Not the least astonishing moment of President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe (and for my more serious thoughts on that diplomatic voyage, click here) was when Michelle Obama met Carla Bruni and appeared her peer in every way, not at all outclassed. Ms. Bruni, of course, is the Italian-born French model and chanteuse who last year married French President Nicolas Sarkozy and, soon after, dazzled, nay seduced, every world leader she met at diplomatic soires. Mrs. Obama’s one-upmanship in London in no way shoves Ms. Bruni aside—the pairing marked, more, the reemergence of a French-American cultural entente, and we are all the headier for it.
I’m appallingly late with this, but the photo show “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” is up for a few more days (through April 12) in the arcade of Jazz at Lincoln Center (on Broadway and 60th Street, 5th floor, New York City)—and, if you’re in the area, go see it.
It’s rare that a live concert captures the mind-bending joy of mainstream post-War jazz. (Recitals of the bebop repertory tend toward the worshipfully literal, like museum pieces.) But just such a rare experience was had last night at Smalls, the convivial (and, yes, small) jazz club in the West Village, where pianist Ethan Iverson played standards with a trio that featured Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.
I’ve just glommed on to TV on the Radio, and let me tell all those who are as out-of-it as I am, when it comes to contemporary rock, the band is really very good. I first heard them play on Steven Colbert’s show, then bought their latest CD Dear Science (which the Village Voice and others touted as the best album of 2008), and I’ve listened to it since at least a dozen times. As I wrote a little over a year ago about Radiohead, after I first heard In Rainbows, it’s as harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated as just about any work of modern jazz—which is not to say that it’s like jazz but rather that, on any musical level, the purest jazz purist has no grounds for looking down on it.
Among the many compelling jazz pianists still around, Ran Blake may be the oddest (and the most unjustly, though understandably, obscure). He can’t swing for more than a few bars; he tends to change keys at random intervals; for this reason, he usually plays solo, figuring that few musicians have the patience for his quirks (though some of his best albums—The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Suffield Gothic, That Certain Feeling, and Masters from Different Worlds—were collaborative efforts, involving such established artists as Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan, and Houston Person). Yet there’s magic in Blake’s music; his chords, dissonant but heartfelt, seem to waft out of a dream. Now in his 70s, a longtime teacher at the New England Conservatory, Blake has called himself a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to hold a camera, and his albums all have a cinematic flavor. (Many years ago, he recorded the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and told me afterward that he could see scenes of the film in his head while he was playing.) Even when not playing movie themes, his songs possess a narrative impulse; he’s a very instinctive pianist (by his own admission, he’s not a strong sight-reader), and he seems to have some weird synaptic nerve that translates images in his brain to chords and intervals in his fingers.
The “Monk at Town Hall” tribute-concerts on Thursday and Friday night (which I previewed in my last blog) were as riveting as I’d expected—in the case of Charles Tolliver’s re-creation of Monk’s 1959 concert, much more so. Tolliver transcribed the original concert off the Monk LP, assembled a top-notch 10-piece band to play the parts, and conducted the score with precision except to let the hornmen improvise their solos. It’s a risky enterprise to invite comparison to a classic (cf. Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho), but Tolliver roared into the ring and more than held his own. It wasn’t quite the marvel of the original—nobody can do all the things Monk did on the piano, and Tolliver’s drummer held back too much (Monk’s drummer, Art Taylor, splashed around the trap set, heightening the tension and release)—but it came very close. Stanley Cowell shadowed Monk’s piano runs with startling fidelity. Rufus Reid plucked the bassline with authority and soul. Several of the soloists rocked the full house—especially Howard Johnson on bari sax, Aaron Johnson on tuba, and the young Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, who outdid Charlie Rouse for sheer verve. The whole band plowed through these absurdly difficult tunes with crackling aplomb, swinging like crazy, as Monk might have said.
It’s a bad idea to gin up expectations, but two concerts this week at Town Hall in New York City are worth the risk. Each commemorates Thelonious Monk’s big-band concert at the same Town Hall on Feb. 28, 1959—exactly 50 years ago—but in very different ways. This Thursday, Feb. 26, Charles Tolliver leads a 10-piece band on a straightforward (if that word can describe anything related to Monk) re-creation of the concert. The next night, Feb. 27, Jason Moran leads an octet on a bold re-conceptualization of the event, a sort of post-modern audio-video collage that aims to capture the spirit of Monk’s music while also tapping into its hidden roots and their links to Moran himself.
I’ve sometimes wondered how long The Bad Plus can keep up their high-concept mix of pop and punk covers, avant-classical harmonies, jazz cadences, kick-ass polyrhythms, and sly but un-ironic wit. Don’t get me wrong: I like their music a lot; each of the players (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; David King, drums) crackles with brio and virtuosity; their interplay is a delight. Still, in the six years since they improbably crashed onto the scene, there have been times when their conceit has seemed to reach its limit.
Keith Jarrett has also just released a trio CD called Yesterdays (on ECM), featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, with whom he’s been playing for decades. The album might be described as outtakes from the group’s 2001 concert in Tokyo—portions of which were released the following year on a double-disc recording called Always Let Me Go—except that the new album is dramatically different. Always consisted almost entirely of improvisations; but it turns out the trio also played standards that night (the group is known as Jarrett’s “standards trio”), and they’re all assembled on Yesterdays. Often when a musician releases an album of previously unreleased takes, it’s clear why they didn’t make the original cut. But that’s not the case here. In fact, this is one of Jarrett’s loveliest albums, especially the ballads (“You’ve Changed,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Stella by Starlight,” as well as the title tune). Whatever one might say about the man’s antics and idiosyncrasies, his artistry cannot be disputed. I can’t think of another jazz pianist alive, and only a few from any era, who displays such seamless virtuosity, across so many styles of music, and still conveys the vibrant rhythms and true emotion of a song.