Kool Jazz Festival. Bypassing the mainstream to explore the rising stars of fusion and blues
New York — The recently completed Kool Jazz Festival (dedicated to Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, New York's longest-lived jazz club) had the usual emphasis on mainstream jazz, accompanied by some fusion, blues, and pop and a smattering of avant-garde thrown in to satisfy the small but dedicated audiences that attend these events. The talent roster included Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Flora Purim, Chick Corea, and others. I decided to take a few steps off the beaten track and concentrate on some groups outside the mainstream I might have missed in previous festivals. By doing this, I was informed by my colleagues, I had missed ``probably the best concert George Benson has ever given'' (a tribute to guitarist Wes Montgomery at Carnegie Hall, with Benson, Jim Hall, Larry Coryell, and a host of other jazz greats), and what was sure to be ``the most worthwhile event in the festival'' (Stormy Weather -- a tribute to Ethel Waters, with Nell Carter, Carrie Smith, Bobby Short, and more).
Perhaps I did miss out, but I'm glad I took the time to check out, for instance, the rising David Murray Big Band -- an ensemble that pushes toward the outside harmonically while staying pretty close to the mainstream rhythmically. Tenor saxophonist Murray, who is a member of the highly acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet, has been creating a stir the past year or so with his 11-piece ensemble, for which he does most of the writing and arranging. Their appearance at Town Hall included several of Murray's compositions, along with two by Butch Morris, who conducted the ensemble. Murray has some great players; in fact, every one of them is exceptionally good, which is the group's greatest strength.
Its greatest weakness is Murray's writing, which had moments of lucidity but for the most part sounded muddled in the up-tempo passages and thin on the ballads. By comparison, Butch Morris's writing is stronger and more cohesive. Nevertheless, with musicians like Craig Harris on trombone, John Hicks on piano, Marvin Smith on drums, and Olu Dara on cornet, it's a formidable ensemble.
I bypassed the Wes Montgomery tribute to catch the Jeff Lorber and Stanley Clarke groups at Avery Fisher Hall. ``Loud'' is ``good'' seems to be the keynote with many jazz/rock fusion bands, and this concert was no exception. After my ears adjusted to the megadecibels, I was able to hear that Lorber has contributed some really pretty melodies and well-worked-out arrangements. There was some good soloing, too, notably from Cornelius Bumpus, whose robust tenor sax was unfortunately smothered by the ensemble, but whose ethereal flute lines were allowed to soar unhampered when the band quieted down a bit.
The talented electric bassist Stanley Clarke, in spite of his early musical associations with people like Chick Corea and Art Blakey, did a set that was long on rock hysteria and short on jazz. Clarke has, sadly, become little more than an entertainer. At one point he jumped down from the stage into the aisle, and the audience rushed him, screaming, grabbing at his clothes, and so on until the police made everyone sit down.
I forged ahead to St. Peter's Church (missing the Ethel Waters to hear the wild and crazy but skillful Microscopic Septet, along with the avant-garde quartet Curlew. The septet practically defies description, but here goes: The friend who accompanied me to this concert, after hearing one or two Microscopic selections, commented, ``Gee, these guys sound like they came down from Mars, heard the Glenn Miller Band once, and then tried to re-create what they heard!''
Close, very close. But to that I'd add a touch of Spike Jones, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, and a bad wedding band. Was this a put-on? You bet, but it grew on us as the night wore on. Looking like slightly nerdy versions of bankers, the group opened with ``The Lobster Parade,'' which sounded like its title, and proceeded deadpan through a bizarre set that ended with ``Take the Z Train.''
I chose Miles Davis over Ella Fitzgerald this year, and was happy with what I heard. Davis's rock image of the past few years has put off fans of his early work, including me, but I decided to set all that aside this year and just listen to the music. Davis came across as strong and technically secure in a setting that seems to provide him with a certain kind of energy that he needs, although at times it proceeded a bit too much like clockwork. John Scofield served him well on guitar, playing off Miles's licks and adding his own angular lines.
I slipped back into the mainstream for a minute to catch Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles, who both gave wonderful performances. Vaughan's voice is the wonder of the age -- like oceans of melted butter. And Charles is the soul of charm.
The only ``tribute'' program I heard was to pianist Bud Powell, which included some rare film footage of Powell in Europe Several pianists who have been influenced by Powell performed his music and other pieces. Among the best of these were Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, who both play with delicacy, clarity, and feeling. But why was Toshiko Akiyoshi -- one of Powell's most important disciples -- not invited to perform in this event?
By the way, after this year the Kool Jazz Festival will no longer be the Kool Jazz Festival. Wein and company will be searching for new funding, but with their track record, there should be no problem.