Monday, January 15, 2007

IAJE Day 4

Again, we’re starting this one at 11:00, with Western Michigan U’s Jazz Octet. This was the best student band I heard at the conference. All eight showed a tremendous level of musicianship and most had contributed interesting arrangements to the band’s book. No sheet music on the bandstand for them either. The guest musicians included Stefon Harris who burned on one of WMU’s originals “Narnian Nights,” coming back for more several times. Fred Hersch and Billy Hart, who have both worked with WMU, also sat in for an impressive finale.

The only paper I heard delivered was Mark Baszak’s Jazz and Hip Hop: a New Brand of the New Jazz. Delivering papers is a tough assignment. Baszak did well enough, and his overview of jazz and hip hop interaction was authoritative. Once again, there were no Q’s in the Q&A, just statements looking for an Amen. In the future, IAJE needs to put any hip hop related program in a larger room, because people were sitting on top of each other—to hear a paper.

Gary Thomas & Exile Gate’s sounded good, but they were so over-amplified I had to leave. Downbeat’s live blindfold session featured Ron Carter—look for it in the May issue. It doesn’t seem fair to reveal spoilers here, but Carter came with candor, so they should have plenty of good copy to work with.

There was a good turnout for the screening of Joe Williams: a Portrait in Song. IAJE should screen more rare films that are not currently available on DVD. Portrait is a nice film, capturing the grace of Williams. In discussing his many Tonight Show appearances, it also illuminated the service Carson did by keeping artists like Williams and Buddy Rich in the public eye, even if they were not ratings generating flavor-of-the-month pop stars.

Pekka Pylkkänen’s Tube Factory was the best French group I heard there. Their group interplay was impressive, and they showed a comfort level at a variety of tempos and intensity levels. This was followed by a sax clinic put on by Swiss alto player George Robert (Row-Bear) and Phil Woods, with unannounced guest Bob Mintzer on tenor. Robert played with Woods’ European big band, and they clearly know how to spur each other on.

OK, let’s get to the evening concert, which featured French all-star groups and well known leftist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra—perhaps a fitting combination. Before introducing the French ensembles, IAJE president Chuck Owen uttered the unfortunate remark of the evening when he thanked the French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte for the “high degree of French collaboration” in the conference.

Michel Legrand, looking dapper in white scarf, played one of his tunes with a French student band. It was nice, and just seeing Legrand is an event in itself. Didier Lochwood and Richard Galliano fronted French all-star ensembles, including Stephane Huchard on drums, playing in a much more traditional context than on his French Blue Note albums.

Word had reached most conference participants around 7:00 that Michael Brecker and Alice Coltrane had both passed away. Haden had worked with both and was clearly in mourning. He dedicated the set to Brecker, Coltrane, Dewey Redman (whose memorial he had played at Sun. night) and to world peace. Aside from that last general dedication and simply identifying song titles, Haden would make nothing even resembling a political statement during the set.

I have taken issue with Haden’s politics in the past, so feel free to take that into account. This really is an excellent band. On tunes like “Going Home” and the bluesy, gospel-feeling “Amazing Grace” they really delivered the goods. The tunes in-between however, sounded ponderous at times. Instead of saying something heavy, they tell you they are saying something heavy. One nice exception was “Not in Our Name,” which sounded quite a bit like Gerry Mulligan’s theme for the movie Luv when I heard it. (Mulligan actually never recorded it apart from what was heard in the film itself, but Buddy Rich covered it on The New One.) The loss of Brecker, Coltrane, and Redman is deeply saddening to the entire jazz community. One hopes their family and friends, including Mr. Haden, find solace in their time of mourning.

Despite ending with some unfortunate news—a circumstance beyond IAJE’s control—it was a strong conference, with many top-flight performances. Technically, IAJE ended Sat. night, but Sun. seemed like an unofficial Day 5 at St. Peter’s. Jazz Vespers was packed to hear vocalist Janet Planet lead a group that included Gene Bertoncini on guitar. This was followed by a memorial to Walter Booker, the great bassist who played with Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, the JFK Quintet, and scores of others. Those paying tribute included surprise guests T.S. Monk and Roy Hargrove, in addition to Charles Davis, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Jimmy Cobb, and of course Bertha Hope. Those who stayed the extra day to pay their respects were rewarded with some beautiful music.