It’s clear right away that pianist Fred Hersch’s “My Coma Dreams” is not a typical concert experience. Hersch premiered the “jazz theater” piece in New Jersey in 2011; the new production at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre (March 2) was altered but substantially similar. Narrator-vocalist Michael Winther portrayed both Hersch and his partner, Scott Morgan, describing the composer’s near-death experience from complications of AIDS. When he sang, Winther brought us inside the dream world that Hersch inhabited while unconscious for six weeks. Hersch played with a calm and luminous authority, fronting a midsized ensemble of reeds, brass, strings and rhythm conducted by Gregg Kallor (with standout solos from tenorist Adam Kolker, altoist Bruce Williamson and trumpeter Ralph Alessi). The music floated largely free of genre, although bassist John Hébert and drummer John Hollenbeck ensured that it swung when needed on episodes such as “Dream of Monk” and “Jazz Diner.” Winther was drowned out a couple of times by the band — something that didn’t happen at the premiere — but otherwise the sound was pristine. Hersch’s solitary piano on “The Boy” and Joyce Hammann’s viola feature on “Brussels” were simply stunning. In detailing a medical trauma, the show arrived at moving insights on life, love and the human condition. One haunting line in “The Knitters” took on multiple meanings as it was repeated: “We end as we begin.” (David R. Adler)
From the loopy, elliptical way that drummer Billy Hart addressed the second-set crowd at Dizzy’s (March 14), it was easy to see how at home he feels with the members of his working quartet — tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. Continuing in the exploratory vein of All Our Reasons, the band’s extraordinary 2012 debut for ECM, Hart shifted his focus to new music — some of which could appear on a follow-up for ECM in the works. “Yard,” based on the Charlie Parker blues “Cheryl,” was wide open harmonically (after his venturesome turn, Iverson got off the bench and let Turner solo without chords). Hart’s “Amethyst,” radically reworked from its early ’90s origins, grew from slow atmospheric rubato to raging dissonance, at last falling into tempo for an elegant written theme and finish. “Motional,” another earlier Hart composition, took on an easygoing Caribbean lilt, while Iverson’s “Neon,” from the 2006 HighNote release Quartet, closed the set in a 12/8 feel full of urgency and tension. Turner and Iverson showed a fearsome rapport on the pianist’s “Big Trees,” trading full choruses on rhythm changes, mostly without bass. Turner’s contribution, the lyrical midtempo swinger “Sonnet for Stevie” — “dig that,” remarked Hart when he said the title — highlighted the leader’s ability to reorient the conversation with a perfectly placed accent, a drop in ride cymbal volume, just the right thing in the moment. The time ebbed and flowed but never wavered. (DA)
Caramoor Jazz Festival Katonah, New York August 5-7, 2011
By David R. Adler
On paper, this year’s Caramoor Jazz Festival stood up nicely against the more extensive offerings the same weekend at Newport. Friday evening belonged to one group only, pianist Renee Rosnes and her stellar quartet (Steve Nelson, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash), appearing in Caramoor’s Spanish Courtyard. Then the action shifted to the tent covering the larger Venetian Theater, where the Christian McBride Big Band threw down on Saturday night, drawing a large and happy crowd despite pouring rain. Dispensing with the idea of a theme, conceptual umbrella or narrative device to link the music together as in some years past, Caramoor chose to let the varied menu speak for itself.
The one exception seemed to be “Sonidos Latinos,” a special billing to distinguish the sets by afternoon openers Edmar Castaneda and Juan-Carlos Formell. Without question these were two of the standouts: Formell’s pared-down quintet, called Johnny’s Dream Club, featured the leader on nylon-string guitar and vocals in a Saturday set full of lilting melodies, framed by Manuel Valera’s gorgeous piano and the impressive doubling of Lewis Kahn on violin and trombone. On Sunday, Castaneda floored early arrivers with his Colombian harp chops and lofty musicality, not to mention his effortless rapport with trombonist Marshall Gilkes, percussionist Dave Silliman and vocalist Andrea Tierra. The solo harp piece “Jesus de Nazareth” and the title tune from 2009’s Entre Cuerdas were expansive and beautifully done.
There was no mistaking the scratchy tone, or the charged approach to straightahead swing, of guitar icon John Scofield, whose quartet featured bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and pianist Michael Eckroth (an underexposed and truly refined player). Hearing a ballad like “I Want to Talk About You” through an overdriven amp was jarring, however, and the loud overall volume obscured the set’s subtleties. In contrast, one could hear every crisp detail of pianist Robert Glasper’s trio with bassist Alan Hampton and drummer Marcus Gilmore. But Glasper undercut himself with jokey tangents and a set that didn’t fully cohere, despite moments of brilliant ensemble work.
The crowd poured in to hear James Farm, probably thanks to star tenor man Joshua Redman, who fronts the dynamic supergroup with Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Challenging compositions, sparkling interplay, sheer charisma: there was little not to like here. If the next act, vocalist José James, didn’t grab everyone the same way, it was perhaps because his hip-hop style and inflection left the older folks a little befuddled. But James is a true artist with an inventive take on jazz, as he showed on the slinky “Save Your Love for Me,” the ballad “Dedicated to You” and the vocalese showcases “Equinox” and “Red Clay.” The versatility and empathy of the band, with guitarist Nir Felder, keyboardist Frank LoCrasto, bassist Chris Smith and drummer Nate Smith, was also hard to miss.
But three particular sets brought Caramoor 2011 to another level. Previewing music from the soon-to-be-released The Good Feeling, McBride’s big band was blues-drenched, furiously swinging and impossibly tight, with several features for vocalist Melissa Walker and gleaming solos from the likes of altoist Todd Bashore, tenorists Ron Blake and Loren Schoenberg, trombonist Michael Dease and pianist Xavier Davis. In a tailored black suit with red pocket kerchief, McBride looked like a million bucks and brought an old-school swagger to the stage, positioning his bass way up front (visually and aurally). When he switched to conducting — which was often — he would usher on rising-star bassist Ben Williams, who brought a huge sound of his own to the affair. With the big band project, McBride seems to have come full-circle: he closed the first half with the monumental “Science Fiction,” reworked from his 2000 release Sci Fi, and signed off with “In A Hurry,” a burner that dates back to his 1995 debut Gettin’ to It.
In a different mood entirely, pianist Fred Hersch joined Italian clarinetist Nico Gori for a duo performance of unmatched beauty and skill. Gori’s purity of tone and imaginative phrasing lit up the standards “Old Devil Moon” and “Tea for Two” alongside Hersch originals such as “Mandevilla,” “Canzona” and “Down Home.” And Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, closed the festival drawing on music from the superb Ten, with “Blue Blocks,” “RFK in the Land of Apartheid” and Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study No. 6” all part of the equation. Moran’s use of prerecorded sound is well-known but always surprising: this time he used Billie Holiday’s “Big Stuff” as well as The Time’s 1984 hit “Ice Cream Castles.” From Lady Day to Morris Day: here was a bold proposition for a jazz festival, and even if the crowd had thinned by Sunday evening, it went over well.
To this point, guitarist Rez Abbasi has focused overwhelmingly on original material, and although his work could be said to sit within the modernist mainstream of jazz, he’s spent little time in public playing standard tunes. That changed when he appeared in a trio setting with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Adam Cruz at Bar Next Door (July 2nd). Revisiting the bop and post-bop canon might have been unexpected, but it was perfectly logical — Abbasi’s fluid, rhythmically buoyant lines have always shown a rootedness in swing, even when he’s drawing on South Asian musics in the company of Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dan Weiss and others. The trio led off with a brisk “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and Abbasi chewed up the changes with laid-back precision, forming long strings of ideas with the benefit of a deep, resonant electric guitar sound. No bold-stroke arrangements here: “Alone Together,” “Solar” and Joe Henderson’s angular blues “Isotope” found the group sticking to simple solo rotations and trading of eights and fours. If there was a hesitancy at times during the first of three sets, it was thanks to the newness of the lineup and the casual nature of the gig. But for a warm-up, this was strong and searching music. Abbasi ventured some backwards effects on his intro to Alec Wilder’s ballad “Moon and Sand,” and Cruz found just the right vibe for the tiny room, keeping the volume low without sacrificing intensity. (David R. Adler)
It’s impressive in itself that bassist John Hébert could gather pianist Fred Hersch, altoist Tim Berne, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Ches Smith under one roof for a Charles Mingus tribute at the Stone (July 2nd). This was Hersch’s Stone debut, his first-ever gig with Berne, and a golden opportunity to hear the pianist grapple with the legacy of his mentor Jaki Byard, a key Mingus sideman. Berne, for his part, was no slouch in the implicit role of Eric Dolphy (perhaps also Jackie McLean or Charles MacPherson). But it was Hébert’s achievement that stood out: his way of featuring these unique voices from across the aesthetic spectrum of jazz, and still capturing the swinging integrity of Mingus’s ingenious works. There was a suite-like structure to the set, and a good deal of reading involved, as the band made its way through Hébert’s arrangements of “Sue’s Changes,” “What Love,” “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” Melodies sang out beautifully, as did Hersch’s richly voiced chords, although there was plenty of unvarnished bite and snarl. Hébert gave everyone, including himself, room to roam unaccompanied. He tacked on clever sonic details, including a glockenspiel line (played by Ches Smith) matching Berne’s alto during “What Love.” The music flowed in and out of defined meter and seemed to revel in its messy, multi-stylistic flux, echoing something Mingus once said to Nat Hentoff: “Why tie yourself to the same tempo all the time?” (DA)
I have a brief news-oriented piece on Fred Hersch in the September 2010 JazzTimes. It struck me long after submitting the story that the word “gay” does not appear in it, despite the fact that Fred has been out for well over a decade. At first I thought I should have corrected this, but ultimately I’m glad that it didn’t even occur to me while writing. Gay artists don’t exist in some category apart, or at least they shouldn’t, and I’ll wager that Fred agrees. What does bear directly on the subject, however, is Fred’s recent battle with AIDS, which is a main focus of the article. And Fred’s willingness to deal publicly with his near-death experiences in “My Coma Dreams” is of a piece with his decision to come out and set a courageous example back in 1994.
Given the space, I would also have mentioned that Fred’s Whirl album and Paul Motian’s Lost In a Dream both contain versions of Motian’s ballad “Blue Midnight,” giving us a chance to hear the same tune played by Hersch and Jason Moran. Hersch and Moran, we should also add, are both disciples of the late Jaki Byard. On Whirl, Hersch pays tribute with Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of K.C.,” while Moran, on his latest disc TEN, offers Byard’s “To Bob Vatel of Paris.” Tributes within tributes. Hersch told me during our interview that he’s played the Bob Vatel piece as well.