Dennis Irwin Benefit Concert
This all-star concert, organized by John Scofield and Joe Lovano, was supposed to be a benefit to raise money for bassist Dennis Irwin, who was undergoing treatment for cancer without health insurance. But a few hours before the show, sad news spread that Irwin had passed away, casting a somber tone around these proceedings and turning the performances into tributes. A much-beloved figure on the scene for the past 30 years, he touched a wide range of musicians with his warmth and humanity, hipster charisma and wry sense of humor, along with an easy, downhome Southern manner. And while his soulful spirit permeated the Allen Room on this doleful yet beautiful evening, his presence was greatly missed by everyone who took the bandstand, as well as by friends and family members in the audience.
Musically, Irwin’s unerring sense of time and his uncanny ability to make every band he played in feel good affected countless musicians, from Betty Carter, Horace Silver and Art Blakey to Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, Ted Curson, Annie Ross, James Williams, Mel Lewis and Chet Baker, among many others. A longstanding member of the Vanguard Orchestra, the Alabama native was also a stalwart sideman and reliable road warrior in the John Scofield Quartet of the ’90s, the Joe Lovano Nonet and Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts band. And while he had a secret passion for clarinet, which he would rarely break out on the gig, Irwin was a bass player to the core of his being.
With Cameron Brown filling in the bass chair, the Lovano Nonet opened this fast-paced concert with two songs from its 2000 Blue Note recording, 52nd Street Themes. Tadd Dameron’s reflective “Whatever Possessed Me” suited the melancholy mood of the evening, with Lovano offering a moving testimonial on tenor sax. On Willie Smith’s rousing blues “Deal,” all the members of the band got a taste. Lovano unleashed a passionate solo on this uptempo burner, actually hopping a bit onstage as he beared down on his horn. Alto saxophonist Steve Slagle added some heat of his own on his solo, as did trumpeter Barry Ries and tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama. The dynamic band also engaged in some boisterous shout choruses on this upbeat blowing vehicle and had some crisp, slick exchanges of eights with drummer Lewis Nash.
In his personal testimony, Wynton Marsalis spoke of Irwin’s “magnificent attitude” on the bandstand and also addressed the bassist’s infinite capacity for dropping colorful anecdotes about jazz lore. “Dennis loved to tell stories and he carried a lot of identity of the music with him,” said the J@LC artistic director.
Pianist Bill Charlap appeared with the hand-in-glove rhythm tandem of Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. They opened with a poignant rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s tender ballad “Some Other Time,” with Charlap cleverly interpolating Bill Evans’ pianistic motif from “Flamenco Sketches” underneath. After a jaunty number that highlighted the trio’s uncanny group interplay, Charlap introduced Tony Bennett. At age 81, the legendary vocalist is a master craftsman who still takes chances with his phrasing and choice of notes, as he demonstrated in a gorgeous rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” and a rousing take on “I Got Rhythm” that was fueled by Peter’s insistent walking and Kenny’s sizzling brushwork. While singing with more reserve these days, Bennett can still reach for those dramatic high notes when the feeling strikes him, or scat fluently and convincingly, as he did on the tag of “Rhythm.”
Guitarist Scofield performed in a rare trio setting with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci. Together they resurrected Sco’s lilting waltz-time number “Flower Power” from 1990’s excellent Time on My Hands and romped through Charlie Parker’s blazing bop anthem “Dexterity.” Pianist-singer Mose Allison, performing with bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Matt Wilson, reflected Irwin’s sense of humor and Southern roots in witty ditties like “City Home,” “Ever Since the World Ended” and “Tell Me Something That I Don’t Know.” Guitarist Joe Cohn and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen performed a touching duet rendition of “Body and Soul,” while pianist Dom Salvador, one of Irwin’s first collaborators after arriving in New York in 1974, turned in two lively samba numbers in tandem with saxophonist Dick Oatts.
Guitarist Bill Frisell, in a trio setting with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Paul Motian, turned in an emotional reading of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a delicate take on Ron Carter's haunting "Mood," and a raucous rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Raise Four.” David Berger and His Sultans of Swing, a mainstream big band that Irwin was a member of for 11 years, closed the show in swinging fashion with three featured guests. Wynton Marsalis played brilliantly on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” strolling in front of the stage, eschewing the microphone while pointing the bell of his horn out to different sections of the audience, spraying appreciative patrons in the Allen Room with penetrating, well-chosen notes.
Jon Hendricks and his daughter Aria turned in a swinging rendition of Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’,” and Aria, who was Irwin’s partner through the last years of his life, performed an emotional reading of “The Very Thought of You.” Berger’s Sultans concluded their set on a high-flying note with Count Basie’s anthemic swinger, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
Proceeds from the concert, which carried a ticket price of $150, will be used by the Jazz Foundation of America to defray costs for Irwin’s treatment and to support other jazz musicians in crisis, in accordance with his wishes. The Jazz Foundation’s Wendy Oxenhorn explained to the audience that while Dennis’ cancer was not detected until it was already in stage four, the Foundation would henceforth be making free cancer screenings available. That should come as good news to the hordes of jazz musicians who continue to get by in life with no health insurance.