Thursday, April 05, 2007

Jazz in the White House

It has been a banner year for jazz on New York PBS affiliate, with two primetime sightings. After Independent Lens’ Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life in February, last night Channel 13 broadcast In Performance at the White House: Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It would be nice to see a little primetime love for Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, but WNET 13 can’t seem to handle programming jazz on more than a bi-monthly basis.

That said, the White House special was a great tribute to both the Monk Institute and the jazz legend it is named for. Benefit concerts and all-star specials can be a little uneven, as the ensembles usually are not particularly well rehearsed or cohesive, but the quality of music heard in the White House concert was surprisingly good.

Actually, there was only one Monk tune in the concert, although quite a bit was heard from the pianist during a segment of archival footage. To maximize accessibility, there were several vocal features, including the good swinging opener, “Kansas City,” which showcased Institute competition winners, including vocalist Lisa Henry and Helen Sung on piano.

Probably the best performance was from Herbie Hancock, leading an all-star ensemble of Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on soprano, Ron Carter on bass, and Terri Lynne Carrington on drums through his classic “Watermelon Man.” Shorter and Hargrove would later display some great interplay on “Rhythm-a-Ning,” the concert’s one Monk standard.

Another highlight was “I Won’t Dance,” an Ella and Louis inspired vocal duet for the elegant Nnenna Freelon and the great Clark Terry. While Freelon handled the traditional lyrics, Terry offered some of his mumbles-inspired vocal punctuations and a nice solo on flugelhorn. It was a great performance, held together by Sung’s stylishly swinging piano. Terry’s participation is particularly fitting, as he led the last session Monk played as a sideman, released as In Orbit on Riverside Records. The one Monk tune they recorded, “Let’s Cool One,” remains a staple of Terry’s sets.

It seemed like a lot of thought went into the ensembles. Terry, Hargrove, and George Duke (who accompanied Anita Baker on a refreshingly less maudlin “My Funny Valentine”) are all familiar to some PBS viewers of the first season of Legends of Jazz. Wayne Shorter served in the second great Miles Davis Quintet with Ron Carter, and was a label mate of Herbie Hancock’s during the classic Blue Note years. He could also relate to Bobby Watson as a fellow alumnus of Art Blakey’s Jazz messengers.

All told, it was a totally first-class affair, but presumably the lunatics will find something to object to. The First Lady’s introduction was brief, but apt, describing jazz as “America’s cultural treasure.” The President’s concluding remarks, as filmed, were briefer, but no less fitting, as he thanked the musicians “for filling the White House with such joy.” No doubt, some will be analyzing the tape to see if the President was appropriately enthusiastic. From what I saw, he certainly seemed to be grooving to the finale, “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”

The Monk Institute concert was a consistently strong special and a great opportunity to spotlight jazz. One can hope that WNET will capitalize the good vibe, and schedule the second season of Legends at a time when people who work for a living can watch it.