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Moment's Notice from Gregory James

The great Taj Mahal is at SF Jazz this week, and I was fortunate to see last night's show. Billed as the Taj Mahal Trio, with Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums, they have been his band for quite a few years now. Born in Harlem to a West Indian father who was a jazz musician, Taj has always incorporated music from all over the world, Caribbean, African, South Pacific, through to spirituals, field hollers, rural, and even Chicago electric blues. And the blues it is. He has one of the most distinctive blues vocal styles, coupled with Rev. Gary Davis inspired finger picking. "Who was that guy in the 60's who used to open for everybody?" a friend asked me recently - it was Taj Mahal. On the stage last night was a beautiful copper dobro, a banjo, a Martin steel string and a nylon string Takamine, and a custom built Howard Roberts inspired arch top, as well as a Kurtzweill (Ray currently serving as head of AI at GOOGLE) electric keyboard. He would pick up an instrument, and then decide what to play. It ranged from West African griot to lots of country blues. The last two tunes before the encores where rousing, loud, distorted electric Chicago styles blues, that got the crowd, mostly pretty young women, up and dancing. I learned last night that his first band 50 years ago was with Ry Cooder, called The Rising Sons. Columbia never released the project. Fools.
Last Thursday the great composer and instrumentalist Henry Threadgill performed "A Tribute to Butch Morris" as part of the New Frequencies Fest, Jazz in the Present Tense at Yerba Buena Center. Billed as the Henry Threadgill Double-Up, the band featured pianists David Bryant and David Virelles, alto saxophonists Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu, drummer Craig Weinrib, tuba player Jose Davila, and cellist Christopher Hoffman. Threadgill listened from the side of the stage glancing at charts, occasionally sprinting to the front of the band to cue an ensemble section. I would have loved to hear his alto sax and flute comment on and cajole the band's playing, but Threadgill chose just to conduct. Unlike his comrade in arms, my late friend Butch Morris, it seemed the long pieces were fairly well worked out, with stretches of free improvisations brought back to earth by intricate written motifs. Butch's compositions were almost entirely improvised, hence his inventing the term, conduction. But in the unique polytonal and polyrhythmic textures, it was indeed a fabulous tribute to Butch, and I'm sure he would have been very moved. Butch also was a great instrumentalist in the first half of his career, on cornet. We had talked about recording together when he was still playing in the early 80s. It's one of my few regrets. "Too ting ting ting for me" was the way Butch described retro jazz. Threadgill, like Butch, makes sure the music keeps changing.
MLK Day seems like an appropriate time to write about Pharaoh Sanders at SF Jazz the other week. Afro-American music is the music of freedom. And just as much of Martin's dream has yet to be fulfilled (and is even being eroded by the Supreme Court) Afro-American music will always be the cry for justice, the joy of the struggle, the vision from the mountain top. First acheiving notice playing with John Coltrane, Pharoah's music in the late 60's was a political statement of itself. From African chants, to field hollers, to the R&B clubs of his Little Rock youth, to the arcing spiritual searching of Trane, it was all there in every note. I saw a performance many years ago at the Keystone Korner with Idris Mohamed on drums. They wore white robes, and came onstage rattling chains. Then blowing conch shells. And I realized they were channeling the slave ships. With his huge tone and overblown harmonics, he plays the music of the spheres. The SF Jazz show had William Henderson on piano, Nat Reeves on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. African-American music is also egalitarian; Farnsworth looks like Kevin Costner playing a detective, but he was the closest thing to Elvin Jones I've heard since Elvin's passing. The music has retained all it's power. And it hasn't changed (they played The Creator Has a Master Plan). I'm normally partial to artists who change radically throughout their careers. But I realized Pharoah doesn't have to. It was perfect then, and it's perfect now.
Carlos Saura's latest performance film, Flamenco Flamenco, is finally released in the US. Shot in 2010 at the Seville Expo '92 Pavillion by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist / Apocalypse Now) Flamenco Flamenco is a sequel to Saura's 1995 Flamenco. Like flamenco itself, it is a dream, a poem, and all of reality. Almost all of the flamenco community is recorded; Vicente Amigo and El Viejin being perhaps glaring exceptions. Flamenco featured very simply filmed performances. Flamenco Flamenco is intentionally more theatrical; one scene has Eva Yerbabuena and Miguel Poveda performing on set in the rain. Every generation alive and performing today is included; from the stunning 14 year old dancer Manuel Fernandez "El Carpeta" to the octogenarian Maria Bala singing an unaccompanied solea. Manolo Sanlucar's alegria is amazing. Paco de Lucia plays a buleria por solea with La Tania singing for the second to last piece; and Moraito plays and even dances on the final buleria de Jerez, reminding us in an eerily beautiful way that we have lost two giants. All the dancing does flamenco justice. Sara Baras, with an alegria no less, will steal your heart.
This year has been very rich in musical performances, and as is often the case, I'm behind in writing about them. Two weeks ago Ravi Coltrane had a residency at SF Jazz to comemorate the 50th Anniversary of his father's landmark recording, A Love Supreme. The Thursday show featured Joe Lovano, Geri Allen, Drew Gress on bass, and Ralph Peterson on drums. The music was evocative of A Love Supreme, without being imitative. I first saw Ravi at a late night jam session in Paris 20 years ago at an Antonio Hart gig. Betty Carter and Jacky Terrasson also sat in. Being named after two of the greatest musicians of the 20th century is a lot to live up to. It's taken Ravi a while to come into his own, but he's done it. He is relaxed with his legacy, and what he can contribute to it. Loving has been a master for years, and they play off each other beautifully, with Lovano channeling the whole history of the music. I recently discovered a Lovano recording, Symphonic, with a big band and orchestra live in Europe. Highly recommended. In the coming year I'll write more about recordings in addition to live shows. Peace!
Last Friday Dr. John and the Nite Trippers played SF Jazz to a sold out audience. Along with Allen Toussaint, Dr. John is the personification of New Orleans music and culture. The history of the music, and The City, breathes through him. I am blessed to have grown up in a time when his music was on the AM radio when I was a child. Like many geniuses, he would probably be more obscure had he been born at a later time. (I doubt Hendrix or the Cream would get much airplay were they starting out today). I've seen him many times, and even though getting on in years, this was one of his very best shows. Earthy, funky, dark, and uplifting, all at the same time. The band was a revelation: Sarah Morrow on vocals and trombone was a perfect foil and mc; her trombone playing every bit as authoritative as Trombone Shorty. In mini dress and thigh high go go boots, no less. David Yoke on guitar and Bobby Floyd on B3 were soulful and funky, Dwight Bailey on bass was solid and authentic. But Reggie Jackson on drums was the true revelation. Also getting on in years, and from Treme` - not just New Orleans, but Treme`, his incredible syncopation and feel could only come from someone born in that district. Amazing!
Last Saturday Diego El Cigala performed at the SF Jazz Miner Auditorium. Perhaps the most gifted contemporary flamenco singer, he has experimented with salsa and Cuban music, winning a Grammy in 2003 for his collaboration with Bebo Valdes, and in 2005 for Picasso in Mis Ojos, with Paco de Lucia and Jerry Gonzalez. This performance featured electric guitar, piano, acoustic bass, and percussion. Elegant in white dinner jacket and tuxedo pants (the guitarist was in flannel shirt and jeans) Diego moved smoothly through a mostly salsa set. The band were obviously all originally flamenco musicians, and very at ease with the material. The electric guitarist in particular, Diego Garcia, played some traditional flamenco lines on the tangos (flamenco, not Argentine, although Diego has also explored that music). Piano and electric guitar don't have a fast enough decay to accompany the lightening response of a master flamenco singer, and as breathtakingly beautiful as his voice is - from a whisper to a scream in a nanosecond, I found myself longing for an acoustic flamenco guitar. A second acoustic guitar was listed in the program, so perhaps that was the original intent. A gifted producer, Diego recently released the debut of guitarist Diego del Morao, the son of the late great Moraito.
Once again I've been seeing so much great music I'm behind in writing about it. Last week the super group Sangam,which means confluence in Sanskrit, with Zakir Hussain, Charles Lloyd, and Eric Harland played SF Jazz. Zakir supplied bass support with his tablas. The trio has a 2006 recording on ECM. It's hard to come up with superlatives that do these three geniuses justice. The Charles Lloyd Quartet (with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Cecil McBee) was a ground breaking group that changed history, as did Zakir's work with John McLaughlin in Shakti. Eastern and Western music do become one. Opening with an alap, with Zakir chanting deep notes while fanning colors from his tablas, fingers a blur, Lloyd bridging East and West with hints of jazz and raga, and Harland providing colors from bebop to funk to abstract, it is new and fresh music of the highest order. A special treat was running into Zakir at the restaurant Dosa the next evening after another performance. Gracious, and regal, and humble, as are all great artists through which the music flows.
I've been hearing so much fabulous music this last week that I haven't had time to write about it. Last week the Joshua Redman Trio played SF Jazz. Over the last few years Joshua has grown into the leading tenor of his generation. The son of the late great Dewey Redman, Joshua was originally ambivalent (as was understandably Ravi Coltrane) about pursuing a career in music. A late bloomer, he has more than made up for lost time. Now that I think about it, he made a great leap forward when his first child was born. With Reuben Rogers on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, the trio format allows for maximum freedom, but also perhaps maximum challenges. Opening with Surrey With The Fringe On Top, from Oklahoma! a tune first covered in the jazz world by Miles Davis, and later Sonny Rollins, they made the old and familiar new. Ending the tune with a long funk vamp that only someone of his generation or younger would think of, Joshua succeeds in being both accessible, and modern. Alternating between angular originals, and standards like Never Let Me Go, and Mack the Knife, the Trio explores all ranges and dynamics of the music. Check out their new live recording - they are riveting. A lover of all kinds of music, he was sitting next to me last year at a Takacs Quartet recital of Bartok. More on Takacs later!
Last Thursday the Christian Scott Band and Sean Jones Quartet played SF Jazz as part of their trumpet week. I don't know why they felt the need to pair Scott with another act. I've long said he is the next big thing in the music, and I'm sure he could have filled the room on his own. Sean Jones opened. When I read that he was a protégé of Wynton Marsalis, I had an idea of what the direction might be. Jones is a personable and polite young man, with excellent technique. The music was a careful recreation of Miles circa ESP (1965). That's generally about as modern as Wynton and his protégés allow themselves to venture. While pianist Orrin Evans and particularly bassist Luques Curtis tried to inject some individuality, the concept was so defined that the music felt flat, and ala Wynton, emotionless. Drummer Obed Calvaire, who is with the SF Jazz Collective, has impressive technique, but somehow just doesn't swing. Even a tune about despair, Dark Days, introduced with a brilliant quote from Winston Churchill ("If you are going through hell, keep on going") lacked feeling. All of which sparked a debate within me. Is it asking to much for a contemporary musician to be creative? Perhaps the brilliant explorations of the past can only be re-interpreted, like European art music? Well, one note from Christian Scott's horn dispelled that fear. Like all great improvisers, he has huge tone, and anger, joy, elation, and sadness can all be felt simultaneously. Young, handsome, angry, brilliant, and from New Orleans, no wonder Wynton can't abide him. He's the real deal. He's formed a completely new band, with the brilliant 23 year old Elena Pinderhughes on flute, Braxton Cook on alto, Cliff Hines on guitar, Lawrence Fields on piano, Kriss Fun on bass, and two incredible drummers: Cory Fonville and Joe Dyson. The music was loose and hot and funky. With the drummers laying down fresh versions of New Orleans funk grooves (always with a nod to Mother Africa) the soloists were free to explore everything from bebop to 12 tone rows. Prowling the stage and using off-mic technique frequently, Scott leads with confidence, affection, and humor. (Ala Miles, soloists are often pointed to on the fly). There will be new music! Viva Christian Scott!


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