The piece began slowly. “Something acknowledging Hank Jones,” Geri Allen had announced. Her fingers fluttered over the piano keys, evocative of Jones’ intro to “Love for Sale,” a tribute that even in its sparest moments echoed throughout the sold-out Raven Theater.
The music took a slight turn to Allen’s “Swamini,” written in remembrance of Alice Coltrane, whereupon Ravi Coltrane made his entrance from the wings. Off-mic, he eased his sax into a sobering moan, then gradually unfolded his tone to fill one of the many open spaces in an inspired, unaccompanied cadenza.
Into the stage lights then walked Charlie Haden, a frequent Hank Jones collaborator, steering the suite to his “For Turiya,” an elegy first recorded as a duet with Alice Coltrane 35 years ago. All together, the trio comprised a suite of angular nuance, and after 14 minutes, in the moment between the final note and the audience’s applause, the history of these three musicians with those who’ve left this world hung in the air.
All three have played in far feistier settings (famously, Allen and Haden with Ornette Coleman, acknowledged in the set by “Lonely Woman”), but perhaps time and loss have tempered the pace. The ballad standard “What’ll I Do” was caressed softly by Coltrane, but for most of the material he seemed to be pulling along Haden’s languorous playing, which relied substantially on open strings, into more upbeat territory. Alas, it never followed.
The concert hadn’t started so somberly—in fact, the crowd had spontaneously sung “Happy Birthday” to Allen—but the drumless trio carried on in slow tempos and ruminative passages throughout the remainder of the set. This was nuanced music for closing one’s eyes and listening, a sublime jazz suited to the hot wine country evening.
I overheard someone remark that the show was “very Healdsburg,” by which they meant unchallenging and smooth, but the tag doesn’t fit. Meanwhile over in the Healdsburg Hotel lobby, Craig Handy played his guts out with George Cables to a packed, whooping crowd. The next day, the unstoppable Dafnis Prieto played drums like a car on five tanks of gas before Jason Moran and Bill Frisell dissected the very concept of music with otherworldly improvisations. Earlier at the Raven, the Healdsburg High School jazz band had torn through gutsy versions of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar,” Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”
Oh, and about that podunk little high school jazz band you thought you could show up late to miss? Count me among the many minds blown by the miraculous Kai Devitt-Lee, staring out over the crowd while unfolding incredible solos and inventive, angular backing on guitar. “This guy’s gotta be a guest artist,” I thought, but nope–he’s 16 years old and a marvel to behold. Get used to the name, folks.
Woke up yesterday and groaned at Pitchfork’s top albums, unsurprising since they lost all credibility with The Knife in 2006. Read about the recording industry’s strange new stance on downloading, which is to rely on Internet providers to do their dirty work for them. Was amused at the Phoenix Theater announcing the banning of hyphy shows, which is a brilliant maneuver, on par with announcing the banning of raves.
Flipped on the radio for Face the Music with Scott Mitchell and Frank Hayhurst, on KRSH. Laughed at the end of the show, when Frank presented Scott with a golden kazoo, since, alas, Scott is headed over to BOB-FM and will soon be replaced by Brian Griffith as the morning guy on the KRSH. Brian’ll be good and Scott’s been good, but man. I still miss Doug Smith.
Went to the downtown Post Office, where the holiday season has brought radio privileges for the counter staff. Was glad that instead of “Wonderful Christmastime” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the clerks were stamping packages to “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Bob Dylan. Dodged a car driving by playing the Youngbloodz-Procol Harum portion of Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals.
Got to work and read this wonderful piece of writing, regarding Leon Russell, by my friend John Beck. Felt the best kind of jealousy—I suspect that John is much more bound to editorial direction than myself, occasionally forced to write about music that he can’t personally get that excited about, and I love examining how he navigates total cowshit and turns it time and again into flowers. He’s good at it.
Read about the heavy metal singer who stabbed her guitarist for messing up a solo. Downloaded DJ Malarkey’s new Holiday mix to listen to while scouring club listings for New Years’ Eve information. Came across this lovely Christmas video of a drunk family partying their asses off around the tree, circa 1962, set to June Christy’s “The Merriest”:
(If you’re looking for a fantastic jazzy album of non-religious Christmas originals, call your local record store and pick up June Christy’s This Time of Year, just reissued a couple years ago.)
Had lunch at Hang Ah Dim Sum with the Love Level crew. Thought about Chinese opera and talked about Darker than Blue: Soul From Jamdown. Was reminded, by Mark and Gary, about KOME-FM and their street-sign stickers. Chatted about Backdoor Records. Thought about the late KPLS-FM and their even later cowboy-hat VW Bug.
Came back to work and gawked at the amazing Kate Wolf Festival 2009 lineup, with Emmylou Harris, Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Patty Griffin, Mavis Staples, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Wrote a little bit about Adam Theis and his upcoming SFJAZZ show, whose excellent Spring season was also announced this week: McCoy Tyner, Allen Toussaint, Bill Frisell, Kenny Barron, James Carter, Tinariwen, Roy Hargrove, Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau, Mariza, Kenny Burrell, Michael Feinstein and Branford Marsalis, among others.
Went to dinner at Fitch Mountain Eddie’s with my dad, where Richelle Hart and John Youngblood performed songs like “Summertime” and “Women Be Wise.” Talked a lot of shit about Ticketmaster, only to have the guy at the next table introduce himself as a guy who works for Ticketmaster. Wished him luck with that whole massive-debt-and-getting-dumped-by-Live-Nation thing.
Then: headed to the Raven Theater for the Bobs, who were as entertaining and awe-inspiring as they were when I last saw them at the Raven Theater in 1989. Was billed as the “Sleigh Bobs Ring” holiday show, containing plenty of Christmas numbers—”Christmas in L.A.,” “Christmas in Jail,” and an insane new song sung from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, “What Is This Thing Inside Me?”
Old chestnuts were dusted off, like “My, I’m Large” and “Boy Around the Corner,” and all the new ones like “Get Your Monkey off My Dog,” “Title of the Song,” “Imaginary Tuba” sounded great. Closed with “Christmastime is Here,” which I’m glad is becoming a holiday classic. Haven’t paid much attention to the Bobs in the last 20 years, but I was simultaneously buckled over with laugher, googly-eyed with amazement, and heartened that they still hang out in the lobby afterwards, chatting with all their weird fans. Thanks for keeping it up, guys.
Came home and listened to Booker Ervin, Madlib, No Age and Lucy Ann Polk. (Not Van Morrison, like grouchy Joel Selvin.) Wondered if real life was more important than music, or if the two are actually the same thing. Opted for the latter. Did the dishes and hummed Frank Sinatra. Went to bed.
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.
“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.”