JVC Jazz Festival in Review
Phil Ranelin, left, and Marcus Belgrave of Tribe at the JVC Jazz Festival on Friday night.
Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
By BEN RATLIFF and PETER KEEPNEWS
Cecil Taylor performing his solo concert on Friday.
Le Poisson Rouge
Tribe was a musicians’ collective and a record label and a magazine started in Detroit in the early ’70s. It operated in a self-empowerment, community-building spirit that was similar to other musician-run cooperatives in Chicago and Los Angeles and St. Louis, all outgrowths of the Black Arts Movement. Tribe’s sound was street and chic and spacey, but always concerned with straight-ahead entertainment; these musicians had gotten their chops through Detroit hard bop and Motown and the Ray Charles band. They were the local elite.
The trombonist Phil Ranelin, the tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison and the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, among others, recently recorded a new Tribe album in the old sound, this time produced by the Detroit techno D.J. Carl Craig, a club-music superstar one full generation younger. The record comes out in the fall, and the band has already started promoting it. Mr. Craig himself was supposed to appear with the band at Le Poisson Rouge on Friday night, adding electronics to the band’s set and then performing his own late-night D.J. set afterward.
But Mr. Craig did not make it to New York. Strangely, it didn’t seem to matter. His attachment to the JVC Jazz Festival show JVC Jazz Festival::About — heavily promoted by the festival — didn’t seem to do its job in drawing a crowd. The three older musicians, with a younger rhythm section, played a set of new and old instrumental music with socially conscious spoken-word inserts, and giving a few New Yorkers one of those necessary periodic lessons about jazz history from other parts of the country.
It was especially fascinating to hear Mr. Ranelin, a player whose name is associated with ’70s soul-jazz and free jazz, because he’s such a disciplined player in the hard-bop mold. His solos used long, warbling tones, then changed into stiff percussive blasts and smart melodic lines.
Mr. Belgrave, well known as a teacher but still underrated as a performer, played subtle, wide and logical solos on trumpet and fluegelhorn that were like compressed pieces of wisdom. Mr. Harrison played the most mannered and authentic ’70s solos, fitting the tone of the music (and Mr. Ranelin’s poetry) with honks and flurries and shouts.
The music used ebb-and-flow vamps, a little boilerplate rhythmically but with shrewd harmony; the mentholated music sounded like electric Miles Davis meeting James Brown’s backup group in the early ’70s, and a bit like the European downtempo electronic music it inspired in the early ’80s. In the back line were musicians with mostly Detroit roots: Kelvin Sholar on electric piano, Damon Warmack on electric bass, John Arnold on guitar, and Jaimeo Brown on drums. But this was a wandering, solo-oriented music, and most action came from the old heads up front. BEN RATLIFF
New York Society
for Ethical Culture
Has Cecil Taylor mellowed with age?
For all Mr. Taylor’s virtuosity as a pianist and originality as an improviser, his concerts have sometimes been so unrelentingly intense that they seemed as much assault as performance. His solo recital at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Friday night, part of the JVC Jazz Festival, felt more like an embrace.
Mr. Taylor owes stylistic debts to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, but his music has always been so defiantly sui generis that after more than half a century there are still those who question whether it can even be called jazz. Finding a way into it can be an effort for some listeners; easy handles — a sustained melody line, a steady beat — are rare.
It would be a stretch to characterize his Friday performance as accessible in any conventional sense. But for much of his hour at the piano the music was, to use a word not always associated with Mr. Taylor, pretty.
All the hallmarks of his style were there: ominously rumbling bass lines, breathtakingly rapid runs, percussive tone clusters. But there were also numerous passages of quiet delicacy, and more than a few deftly deployed silences. The violent torrents of notes that are a Taylor specialty were in short supply; more often the music simply flowed, elegantly and peacefully.
While it hardly sounded as if Mr. Taylor had lost his edge, it did sound as if he had found a way to emphasize the lyricism that has long been an important if underappreciated color in his palette, and to temper his intensity without damping his fire. Maybe this is just the way an enfant terrible sounds as he approaches 80.
Mr. Taylor’s fellow pianist George Cables, also playing unaccompanied, opened the evening. Mr. Cables is not as daring an improviser as Mr. Taylor; few if any jazz pianists are. But while staying solidly grounded in post-bop concepts of harmony and rhythm, he left a pleasingly personal mark on a selection of original compositions and familiar standards, notably an uncharacteristically high-energy “ ’Round Midnight.” PETER KEEPNEWS
Sérgio Mendes is a proud member of the generation that invented bossa nova, but he has always been more popularizer than purist. Most of the hit singles he had with his group Brasil ’66 in the late 1960s were pleasant middle-of-the-road pop with a mild overlay of samba. His most recent albums mix bossa nova with hip-hop and contemporary R&B, sometimes smoothly but often awkwardly.
For Mr. Mendes’s JVC Jazz Festival concert on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, his powerful ensemble (seven musicians, including Mr. Mendes on synthesizer and three female singers) was periodically joined by a rapper named H2O, who contributed rhymes to a tarted-up new version of Brasil ’66’s biggest hit, “The Look of Love.” Mr. Mendes reprised a few of that group’s other pop hits as well, including its endearingly odd version of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.” But the hip-hop touches were window dressing, not really integrated into the overall sound, and the nods to Top 40 nostalgia were less important than what Mr. Mendes announced early in the evening was his main purpose: to celebrate some of the great Brazilian songwriters.
Navigating bossa nova’s vital polyrhythms with grace and powered by two extraordinary percussionists, Meia Noite and Gibi, Mr. Mendes’s band gave evergreens by the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dori Caymmi and Jorge Ben the passionate treatment they deserved. Mr. Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” one of Brasil ’66’s first hits (and its most authentically Brazilian), was the eagerly anticipated encore and, with the audience singing and dancing along, turned Carnegie Hall for a few glorious minutes into Carnaval.
Opening for Mr. Mendes was Zap Mama, a group known for its unusual amalgam of African, European and American influences, sung in bewitching three- and four-part harmony. The group’s set was exhilarating at times, but it was damaged by Carnegie Hall’s typically erratic acoustics.
It was also hampered by an odd programming decision. The group’s charismatic leader, Marie Daulne, chose to present the music as a chronological history of the group, which resulted in poor pacing and a little more talking than was absolutely necessary. PETER KEEPNEWS
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company