Thursday, April 29, 2021

International Jazz Day 10th Anniversary Celebration, on PBS

When thinking about International Jazz Day, it is tempting to channel the old parental response regarding a prospective Children’s Day and say every other day of the year is Top 40 Pop Day. Yet, that business has been in freefall for years (it hardly makes sense to call it “popular” anymore). We could also say at least jazz has its day. Those blues musicians don’t even have an International Blues Hour. Of course, this year’s annual celebration must be less festive, for obvious reasons. In lieu of public events, they have compiled concert highlights from past years in International Jazz Day 10th Anniversary Celebration, co-executive-produced by Herbie Hancock, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS.

For their galas, IJD often recruited big crossover names for all-star concerts. Sometimes it works great, other times it is just okay. Annie Lennox is one of the better special guests, probably because she has a comfort level with jazz standards, as she demonstrated with her
Nostalgia album and concert special. Once again, she tears into “I Put a Spell on You.”

Wynton Marsalis similarly plays to his strength with a stark, muted-yet-still-potently bluesy “St. James Infirmary, with Danilo Perez on piano and on bass, Christian McBride (who keeps popping up in groups throughout the anniversary special). We have to give similar credit to Tony Bennett, who delivers a simple but heartfelt-sounding rendition of “Lost in the Stars.”

Among the big crossover spotlight features, Aretha Franklin (who started out in jazz) sounds soulful on “A Song for You,” but the arrangement is not so memorable. Likewise, it is hard to hear the distinctive musical personalities of the likes of Hancock, Pat Metheny, Robert Glasper, and Lionel Loueke on Sting’s “Sister Moon.”

On the other hand, there are some excellent collaborations between jazz and world music artists. Perhaps the highpoint of the special is “Lotus Feet,” performed by the trio of John McLaughlin, Jean-Luc Ponty, and tabla player Zakir Hussain. Also notable are Hugh Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” with Mino Cinelu; Wayne Shorter’s “Sabba Hayastan Dance,” featuring Dhafer Youssef on oud; and Dianne Reeves singing “Tango” with a group of Turkish and Eastern musicians.

For traditional fans, Kurt Elling nicely swings “As Long as You’re Living,” which is a perfect fit for his cool, hipster voice. Those in the mood for something more soulful will appreciate Gregory Porter backed by John Scofield and Kris Bowers on “Liquid Spirit.” Frankly, the show should have ended with the funky and swampy “Dynamite,” featuring New Orleans’ own Jon Cleary and Terence Blanchard. Instead, they go with an all-star hodge-podge of Lennon’s “Imagine.” It is a maudlin, over-rated tune, but Elling, Somi, and Lizz Wright liven it up admirably.

Although well-intentioned, the poetic tribute to front-line workers (with Bowers’ piano accompaniment) feels a bit perfunctory and tacked-on. Arguably, it rather ironic that so many of the concerts—dedicated to jazz, a scrappy music that is all about freedom—were held at United Nations venues, which is increasingly dominated by undemocratic, despotic regimes, but such was the case. As a further sobering thought, it is striking how many of the greats IJD assembled have since passed away, including Bennett, Masekela, Franklin, Al Jarreau, George Duke, and Roy Hargrove. It is nice to see and hear them in action again.

As is usually the true for compilations, some performances are better than others in the IJD special, but the high points are really terrific. Frankly, getting two hours of jazz on PBS is pretty incredible, so jazz fans should support it by watching. Most importantly, they will enjoy it for the music, as will most viewers with open ears and an appreciation for musicianship. Recommended for jazz and world music patrons,
International Jazz Day 10th Anniversary Celebration airs tomorrow night (4/30) and should hit the PBS app the next day.