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James Newton and Bennie Maupin: The Eric Dolphy Tribute at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Posted by on Jun 7, 2008 One Comment

The jazz story of the year isn’t the discovery of some tapes by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s not some long-lost recordings of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall. No, the jazz story of the year—and I’m serving this up to you on a platter, Downbeat—is James Newton’s recent acquisition of unheard-of handwritten sheet music by Eric Dolphy, and his incredible, incredible group with Bennie Maupin that debuted tonight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

There are certain works of art which we assume are too unique to ever be re-created. A stage play of Nights of Cabiria, say, or maybe a life-size sculpture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa—no one would attempt these things, because the originals are so distinctly their own. Eric Dolphy’s music is in this same echelon. By honing through incessant practice his immediately identifiable tone and stylistic approach, Dolphy ensured that when he died at age 36, no one would dare follow in his wake. People talk about jazz players having their own style. Eric Dolphy had his own language.

The flutist James Newton came into possession of Dolphy’s handwritten manuscripts through his teacher Hale Smith, a close friend of Dolphy’s with whom the great saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist deposited his trove of original sheet music days before he left for Europe with Charles Mingus in 1964, never to return. Now in fading health, Smith recently phoned Newton to entrust him with the collection. His instructions to Newton were simple: “You gotta take care of this.”

Tonight at the Raven Theater, James Newton and his quintet faced a huge challenge: how to present this music as Dolphy might have played it, when Dolphy himself would have presented it differently each time? Rising to the challenge of immersing themselves in another language, Newton’s group didn’t just re-create the music of Eric Dolphy. In twists and turns, they brought to life the fiery spirit, the adventurousness, the emotional resonance and the boundless optimism so prevalent in Dolphy’s muse, and they did so with both skillful prescience and loving warmth. One could close their eyes and easily imagine that Dolphy himself was in the house.

The concert opened with an Eric Dolphy composition, unrecorded and unheard in public before tonight, titled “Boycott.” In a low moan on his bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin introduced a slow solo figure. Soon, he conversed in tight harmony with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. Drummer Billy Hart crawled around the notes in a noteless manifestation of Dolphy’s eeriness, and Maupin, at the end of his solo, began beating out quiet rhythms by attacking the keys on his instrument. With otherworldly overtones and harmonic growls, Newton burst into the song on flute, the instrumental equivalent of a human cry, and eventually brought everyone back around to the slow, haunting theme.

If the afterlife exists, then Dolphy was watching over this premiere, caressing his beard and smiling widely.

The quintet played largely from Dolphy’s seminal Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, with each and every player perfectly filling their predecessor’s shoes. Hart absolutely nailed Tony Williams’ free horse-clop rhythms of the album’s title track, and the “new” head to “Straight Up and Down,” with the famous theme expanded and chopped, was an inspired addition to Dolphy’s exciting voicing for two instruments. During “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” Newton bent a note on his flute to the heavens while vibist Jay Hoggard ended a sensitive solo with a serendipitous cymbal crash from Hart. Magic was in the air.

The apex of the evening, however, was Out to Lunch‘s “Gazzelloni” (which, Newton told me afterwards, incredibly exists arranged for strings in the piles of Dolphy’s sheet music). Fully inhabiting the music, Hoggard gave a purely lyrical and possessed solo on the vibes, full of unstoppable ideas. Not to be outdone, Maupin followed with a ferocious unleashing of long, circular lines and inspired conception on soprano sax. The applause at the end was impulsive, grateful, and long.

After Maupin’s original composition “Equal Justice” on the piano and the blues “245” from Outward Bound, the group left the stage and the house lights came up. Lights be damned, the audience’s applause refused to die, and the quintet came out for one final number: “The Madrig Speaks, the Panther Walks,” appropriately chosen from Last Date, and appropriately earning a standing ovation.

The importance of this group’s project cannot be underestimated—in the lobby afterwards, people were overheard asking to touch Dolphy’s original charts—and their authority in Dolphy’s realm will soon be known to the world through an album on ECM, with Herbie Hancock signed on as a participant. Newton says there’s “a whole lotta stuff” in the collection of Dolphy’s sheet music he has yet to adapt, and tonight’s concert was just the first of many thrilling performances to come.

Sound the clarion call. The Scripture According to Dolphy awaits. “This is the first time we’ve played anywhere in the Universe,” said Newton, “and we thank you.”

Don Byron at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Posted by on Jun 3, 2008 One Comment

Though billed as “Bug Music for Juniors,” both the seven-year-old child and the fifty-something-year-old man on either side of me at the Raven Theater smiled and bounced their heads last night as Don Byron launched into “Siberian Sleighride.”

The youngster was thrilled that the cartoons were back up on the movie projector screen in the form of Meatless Flyday, a wacky 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon, and the man was thrilled at hearing one of Raymond Scott’s bounciest compositions revived by Scott’s greatest acolytes.

Holding court on a demonstrative jazz concert, meant mostly for kids, Byron spent equal time explaining chords, syncopation, and why musicians write on piano as he did playing the part-klezmer, part-swing, part-avant-garde jazz that’s his trademark. Watching the New York clarinetist explain jazz to kids, however, was a performance in itself.

“So you can kinda hear it, right?” Byron asked the kids, after playing select passages from both Raymond Scott and John Kirby. “Raymond Scott’s all wild, but John Kirby’s more elegant. He’s like, chillin’ at the club, drinkin’ Cristal. More slick, smooth, and cool. He’s like P. Diddy—you know, the way P. Diddy would hang—draped in nice clothes, clean clothes.”

One by one, Byron introduced the instruments in his sextet, conducting the proceedings like a game show announcer and ending with a drum solo that turned into an off-the-cuff version of “Shaft.” During “Powerhouse,” Scott’s most famous tune, a toddler danced in front of the stage, and Byron played off of its vocal noises during the breaks.

Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons screened in the background, as did old film reels of jazz bands; Byron also spoke at length about the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington, whose “The Mooch” opened up eventually into a free-for-all blowing session—and into the Byron that fans of records like his excellent Ivey-Divey are used to.

After a few solos during “The Mooch,” and after applauding for each one, the seven-year-old next to me turned and said, “We’ve already clapped, like, four times for this song!”

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“No.”

“Because they’re not reading from music. They’re making it up as they go along.”

“You mean they don’t know what they’re playing? Why do they do that?”

I was stumped. “Because,” I told him. “It’s jazz.”

Charles Lloyd at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

Posted by on Jun 1, 2008 One Comment

When I worked at the Last Record Store, and pored through people’s record collections on a daily basis, I routinely flipped through countless copies of LPs by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There’s such a glut of these albums in the Bay Area that they’re not worth much, and I’d have to break the news gently to a daily stream of baby boomers that we had little use for what to their minds was the greatest music of the century.

There’d almost always be a copy in these collections of Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower, which seemed strange to me until I read Bill Graham’s autobiography, Bill Graham Presents. Say what you will about Bill Graham—and you’d probably be right—but Graham truly excelled at the lost art of adventurous booking; placing Neil Young and Miles Davis on the same bill, say, or booking Gabor Szabo together with Jimi Hendrix.

Charles Lloyd, who Graham loved, found himself booked at the Fillmore along such names of the day as Chuck Berry, the Butterfield Blues Band, Jeff Beck, and the Young Rascals—and eventually wound up guilty by association, in my mind, to It’s A Beautiful Day. Lloyd to me became just another face in the crowd, and in all the times I listened to Forest Flower, I had the same dismissal: it’s close, but it’s not Coltrane.

Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Charles Lloyd has changed. One thing is certain.

I was such an idiot.

Last night at the Jackson Theater, Charles Lloyd and his quintet gave an utterly transforming performance. Aided by Jason Moran, Ruben Rogers, Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain, Lloyd led his group on a frighteningly inventive sojourn which plunged into unchartered depth and redefined the rules of collective creativity. Amidst a furious storm of talent, the centered Lloyd remarked to the crowd, “It’s better to stick with the ship—and go down with it, if necessary.”

Now 70, Lloyd still plays in the great searching vein of late-era Coltrane, although his solos aren’t an aortic torrent of bitten reeds and quickly-changing ideas but rather more subtly crafted meditations. Last night, lifting his horn and marching in place while switching between tenor sax, alto flute, and a Hungarian instrument, similar to a clarinet, called a tárogató, he brought the audience to numerous pinnacles; or, in his own words, “up there to those elixirs.”

Dazzling pianist Jason Moran was responsible for just as many highlights, with a number of propulsive and chord-driven Gershwin-esque solos that incredibly bent the rules without breaking. Zakir Hussain, sitting in on tablas, added a rich texture that never overpowered the group, and bassist Ruben Rogers held the mast of simultaneous improvisation together with a solid, steady hand.

Lloyd and the group were unbelievable—but it was really all about Eric Harland.

So open to different paths and yet so confident of his own, drummer Eric Harland stole the show as the main superprocessor of the group’s collective thought. With impeccable touch and flawless taste, Harland not only drummed—he actually deciphered the conversation on stage into the most representational and delightful stickwork this side of Jack DeJohnette.

Given the open space offered by Lloyd’s group, Harland responded keenly to every moment on the stand, playing ahead of and behind the beat; keeping time with a footpedal connected to a tambourine; switching to piano when Lloyd directed him, mid-song, and plucking the strings inside while poking hard low notes; going head-to-head with Hussain in rapid-fire rhythm duets; executing ballet-like maneuvers while utilizing every inch of the drum kit; and always, always knowing where the song was headed and when to suddenly stop.

As if to acknowledge his blessed constituents, Lloyd throughout the night placed his hands in a prayer-like position, clasped his arms across his heart, and bowed. He also gratefully thanked the attentive audience, who leapt to their feet and handed him roses at the night’s end.

“When folks come with simple living and high thinking,” Lloyd said to the people, “it always helps us out.”

The Cure at the HP Pavilion in San Jose

Posted by on Jun 1, 2008 One Comment

We started taking bets on what the Cure’s opening song would be. “‘The Kiss,'” I said, “it’s gotta be ‘The Kiss.’ Can you imagine how awesome that’d be?”

When the lights went down and faint chimes tinkled over the stage, I knew I’d guessed wrong. The bells, the chimes, could it. . . would they. . . oh my God, for real? Like an avalanche, the Cure laid down the opening chords of “Plainsong,” the first song off Disintegration, and I squeezed my eyelids shut, balled my fists, and let out an ecstatic cry of release. And I pretty much didn’t stop until the end of the night—37 songs later.

Until Wednesday night’s show, I was never a total superfreaky Cure fan. Over the past 20 years, I’ve loved them incrementally—album by album, song by song—but never signed up as one of the fully obsessed. That’s all in the past now. Show me where to sign. On Wednesday night, during a staggering three-hour and fifteen-minute set, the Cure was even more than a great band: they were the greatest band in the universe.

Superfreaky fans abounded, that’s for sure. Around us, there was The Reciter, who blankly spoke every lyric back to Robert Smith as if it were scripture; The Dancer, who occasionally made his way out into the aisle to do some ’80s prom dancing before being shown back to his seat; and The Hoochie, a girl who kept the ticket stub stuffed in her very-exposed cleavage and who at one point stripped down to her bra, singing wildly.

As for me, I stood in awe and sang along to an onslaught of fantastic song after fantastic song—for over three hours! Take that, Bruce Springsteen!

More photos and set list below. (more…)

Bonnie Raitt at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 31, 2008

(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)

Acknowledging that early in her career she would “never have been able to set foot” in a tent housing a jazz festival, Bonnie Raitt very aptly closed the four day run at Sonoma Jazz+, constantly educating the audience in musical history and, in the process, giving the capacity crowd the party they were looking for.

While the festival seems to be moving more and more away from traditional jazz, Raitt brought an amazing band and some well-suited musical guests in paying tribute to blues, rock, reggae, r&b and jazz—“all the tributaries and roots of not just jazz,” she said, “but what we call good music.”

Bonnie Raitt has worked through the years with drummer Ricky Fattar and bassist extraordinaire James “Hutch” Hutchinson, but the addition a few years ago of George Marinelli on guitar has become the perfect compliment to Raitt’s slide guitar and rock and rhythmic style—expertly filling the voids with single notes, short riffs and all-out leads without taking the attention away from center stage. But by far, Raitt’s band has profited the most with the addition of Jon Cleary on keyboards. His swampy New Orleans jazz/roots/funk style is the base from which he can also deliver rock, r&b and even those dark, smoky bar ballads, wrenching true human emotion out of every single note from his keyboard.

Raitt’s set list drew from all along the timeline of her lengthy career and showcased a varied cross section of musical styles. While Raitt has not written the majority of her recorded material, she has a gift for choosing other artists’ songs, no matter what the genre, and making them uniquely her own. Bonnie’s all out rockin’ version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” was early in the set, soon followed by the r&b gem from Isaac Hayes, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” She introduced it as a song about “how messed up love can be—and I’ve been makin’ a livin’ off it ever since.”

Working some reggae into the evening, she did “Premature,” her recent duet with Toots and the Maytals, calling Toots Hibbert “a great songwriter and friend.” She then brought out her first guest of the evening, Maia Sharp, duetting on a song from her recent Souls Alike album, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”

Returning to her self-titled debut album of 1971, she paid tribute to the pioneering blues singer of the 20’s, Sippie Wallace, performing an acoustic slide version of “Women Be Wise.” Cleary’s honky tonk piano solo was a perfect fit and enthralled even Raitt—who waltzed over and laid her elbow on the piano, propped her chin in her hand and seemed as amazed as the rest of the audience at Cleary’s ability.

As advertised, slide master Roy Rogers made his first appearance on stage next, doubling up with Raitt on an absolutely incendiary acoustic version of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” Raitt is one of the better slide guitarists in the business, but even she was thrilled to have Rogers alongside showcasing his unique style. After the song, and the well-deserved standing ovation, she remarked to Rogers, “Your wife is a lucky woman…”

Raitt included John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” bringing Sharp back on stage to join the band, the four backup vocalists soaring on the choruses. The lead track from her most recent album, “I Will Not Be Broken,” finished with a fade into some soft gospel vocal vamps, which led into “Something to Talk About, ” the first of two roadhouse rocking set closers. Exhorting drummer Fattar to “Keep it going, Ricky,” the band finished with “Love Sneakin’ up On You.” The all-ages audience, long ago tired of doing Dan Hicks’ “barstool boogie in their seats,” had filled the aisles in all manner of dance and wasn’t at all ready for the party to be over. Thunderous applause filled the huge but now-intimate tent and brought the band back for a four-song encore.

Noting that it was “not exactly a dance tune,” Raitt, absent her guitar and perched on a stool with a single spot accenting her flame red hair, rode Cleary’s sensuous keyboard work into the beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” While known for her guitar chops and rough edged vocals, Raitt took everyone on a spine-tingling soul search for love never returned, the raw passion fueled no doubt by having admitted in the past that she’d been on “both sides of this one.” And if Bonnie’s vocals didn’t break your heart, Cleary’s closing piano solo finished the job and brought the hard truth of the title into plain view.

Staying in the smoky bar-like vein, and again working with Sharp, Raitt came as close to jazz as she would get on the night through Sharp’s “The Bed I Made.” As suited as Raitt’s vocal intensity is to the song, it was again the musicians who shone, Hutchinson working a nice bass melody, Cleary wringing emotion out of every note and Sharp adding a sexy, breathy baritone sax solo to close out the tune.

Kicking it back into high gear, Raitt strapped on her guitar and pronounced, “Yes, I’m ready!” and brought back Rogers, the song’s co-writer, for their thumping and chunking “Gnawin’ on It,” going shoulder to shoulder with him so she could watch him “blow the windows out of the place.” And that he did.

Always paying tribute and giving credit to others, Raitt dedicated the last song to the late Phil Elwood, the longtime jazz/blues reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner and later the Chronicle, calling him “one of the best friends music ever had.” And in her unending praise to those who paved the way for her, she introduced a tune she’s done through the years with Charles and Ruth Brown, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” A rocking, rollicking shuffle blues, it was the perfect opportunity for Raitt to let each of the musicians shine one more time, including her brother, David Raitt, on the harmonica.

In welcoming the sold-out audience at the start—and make no mistake, this show was the draw of this year’s festival—Raitt, performing close to her real home, said she felt like she was with family. No doubt the crowd, as it reluctantly filed out, was feeling the kinship—“Souls Alike,” if you will—and hoping for a reunion much, much sooner than later.

Robert Meline

Diana Krall at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 31, 2008 2 Comments

“I’m all pumped up full of steroids,” croaked a bronchitis-ridden Diana Krall to a sold-out Sonoma crowd on Saturday night, “so you’re gonna have to put up with my shitty piano playing the whole show.”

A woman in the audience yelled something about smoking.

“Oh—do you want me to stop talking?” asked Krall. “Is it like nails on a chalkboard. . . or too sexy you can’t stand it?”

It speaks volumes about Krall’s immense popularity that during an absolutely classic performance in Sonoma, her singing voice never wavered in the slightest—in spite of the fact that Krall’s speaking voice, which offered an ongoing stream of self-deprecating quips, sounded more like Edward G. Robinson. One could interpret this either as the resilience of a seasoned vocalist or one of the fringe benefits of having, in Kralls’ own words, a “smoky, sultry, cool sound.” Bronchitis would level most singers, but for Krall—who along with nighttime film-noir pianist-singers Holly Cole and Patricia Barber rarely, if ever, pushes her vocal chords—it never once hindered the show.

Though Krall acknowledged her bronchitis (announcing and then slipping into a Tom Waits impersonation during “Exactly Like You”), most of the time it worked in her favor. A fading whisper of the word “darling” during a spellbinding solo version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” a particular husk to “The Look of Love”—these touches only added to what she does best.

With a few stride-piano intros—to “Frim Fram Sauce” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You”—that faltered greatly in tempo, Krall’s piano playing may have been lessened, but not enough to keep her from quoting Charlie Parker songs in solos which played well into her rhythm section’s impeccable backing. But it was her descriptions of motherhood and of breastfeeding her two children—she had twins a year and a half ago with Elvis Costello—which truly tickled the mostly middle-aged crowd.

“They’re both grown up now,” she joked. “They’re out in the hotel playing cards and smoking cigars. They look like their dad!” (“I’m sorry!” shouted the woman in front of me.)

At the end of the night, after a practically begged-for encore at the hands of a long standing ovation, Krall had triumphed. She even cast aside her sad, tortured persona for a split second—at the end of the bowed bass solos, sharp rim shots and dazzling guitar lines during the night’s closer “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” the 43-year-old mother squirmed on the piano bench, opened her mouth, and squealed like a little girl.

Photos and set list below. (more…)

Taylor Eigsti Quartet at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 27, 2008

Taylor Eigsti talked nervously. Wouldn’t you, in front of a 3,000-seat tent with only a few hundred people in it? His buddy, Julian Lage, looked at him, looked out into the expanse. Laughed.

Then Eigsti sat down, punching out spare, discordant notes on his piano, as if in a musical deterioration of how eerie the whole thing was. Lage responded by picking out high-pitched chirps from his guitar strings below the bridge, and eventually, Ben Williams and Eric Harland sidled in. Out of all this, a song eventually self-sculpted: Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” full of wit, verve, dramatics and a fleeting debt to Bill Evans.

Another amazing night by Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage was underway.

For some reason, I turn into a 1960s television host when talking about Eigsti and Lage. These kids, they’re a real gas, just righteously groovy. I go ape for ‘em, you dig?

I wasn’t alone: at the finish of the group’s next tune, “Time Lines,” a thundering, raging storm of full-fingered jazz, the crowd jumped immediately to their feet. There’s something so beautiful and weird and gratifying about watching a huge tent that’s only 30-percent full going absolutely bananas for the relative unknowns, and especially when those unknowns are ruling as hard as Eigsti and Lage.

Eigsti is 23, Lage is 20, and people can talk all they want about young players only studying theory and technique and recycling old ideas in place of emotion—it’s just not true with these two. They’ve got an emotional depth that goes acres deep. I’d seen this on display as a duo before, but with Williams and Harland they were a powerhouse. Though the two did play some duets together, the bluesy “And What if I Don’t” by Herbie Hancock and the original composition “True Colors”—and offered an introspective take on the surprise indie-rock tune of the set, the Eels’ “Not Ready Yet” (!)—the two truly shined in a full-force setting.

Through every open door, both Lage and Eigsti tiptoed carefully; the majority of their solos began with sparse hesitation, a note here, a run there. Feeling out the field. Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge” saw Lage open his solo with palm-muting intermittent bent notes on the fretboard, which slowly unraveled into more loosely muted hammer-ons, which eventually unraveled into a full-speed-ahead trek both in and out of the scale, going by so fast it was impossible to completely grasp.

Harland must have been in on this plan, too, because he’d take eights like this: 1) rubbing his stick end on the bell of his ride, and 2) same thing but with some bass drum, and 3) rim shots mixed with toms building up to 4) ending by wailing away. Mas y mas.

Yes, these dizzyingly executed extended crescendos abounded, even amongst all four members. “Caravan,” the set’s closer, opened with what Lage calls “my only toy”—a delay pedal, used with flat-fifths and slides and layered rhythms—while Eigsti reached inside the grand piano and dampened the strings with one hand, pounding out fast notes with the other. I’m of the belief that there’s no lousy way to play “Caravan,” but this was on some other shit entirely; Eigsti’s marathon solo, in particular, was unleashed like he was hungry, ravenous, stabbing at the keys. It was so impactful that the crowd started cheering in the middle and didn’t let up until the triumphant end minutes later.

Eigsti’s group—this same quartet—is playing tonight at Yoshi’s in Oakland and tomorrow at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Go, go, go. Also, Eigsti has a new album out this week called Let It Come To You, and it features incredible performances that come damn close to capturing his live show. So well, in fact, that I’ll forgive the goatee.

Also, be sure to check out Lage’s trio when they open for Charlie Haden and Joshua Redman at the Raven Theater on June 7 as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

Herbie Hancock at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 24, 2008 One Comment

Herbie Hancock is a jazz legend. It’s a fact. You can’t strip him of it.

At what’s billed as a jazz festival, you’d think people would be into Herbie Hancock. But after his first song last night, the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged Wine Country dilettantes who’ve been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.

This, I’d think, might be slightly embarrassing for the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival, who have suffered as many exhortations to simply change their name as Hilary Clinton has to drop out of the primaries. Frankly, I’m overwhelmingly for it. If you’re going to represent yourself as a “jazz” festival but then book mostly R&B, blues, or pop acts, you’re not only insulting an original American art form but also, I might add, essentially defying a Congressional decree calling for the recognition and preservation of jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.

Herbie Hancock, along with Julian Lage and Taylor Eigsti, represents the true jazz minority at this year’s festival, and Hancock occupies a decidedly unique place in jazz, however mainstream it may be. Though most of what he’s done lately falls into classical or pop realms, he has constantly pushed, in his music, the jazz ideal of exploration and possibility. No amount of Starbucks-friendly collaborations with Corrine Bailey Rae can taint that fact, and in a twisted way, his forays into funk fusion, industrial breakdance music, and other non-jazz idioms actually support it. If jazz is a journey, then Hancock is an overarching participant, straying from the designated path with equal parts vision and experimentation.

Example: while Hancock introduced his second number last night, the equally classic “Watermelon Man,” he announced that he and his quintet would tackle it with a few variations. First, they’d incorporate a 17-beat count into the song, based on African music. Second, they’d introduce one extra beat at a time, until they reached 17 beats. Oh, and another thing: they’d bring out a DJ to play turntables on the song.

The exodus continued.

What followed was an entirely creative take on “Watermelon Man,” with bassist Marcus Miller holding down the solid groove while Hancock switched from grand piano, to synthesizer, to. . . wait a second. . . a Key-tar?! Yep—Hancock and his harmonica player traded harp and Key-tar licks, the DJ threw in some scratching and the guitarist played wild octave-pedal scales. In its offbeat and original way, it was jazz—and the idea of jazz—at its finest, and to be fair to the crowd, the multitudes of people who stuck around gave him the first of many deserved standing ovations.

A trio of Joni Mitchell songs from Hancock’s what-the-hell Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year River: The Joni Letters followed, with vocalists Lizz Wright and Sonya Kitchell delivering stellar versions of “Edith and the Kingpin” and “The River,” the latter ending with angelic harmonies between the two. However, Kitchell’s take on “All I Want,” a breathy, sexy rendition, was a misfire compared to Mitchell’s laughing, playful original.

I actually listened to Mitchell’s Blue before coming to the show, and “All I Want” is such a great, weird dichotomy of a song—it’s full of longing and loneliness, but it’s also buoyant and optimistic, like Joni’s looking towards the day that she’ll be happy, feel free and knit sweaters. As the listener, you think that day could be tomorrow and the sweater she’ll knit is just for you. Kitchell sang it instead like there was no hope in sight—just a lot of self-wallowing and bluesy inflection.

Hancock himself played fantastically, but the greater impression left was that of a scientist in a jazz lab, professorially dissecting each number with sheet music in hand and explaining how the quintet would approach each new discovery. Introducing “Jean Pierre,” a vehicle for bassist Miller, he even joked about the song’s sketchy genesis. “This is a composition by the great Miles Davis,” he said, to scattered cheers. “You think Miles wrote it alone? Who knows!” (for further reading on Davis’ notorious habit of plagiarizing other’s songs, I recommend the book Shades of Blue by Bill Moody).

With Hancock’s classic Blue Note era covered by “Canteloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man,” with the Headhunters era covered via the encore “Chameleon,” and with the pop era covered with the Joni Mitchell songs, there was only one stone left unturned in Hancock’s set. I would have never thought he’d play it, not in a million years.

“Are you ready?!” he shouted. “For the first time in 25 years, are. . . you. . . ready?!”

And with that, he strapped on the Key-tar, motioned to the DJ, and led the band in a run-down of the great breakdance jam I used to backspin to when I was nine years old: “Rockit.” The crowd erupted. It wasn’t exactly jazz, but it felt good, and all egregious festival misnomers aside, that’s what any good festival is supposed to offer.

Al Green at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 24, 2008

“There’s people wonderin’,” said an unstoppable Al Green on stage in Sonoma last night, “if the Reverend Al’s still got it!”

And then, to answer his own hypothesis, in the high falsetto that’s conceived thousands of babies and still melts ladies’ hearts:

“Yeeeeeeeeaaaahhhhhh, bay-beee!”

With an 11-piece band, a hailstorm of energy and verve and most importantly, a voice that’s still pure quicksilver, Al Green at that point had already proved to the Sonoma crowd that he’s definitely still got it. The exchange existed, rather, as part of an extended love-fest with the audience—showy but unscripted—that started with his passing out roses to the ladies in the front row and continued in rambunctious call-and-response fashion like the Baptist masses that Green conducts most Sundays to the public at his church outside of Memphis.

“I love you,” he said. “I love you. I love you. I love Sonoma.” Then again, singing: “I love Sonoma. I’m gonna make my own song. I looove Sonoommaa. I looove Sonoomm“—the falsetto kicked in—”AAAAAAAAAHHHH!

The feeling, to say the least, was mutual. “Let’s Stay Together” inspired a bumrush to the stage, putting security in a tizzy, and “Here I Am” caused massive spillover outside of the too-small cordoned dance areas down the side of the festival’s gargantuan tent. During “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” Green held the congregation spellbound in a masterful, heart-wrenching torpor; that one song alone boosted last night’s lovemaking in Sonoma County by 20 percent.

During Green’s high-energy, 50-minute set, there were only a few clunky moments. Green barreled through an unnecessary medley of classic soul hits—”I Can’t Help Myself,” “My Girl,” “Bring it on Home to Me,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “The Dock of the Bay,” “Wonderful World”—which would have been much better had he picked one and sang it in its entirety (I nominate “Bring it on Home to Me.”) This led into a lacking “Tired of Being Alone” featuring Green singing pieces of the song but mostly playing with the crowd while his 11-piece band vamped in the background, and after an extended “Love and Happiness” closed the set, Green’s backup singer lamely ran down a Wikipedia entry of his achievements: “Al Green, ladies and gentlemen! Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Member of the Soul Hall of Fame! Member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame!”

In the overall picture, however, these details will have to accept their status as minor gripes, fully overshadowed by Green’s talent, personality, legend, and desire to give all that he is to his audience. “The lady back there that’s the head of this whole thing made me promise to keep my little ‘A’ on the stage,” he said at one point, clearly delighted with himself as he walked like a disobedient child down the front steps to his adoring crowd, “and here I am. . .  on my way down again!” And then the falsetto, again, directly into the eyes of a sea of swooning females.

Yes. Al Green has still got it.

Kool & the Gang at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 23, 2008 One Comment

“I think my favorite line in the song is ‘She’s a lady,'” I said. “I mean, ‘she’ wouldn’t be anything but a lady, right?”

“No, because ‘lady’ is used as a term of distinction. Not all females are ladies. Plus, that’s only half the line: it goes, ‘She’s a lady that you really want to know.'”

“Oh, right! ‘Somehow I’ve got to let my feelings show. . .'”

We were strolling towards the tent in Sonoma, talking about “Fresh,” the still-stupendous Kool & the Gang jam which played for one blissful summer on constant repeat in my house growing up. I was 10 when the album Emergency came out, and I spent hours staring into the cover, checking out Kool & the Gang’s ’80s outfits, thinking the same thoughts that any 10-year-old thinks when they stare into an album cover: Those dudes are in a band. That’s so cool.

So I suppose we could have left happy after Kool & the Gang hit the stage in Sonoma with “Fresh.” But the song, complete with synchronized dance movements and choice poses, heralded what I’d figured would be the case with Kool & the Gang: they were out to deliver a totally scripted, well-oiled show of role-playing and crowd pleasing. This can be seen, in a lot of ways, a schlocky Vegas gimmick. But in another light, it’s also a lost art in the history of R&B, where great “show bands” or “stage bands”—even small, regional funk ensembles—used to never hit the stage without a perfectly-rehearsed set of joint-jumpin’ dances, perfectly executed breakdowns, and sewn-up patter.

To a standing-room crowd out on the dance floor, many of them in disco outfits and huge afro wigs, Kool & the Gang put on a dazzling show, not ignoring the early heavy funk that established them in the first place: “Jungle Boogie,” naturally, “Funky Stuff,” of course, and the song that every desperate DJ leans on to get people moving out on the floor—”Hollywood Swinging.”

Lite-rock hits like “Joanna” and “Cherish” mixed with disco hits like “Get Down on It,” which led into the most predictable encore in the universe: “Celebration.”

Dare I say that a little bit of jazz even crept into their show?

During “Funky Stuff,” everyone in the band except the guitarist took extended solos. Later on, saxophonist Dennis Thomas mentioned how they’d all grown up on Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And. . . well, okay, that’s about it. The rest was pure boogie.

The tent was really going nuts dancing and screaming, which Kool & the Gang acknowledged during the calypso-flavored “Island Shake,” bringing select participants from the crowd to strut their stuff on stage. First it was two ladies—you can see the results in the photo above—and then it was two guys, who actually used their time in the spotlight to square dance. I’m not kidding.

“Those guys,” the singer joked, “ain’t never been to the island.”

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P.S. My 10-year-old self can’t let the moment pass: you gotta check out the video for “Misled,” from Emergency, starring Kool & the Gang when they still had JT Taylor singing. Part Thriller, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an amazing (and really, really low-budget) time capsule of MTV during the Reagan era: