03/07/12

The 2012 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival

"Real Jazz" lives with Harper, Haynes, Payton and others

“Jazz” festivals booking pop, rock and R&B acts is one of the most common gripes in jazz conversation. It’s now one of those old, futile complaints that just sort of pass the time; for jazz people, it’s on par with griping about winter weather or taxes. And it dovetails nicely with another, more complex grievance that has for the past couple decades been gaining steam: how even what is now defined as jazz sounds like pop or art music or something else decidedly non-swinging.

The third edition of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, which took over a Hilton Hotel in the D.C. suburb of Rockville, Md., Feb. 17-20, touted the slogan, “Standing Up for Real Jazz,” and it mostly did. (This is as good a time as any to disclose that JT was a festival sponsor.) Mid-Atlantic featured jazz as it’s defined by core values you might associate with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the majority of current jazz radio: swing; head-solos-head arrangements; an idea of canonical repertory; the indomitable foundation of the blues and African-American culture in general; and, in the form of clinics and an ambitious school band competition, the need to instill the music in young people.

If you follow jazz’s current post-genre dialogue, which is thrilling but also confusing, the traditionalism heard in Rockville was comforting; it reminded you that a steadily driven swing rhythm played on a ride cymbal is nothing less than a key to the universe. And when the programming did stray from jazz proper, it did so primarily in the name of jazz’s cultural roots rather than sheer commercialism. In other words, gospel celebrity Kim Burrell was this festival’s Al Green or Mos Def. (On Sunday afternoon, only a day after she performed at her late friend Whitney Houston’s funeral in New Jersey, Burrell took her sandy, sharply controlled voice to a set of jazz-inflected contemporary spiritual music, including a “Someone to Watch Over Me” remodeled as a Christian ode.)

There is a good deal of irony about the Mid-Atlantic fest: Its location along the strip mall-lined Rockville Pike makes it a specific thing to seek out, yet it hosts the sort of swinging jazz that laypeople want to hear when they wander into a downtown jazz club. Walk-by traffic would only benefit this event. As it stands, however, the festival did just fine: Organizers estimate a total 3,500 participants.

Away from commission-fueled pretensions, Mid-Atlantic presented jazz as cultured entertainment. On Friday evening, Baltimore native Winard Harper gave a kind of tutorial in sophisticated crowd-pleasing. Harper brought with him a strong young septet highlighted by trombonist Michael Dease and pianist Roy Assaf—the latter of whom added ammunition to an argument I’ve been forming, about how the Israeli players who’ve emerged in the past decade are some of our strongest torch carriers for blues- and swing-based jazz.

There were many bravado-laden drum solos—a lot of today’s drummers self-consciously do not focus on the drums when leading their own groups, but Harper isn’t one of them—deftly textured horn solos that abided by the harmony and rode the pocket; and rhythms garnered from throughout the African diaspora, from the traditional through the R&B-derived and swinging. The program extended from beyond standard (“Moanin’,” in a rendition whose slickness evoked ’80s Blakey) to compositions by lesser-known straight-ahead giants like Sonny Clark, Ray Bryant and George Cables. But this wasn’t a repertory act: Cables’ “Helen’s Song” was given a neo-soul groove dealt between the hi-hats and snare rim. It all came off as accomplished yet accommodating. And Harper, whose personality positively glows onstage, hit with some very well placed jokes during his band introductions. In all, this was a fun hour-plus.

Roy Haynes, who received the festival’s 2012 Jazz Service Award for achievement and advocacy, played brilliantly but took the funny stuff during his set to a level that treaded on discomfort. Behind the kit, 86-year-old Haynes was swing incarnate. Anchoring his outstanding Fountain of Youth Band featuring saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and pianist Martin Bejerano, he both reinforced his stature as living history—a bebop architect who helped invent the unflaggingly swung ride cymbal and the dropped bomb—and argued for his continued relevance, doing things you simply don’t hear elsewhere, like homing in on specific elements of the kit during his solos rather than working its circumference in virtuosic bluster.

The repertoire was terrific and, if you’ve seen Haynes in recent years, familiar. One go-to tune found its theme reprised later during the set: “James,” a Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays composition whose melody is radio-worthy and no less evocative of the American heartland than Aaron Copland. (Even if you’ve never heard it before you might instantly connect its ’70s pop and folk feel to Metheny.) Haynes mirrored the head on his kit, with a drummer’s melodic sense second only to that of Paul Motian.

There were other moments of grand invention: an unaccompanied drum solo during which Haynes used mallets to turn his toms into timpanis, and a recasting of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Summer Nights” that worked into some modal burn. (Haynes was also crucial to the ’60s, mind you. Remember Newport ’63?) But the music seemed to be only two-thirds of Haynes’ set. The other part was occupied by Haynes’ tap-dancing; funny, goofy exchanges with the audience; mic-tapping; cryptic philosophizing; and singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” All of those things are trademarks of the Haynes experience, and the drummer, dressed to the nines as always, works a delightful onstage persona. But a little banter goes a long way, and here it was too much. It seemed to inspire some early exits in the audience—something that should never happen at a Roy Haynes gig. (For a clinic in how much humor is just right, there was Harper or the set by saxophonist and festival director Paul Carr’s superb band with pianist Joey Calderazzo, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Terell Stafford, bassist Michael Bowie and drummer Lewis Nash.)

On the mainstage on Sunday night, the Trumpet Summit featuring Nicholas Payton, Stafford and Brian Lynch was all business. As far as all-star blowing sessions go, this was a well designed one, if light on interplay and cutting. Book-ended by ensemble numbers, the meat of the program was a series of excellent solo performances of standards, including Payton’s tremendous take on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Earlier in the day, the trumpeter and online provocateur had discussed his recent BAM controversies with journalist Willard Jenkins in the festival’s “Billy Taylor” conference room, where Payton reiterated his idea that he performs not jazz but “archaic pop music.” On the Mercer Ellington-credited blues, he put his philosophy into practice, delivering the melody with vocal expressivity and pulling the audience’s attention deep into his solo with a full sleeve of finely handled techniques: long tones; tasteful and effective high-note playing; expert use of alternating dynamics. It was the summit of the set and probably of the weekend.

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