It has been a long time since I've heard any really good jazz and if I hadn't stopped spontaneously by Cleopatra's Needle in NYC this week, the time would have been longer. And you would have thought that wouldn't be the case considering the legends and veues I attended.
My first stop of the three was at the Village Vanguard to see Jeff Tain Watts. Tain has the problem all jazz drummers have, personality. Personality is supposed to be interspersed in the spaces between notes. But when it comes out ahead and behind accompanying musicians and tends to dominate, well that's not as musical as it should be. The evening was a lesson in virtuosity, of fast and furious energy - like when my son puts Guitar Hero on extreme and plays the fastest practice track. Sometimes it can be impressive, and that's what I witnessed. But it's a lot better if the music can be enjoyed.
I suppose I will always remember the evening by the expressions on Tain's droopy eyelids. Most of the time I watched the miraculous ability he has to drum up a perfect storm with an absolute Sphinx expression of emotionless dread. It was as if he had mastered the ability to resist the spirit within himself that moved his arms and legs around the kit. Percussion was happening around him, this Buddha, but he was somewhere else. Not tranquil but zombified sleep with eyes open. But then the magic would happen and in the moment of synchronicity Tain would come alive and do that thing, you know, that jazz musicians are supposed to do which is collaborate in the swinging mood. He would smile and then the cymbals would dance.
The problem of course is that as soon as the horn guy got off the stage and it was time for improvisation, the bassist and the piano player dropped into the background functionally, struggling as they did with the printed music on pages in front of them. Hell is being Tain's piano player, and homeboy was in the seventh level.
The Blue Note is another place, that for some reason I never got a chance to visit when I actually lived in NYC. But this time I had Rachelle Ferrell and chicken wings as she took the masses into the opiates of infinite possibilities.
I didn't know who she was. Now I know. She is the majestic aftermath of an emotional trainwreck, or perhaps shipwreck or better yet spacewreck. Imagine the matter-scatter of a collision between a gossamere solar powered butterfly-ship on kilometer long and a radioactive cobalt asteroid. What we watched was the slow motion spinning of the flinty splinters finding a new orbit and occasionally reflecting starlight.
It's rather sad to see five men trying so hard to make waffles out of the spaghetti of Ferrell's soul. The woman refused to end the song as she squeezed every last possible intimate whisper on the final notes. After three painfully drawn out endings, the audience began clapping sooner, without waiting for the absent physical clues. After Tain, though, it was refreshing to groove in a familiar beat and have the comfort of listening to a song, rather than a physics experiment.
Ferrell, whom I've never heard before - even her classics, has got the voice in the lower registers that I missed from NDegeOcello without the crimson political speech, but it too comes with its own gravity well of emotional baggage. It doesn't work. It's too late. Ferrell's mania would be appropriate for a wartime audience in a Blitz basement, but only serves as a soundtrack for the irony of smartphone protesters seeking healing. It was a night of moonbeams and invocations of spirits and unicorns for grownups.
On my way out the door, I caught Ferrell and another woman in the sort of embrace usually reserved for funerals. It's too bad she didn't sing the actual blues.
My cousin emoted the proper 'deep' and 'spiritual' refrain and the three of us (hmm now isn't that a mystery) headed uptown to Cleopatra's Needle which was convenient to my hotel.
Now I know where jazz lives in New York.
Perhaps it is because there is something ephemeral about the use of classical tools in the hands of youth, like inheriting at long last Dad's Mercedes that makes for the respect of the form. But a dozen anonymous young musicians just pwned all of the grizzled vet of the prior experiences with renditions of standards that just kick the self-serving sorrow of the elder two into the bottomless cistern. This Is Jazz! they proclaimed, and they made it so.
There were there were six at the level of outstanding. The first was the young lady in the green turtleneck who is on her way to reminding us what the vibraphone is all about. She plays it with a jazz piano sensibility that is uncanny and melodic. There is almost nothing to compare it to, what a fabulous invention.
The young singer has cloned off Ella Fitzgerald - and it is something she will hear the rest of her days so long as she only dresses like and is determined to have nothing else in common with Erika Badu but complexion. I sat there with my jaw dropped. The lady has power. I sat for 100 minutes with Farrell waiting for her to belt a note. I got two notes per hour. Here, it just kept coming, washing over us in velvet waves. You wish that there were somebody anywhere on the planet who could write her new lyrics. As well as she could scat, nothing could bring us closer to the truth of the torch than the ballads crying out to be carried on her voice. I must find and name this woman because we have not heard this voice in a generation. And my God she not only works the band but she works a pair of denim jeans like a super model. Everybody needs to know her before she becomes Irene Cara.
The piano player here with the bushy eyebrows and the dynamic shoulders remembers that jazz is a conversation best held by those who are not merely verbose but witty and wise. He has the of vocabulary and the humility not to make it about himself but man... smart fingers, smart fingers. He did what homebot at the Vanguard never once managed to pull off, switched up the tempo a measure and took us down a salsa path when the moment was spicy and off atonal when the groove required it, and yes echoed the melody. It's the interplay, that's what the swing is all about brother. Thank you. Thank you.
Sharp. Bright. And that incredible thing she does with her tongue. Take your mind to the kung fu ballistics of the first Kill Bill and the girl with the flying chain in the Tokyo nightclub and imagine all of the acrobatic martial art converted into a trumpet solo. The young lady who tore the house down wore red. Her energy is fierce dynamic precision. It is so distinct that it makes almost every other jazz soloist sound overblown and manic, sweaty and profane. Of all the performers passing through the jam session that Saturday morning, her style is the most complete. She is phenomenal.
And then there was the big bad wolf. At first I wasn't sure, but then I began to be convinced and then in a moment I knew it was true. The man on the sax was bored with the standard scale and did everything in the parallel off-kilter key AND improvized like Coltrane with chord changes in every arpeggio AND hit high registers with blinding speed and accuracy. The man was thinking so incredibly quickly that it was scary - when it worked. Lightning only has to strike once. Ouch.
The clarinet has been punked and we all know it. G Who Must Not Be Named now has a nemesis. Thank God for The Kid. He can bring the clarinet back to the front of a jazz band doing the straight ahead thing with the sort of omniverous competency of a true band leader. He plays all the angles swiftly, never much changing tempo though, and he too is thinking quickly. You could tell everybody's comfortable with him in the lead. Nicely done, son.
There were more. The silky smooth trumpet girl in demin with the tone to match Clifford, the almost persnickety well groomed dude who reminded me of a younger me who had a bad night on his vintage trumpet, the dude on the 'bone who was doing something squeaky weird on the high notes and trying to make it into a style, the elbow flying drummer nicely banging, the competent bassist who did some mind-bending chord fingering, the redhead on the trumpet just slightly behind the beat who could do some really killer stuff when he gets his other training blended well into straight ahead.
It was a remarkable night of music - one I will never forget. Much props to my cousin and R, for the suggestion to go uptown.