicate release; and his latest and fastest train song, "The Flying Scotsman." His satiny, expressive timbre remains unrivaled on baritone, his improvisations as lucid and coherent as his themes.

Of Mulligan's older pieces, "Line for Lyons" ("written in 1910 by Jelly Roll Morton," the composer announced), one of the most enduring melodies to come out of the cool era, was exceptional. Mulligan began his solo accompanied by Dean Johnson's bass and built to a sequence of nimble fours with drummer Dave Ratajczak. Bill Charlap, an intense robust pianist who favors rigorous rhythmic figures and knuckle-busting clusters, proved his mastery of dynamics by following the tumult with a quiet solo of his own. On his autobiographical lament, "I Never Was a Young Man," Mulligan sang the rueful lyric and the mike went dead, as it had done repeatedly during Lea's set. Throwing his head back, he managed to fill the hall anyway, and mused afterward, "I'm probably the only singer on Broadway who's not miked." He ought to have been given an evening to himself, quartet for one set and big band for the other.

Evenings given over to Jim Hall and Stan Getz were agreeable, though each was sabotaged by strings, real and synthesized. Pat Metheny served charmingly as an informal host for Hall, noting on behalf of the many participating guitarists, "We can all trace the biggest parts of our styles to Jim." The tribute provided the most elliptical of stylists an opportunity to revive several of his musical associations from the past 30-plus years. With Ron Carter, he played "Alone Together" and "St. Thomas"; with Bob Brookmeyer, a medley of "Skylark" and "Begin the Beguine," which found the rarely heard valve trombonist's conversational tone, proliferating ideas, and long phrases fully intact; with Mulligan, "All the Things You Are" (contrapuntal and fresh) and "Prelude to a Kiss." Hall's clarity and economy, his sliding pitches and dense harmonies were buoyant throughout. The program's pace was fatally skewed by two extended works that combined string quartet with a jazz rhythm sectionÑa piece Hall wrote in college and a more recent opus by Don Thompson. A third piece for strings and Gary BurtonÑAstor Piazzola's "Laura's Dream"Ñhad a pleasing romantic edge, but little spontaneity. The subsequent guitar duets came alive twice: John Scofield joined Hall on the old Coleman Hawkins showstopper, "Sancticity," an outstanding vehicle; and Metheny contrasted his rangy riffs with Hall's tranquil chime-like notes and snare-like strumming on Jobim's "Chega de Saudade." Incredibly, a battery of photographers whose cannon roar devastated one piece after another invaded the concert. One photographer explained that this was a producer's idea, to get shots for a forthcoming album cover. Sol Hurok is spinning.

Stan Getz alternated between playing with his superb quartet (Kenny Barron, Alex Blake, Terri Lyne Carrington) and the quartet augmented by two synthesizers, played by Eddie Del Barrio and Frank Zottoli. The latter were present to perform virtually his entire new album, Apasionado, written by Del Barrio, Herb Alpert, and Getz. Getz's comeback after serious illness is cause for celebration ("I'm too evil to die," he told Mel Lewis), and he performed with vigor and ingenuity, but the album is second-rate; only on a blues did he slice decisively through the caloric fake strings. The quartet pieces were something else, of course. Apasionado may sell better this year (though that remains to be seen), but his other new album, Anniversary, is the one that will take permanent place among the Getz benchmarks. When he returned to that material, he blazed the famous Getz sound variously smoky and electrifying, his alliance with Kenny Barron even more developed than on the album. A couple of times, he called for the mikes to be turned off, but the grateful applause of the audience didn't deter him from having them turned back on as he returned to yet another selection from Apasionado. As a result, he never sustained the head of steam he can build on a great night. But he came damn close at the end, following a galvanizing "What Is This Thing Called Love?" with an impassioned "Blood Count."

The big surprise of the week was the appearance by pianist Sir Charles Thompson in the Weill Recital series. Thompson achieved a secure, individual approach in the `40s and `50s, notably on recordings with Coleman Hawkins and Jimmy Rushing, he had edited down a glossary of swing techniques to a spare style of acute melodic ideas. At 72, he chose to use his hour for a musical memoir, recalling his associations with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Hawkins, and others, and showed how firmly rooted he is in the Tatum/Wilson/Waller tradition. He described his solo on Hawkins's "Stuffy" (a Thompson original) as "the first time someone heard me and thought it was me playing and not Count Basie." He incorporated lovely stride episodes in an Ellington-Strayhorn medley, showed off his bop (cum Garner) sensibility on "Stella by Starlight" and "All the Things You Are," and played the entire Basie arrangements of "April in Paris" and "One O'Clock Jump," before closing with his "claim to fame," "Robbins' Nest." It was an eminently civilized presentation, nostalgic and compelling at the same time, the sort of epiphany that should make a jazz festival feel good about itself the next morning.

[Village Voice, 24 July 1990]

From Weather Bird by Gary Giddins. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.

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Gary Giddins