April 2008

IAJE Conference and NEA Jazz Masters: Notes from the Great White North

Every year, the conference of the International Association for Jazz Education showcases the two main demeanors in the current state of jazz, often back to back: One is of well-deserved reverence and big-hearted nostalgia—that is where the National Endowment for the Arts’ annual Jazz Masters celebration comes in; the other camp looks forward more than backward, and includes student musicians and the pros they wait in line to watch. At this year’s conference, Jan. 9-12, both angles offered vitality, even if this year’s host city, Toronto, promised a smaller scale and less world-famous resources than Manhattan did in 2007.

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Kurt Elling channels Ol' Blue Eyes
By Ed Berger
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Branford Marsalis waits to blow with the North Carolina Central University Jazz Ensemble
By Ed Berger
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NEA chairman Dana Gioia (top left) with Jazz Masters
By Tom Pich
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Newly minted Jazz Master Candido Camero
By Ed Berger

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The centerpiece of this three-day retreat is the NEA Jazz Masters discussion and concert, which this year honored Andrew Hill posthumously in addition to Candido Camero, Tom McIntosh, Gunther Schuller, Joe Wilder and Quincy Jones—who came full circle during a morning panel session, losing his celebrity sheen and trading anecdotes like just another jazz guy. That night’s concert and awards presentation featured a moving tribute to the late Oscar Peterson from his widow Kelly and daughter Celine, in addition to performances by the David Baker-led Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, where Kurt Elling belted Sinatra staples with consummation that approached the Old Man’s. Other performance highlights included Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society North—that talented clan of Brooklyn modernists with the unwieldy name—performing Ayn Inserto’s Frank Foster Commission “Vinifera,” all hairpin turns and big-scale postbop harmony; and Kenny Werner’s Blues Delirium project, a cliché-dodging tribute to flower-power pop and ’70s soul.

But two highly stylized young quintets in particular brought home what this melee is about, or at least what it should be about: The British group Empirical, a wholly unified group with a precocious understanding of Ornette’s early recordings; and a band led by the trumpeter Christian Scott, who wants desperately to be romantic and controversial but doesn’t have it in him to act rude or unprofessional. The audience, mostly student musicians, hung onto every wandering story and Miles-ian blast he had to offer, and were entranced by guitarist Matthew Stevens’ fiery lines, which combined Kurt Rosenwinkel’s fluidity with shards of John McLaughlin’s abandon. The best part was that the set didn’t finish until close to 2 a.m., long after most Jazz Masters had packed it in for the night.

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