Back to the Future: 2008 in Gigs

Tradition and innovation have never really been at odds in jazz, despite whatever the history books say. More often, the two forces have been deeply entwined, redefining each other in a vital and perpetual exchange.

Trombonist and composer George Lewis reminded us of that balance this year with the landmark publication of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Univ. of Chicago). It seems likely that we’ll see another challenge to the old vs. new idea when Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux introduce their textbook Jazz (W.W. Norton), next spring. (DeVeaux’s penetrating work on bebop crucially stresses continuity over disruption; Giddins once titled an essay collection “Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation.”)

So it’s probably no surprise that my annual roundup of shows would reflect a similar resistance to crude binaries. Much of the strongest jazz I heard was made by well-seasoned artists exploring fresh ideas. Many of the younger players who caught my ear were working both with and against received traditions.

Even the marketplace worked to subvert conventional wisdom: Our people balked at some facetious comments made by a representative of Live Nation, the concert-promotion behemoth. (He lamely said they were “doing everything we can to eliminate jazz from American culture,” in case you didn’t get the memo.) But it’s worth noting that two of the standout concerts below, featuring Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman, were Live Nation-sponsored. Maybe good and evil aren’t always easy to sort out, either.

Lionel Loueke Trio, Joe’s Pub, Jan. 23: Loueke, the sharply imaginative guitarist from Benin, had a banner year, releasing Karibu, a superb Blue Note debut. I saw his working trio a handful of other times this year, and while its sound got sleeker in other settings, this gig gets the nod for its slippery but driving momentum (and for a euphoric guest appearance by Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo).

Trio M, Kitano Hotel, Jan. 31: Pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson drew upon more than 40 years of avant-garde jazz custom here, in a way that felt personal and unrestrained. There were flashes of swing along with brisk atonal brambles, and it all fit together, drawn close by the pull of the trio’s rapport.

Pat Metheny Trio, Town Hall, Mar. 18: There may not be a working jazz musician with a keener sense of the heroic than guitarist Pat Metheny. Not that his trio, with Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums, specializes only in high drama. But Metheny’s laser-like focus and miraculous technique demand more than passive appreciation, as the crowd at this sold-out concert seemed instinctively to know.

Ornette Coleman, Town Hall, Mar. 28: An astonishing night for Coleman, as an alto saxophonist, an eminence and an unrepentant bluesman. Leading his quartet with two bassists, including the arpeggio-crazed Al MacDowell, he ducked through a series of bebop-like heads, threading each with his chirpily soulful instrumental voice. On a nearly roadhouse-raucous “Turnaround,” the effect was thrilling in its discontinuity.

Lee Konitz Quartet, Jazz Standard, April 1: Every moment of this set, featuring a more or less ad hoc quartet, carried a whiff of the unknown. Konitz, the incorrigibly curious alto saxophonist, was forging a new bond with pianist Danilo Pérez, who committed fully to the situation. What capped it off was a version of “Cherokee” that cycled through all 12 keys, not with bravado but rather a kind of infectious whimsy.

Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott, Donna’s, May 1: Some of the most engaging music I heard during JazzFest in New Orleans was this modest gig on the funky edge of the French Quarter. Christopher, a clarinetist, and McDermott, a pianist, were leading a quartet, and playing their vibrant strain of traditional jazz. The clear highlight was a duet on Scott Joplin’s “Pine Apple Rag,” brimming with an ageless insouciance.

Kidd Jordan and Fred Anderson, Vision Festival, June 13: Two tenor saxophonists, two old-timers, two (mostly) unsung heroes: Jordan and Anderson met on common ground, with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. Their interaction proposed a study in contrasts, with Anderson harrumphing low and Jordan skirling high. But there was also the simple, changeable chemistry of conversation.

Guillermo Klein, Village Vanguard, June 15: The same week that he released Filtros (Sunnyside), a gem of an album, this Argentine pianist and composer headlined at the Vanguard with his 11-piece band Los Guachos. The sound conveyed both stark drama and tenderness, advancing what I’ve taken to calling a kind of folkloric futurism.

Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, Village Vanguard, July 15: I’ve always had a special appreciation for pianist Cecil Taylor in a duo context, working with a drummer. Oxley, a longtime compatriot, imbued this engagement with an extraordinary attunement to texture, and he nudged Taylor ever so subtly toward a genuine dialogue.

Henry Threadgill/Myra Melford, Roulette, Oct. 2: Threadgill, the multi-reedist, and Melford, the pianist, represent two generations of experimental tradition, and here they presented new suites under the banner of the AACM. Each led an ensemble featuring exacting younger musicians, notably in the guitar chair: Liberty Ellman was a focal point in Threadgill’s Zooid, as was Mary Halvorson in Melford’s quartet. The result was a program illuminated by the play of erudition and discovery.

Originally published in January/February 2009

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