Boston jazzfest brought some great sounds, plus questions about what jazz is

The Boston Globe Jazz and Heritage Festival swung through this city over the last ten days, leaving behind memories and posing the question: ``What is this thing called jazz?'' With the addition of the word ``heritage'' to its title for its 15th annual outing here, the festival included such nonjazz hybrids as a night of Irish song and jokes and an evening with folk singer Joan Baez. And even on a couple of the jazz-billed evenings, one wondered about what possible connection with jazz was to be found here.

It's not a question one asked while listening to the outspoken bass lines of Eddie Jones, the pristine sticking of drummer Alan Dawson, or John Lewis's blues-mood piano playing. Nor did it occur, as tenor sax player Frank Foster, loping guitarist Freddie Green, and trombone player Benny Powell did their stuff.

These musicians played in tribute to the late Count Basie, before the Basie band itself came on. They straightforwardly reminded us what all the excitement was about when such numbers as ``One O'Clock Jump'' were first played. That, of course, is old news. The new news is that Basie's band in 1986 comes to us fine-tuned and full of life, thanks to Thad Jones, who has led it since last year but couldn't be on hand for these performances.

The Basie tribute set a standard sometimes met and occasionally even exceeded on other nights: most notably, when trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (after some false starts early in his performance) went on to reprise that literate and driving personal language he has fashioned over the years. Or with Mel Torme's singing, which winds up being a clinic on where to place the notes and what to do with the beat. Torme appeared with pianist George Shearing, who, gentle or mischievous, played with an unrestrained beauty.

The night featuring such local performers as the Jazz Harp Trio, singer Rebecca Parris, tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, and bassist John Lockwood also kept the unmistakable jazz message before our ears.

The message became muddier with Nina Simone in Symphony Hall. She once worked the jazz and blues side of the street with some consistency. Here, though, she used enough Brechtian monologues and classical piano work to make one wonder about the jazziness of it all, even if one was won over by her tour de force.

But what were we to make of the night that Miles Davis appeared on the bill with Michael Frank? Frank sang, and his group played their bouncy rhythms and vapid pop songs. Then Davis came out, tooting and bleating his horn amid techno-amplified rock music.

He has been doing this kind of thing for quite a while. But the performance made me think about the many sets Miles Davis played with people like John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner in the early 1960s. He was a jazz pioneer then, who often startled you with the departures he brought. And, just as with the stomping and wailing of the Basie band, no one needed to tell you what it was. You knew you were listening to this thing called jazz.

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