2010: The Year in Gigs

Nate Chinen reflects on the most memorable performances he saw during the year

My Gig of the Year took place 60 years ago, under less than favorable conditions, and it could easily have slipped everyone’s notice. The only token I have of its existence is a six-minute-long recording taken from the radio, and never released in any form. I’m referring of course to the live version of “Body and Soul” performed by Coleman Hawkins in May of 1940, during the tenor saxophonist’s ill-fated engagement at the Fiesta Danceteria on Times Square. By a wide margin, it’s the track I’ve pored over most this year, playing it on countless occasions and marveling anew each time.

As you may have heard, the track was one of many recorded to aluminum or acetate disc by the audio engineer William Savory, and acquired this year by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We can thank the museum’s executive director, Loren Schoenberg, for his persistence in pursuing these recordings, which had been moldering for decades. There’s gold in them grooves: primo Lester Young, fine Charlie Christian, top-shelf Count Basie. Here’s hoping the Savory Collection will eventually be available to all, because this music begs to be heard—especially “Body and Soul.”

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Stuart Brinin

Regina Carter

Hawkins had recorded his iconic studio version of the tune seven months earlier. Here he stretches farther, framing the melody and then spinning outward like an expanding galaxy. His debonair solo—both logical and radical, abuzz with chromatic tensions—sounds disarmingly modern. And it couldn’t be more arresting: He takes his time constructing an argument, engaging your higher faculties, and then he lowers the boom.

The Year in Gigs, my annual roundup of 10 unshakable jazz performances, celebrates this ideal precisely. Hawkins’ newly rediscovered “Body and Soul,” almost lost to the ages, still has the power to overwhelm—and there were moments in each of the shows below that managed something similar, at least for this critic. And if that notion isn’t enough to connect us to Hawkins’ vaulted time, consider his gripe about the Fiesta Danceteria, whose management asked him to sweeten it up. “Mine isn’t a Mickey Mouse band,” he said, “and if I can’t play the music I want, I’d rather not have the job.” Good thing he lasted long enough—about a week—to leave behind a trace. And a track.

Lee Konitz-Mark Turner Quintet, Iridium, Dec. 17: Despite the obvious parallel—to the Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh alto-tenor hookup of yore—this onetime engagement dispelled all precedent, as two generations of discursive saxophonists met with a strong, supple rhythm section, anchored by drummer Tootie Heath. Bonus points for Konitz in fleeting duologue with pianist Ethan Iverson, something that should happen again.

Claudia Quintet with Gary Versace, The Bitter End, Jan. 9: A lot of people were clamoring to get into this Winter Jazzfest hit, a de facto prerelease show for the fine album Royal Toast (Cuneiform). Drummer John Hollenbeck led his chamberesque working band with considered gusto, and Versace, on piano, helped agitate the brew.

Fred Hersch Trio, The Falcon, Feb. 6: Making his first visit to the Falcon, a room of rustic elegance in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hersch applied his elegant but driving pianism to a trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Richie Barshey—not his usual partners—for two terrific sets of that’s-how-it’s-done.

Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, Wolfensohn Hall, March 19 and 20: Full disclosure: I served as an onstage moderator for these two concerts, presented by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Improvising in solo and duo formats, each pianist articulated a clear identity while managing to elevate the other. And the two nights were startlingly different; don’t ask me to pick one, because I can’t.

Regina Carter and Reverse Thread, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, March 23: Carter’s violin made for a brisk, urbane host during this celebration of Reverse Thread (E1), her African-folklore project. But groove was the main point, and Carter’s partners, particularly Yacouba Sissoko on kora and Chris Lightcap on bass, hammered it home.

The Ear Regulars, Ear Inn, April 25: Traditional jazz has a hardy roost in the Ear Inn, a historic Lower Manhattan dive bar where trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and the guitarist Matt Munisteri hold court on Sunday nights. On this night they were joined by saxophonist Harry Allen, who certainly knows his way around “Limehouse Blues.”

Tri-Centric Modeling: Past, Present and Future, Le Poisson Rouge, June 18: Composer-multireedist Anthony Braxton presided over his own mini-festival with a grateful exuberance, performing not only with his 12+2tet, which brought bold finesse to “Composition 361,” but also with one of his old quartets, featuring Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums.

The Nels Cline Singers, Mass MoCA, Aug. 14: Nels Cline showed up in the Berkshires for the first-ever Solid Sound Festival, organized by Wilco. (He’s the band’s lead guitarist.) His namesake group, a ruggedly resourceful jazz-rock trio augmented by keyboardist Yuka Honda, threw down on a side stage, drawing both Cline cultists and curious bystanders. Across the board, minds were blown.

Sonny Rollins @ 80, Beacon Theatre, Sept. 10: Too obvious? Well, the great jazz summit of this or any other recent year was too good not to find its way here. Believe what you’ve heard about Sonny Meets Ornette, which had me walking home on a column of air. But there was also the trio with bassist Christian McBride and Roy Haynes, and the all-too-brief reunion with guitarist Jim Hall, and a dashing turn by trumpeter Roy Hargrove. And through it all, the man himself, having a night to remember.

SFJAZZ Collective, Jazz Gallery, Oct. 22: This all-star confab never seems to disappoint, but here it more or less knocked me out, with ambitious but not overwrought revisions of Horace Silver music, and a few intrepid originals besides. Every member of the band brought his game, but the Coleman Hawkins moment, for me, belonged to the aforementioned Mark Turner, on “Triple Threat,” a song by bassist Matt Penman. If you were in the audience and pulling a Savory that night, you know where to find me.

Originally published in January/February 2011

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