Of Mutts & Melting Pots

President Kennedy coined the phrase “a nation of immigrants” in tribute to the various diasporas that came here voluntarily or in chains. But President-elect Obama was simply going for a joke when, in discussing his family’s search for a dog, he referred to “mutts like me.” Maybe he was onto something, though: a nation of mutts. (He was, of course, using the vernacular and not the literal meaning, as derived from “muttonhead”—a distinction that needs to be spelled out for some in the right-wing blogosphere.) If the melting pot, characterized by a rabbi in 1906, never came to a boil, the mongrel culture that brimmed over the sides has been this country’s pride, joy and most effective ambas-sador for the better part of a century. Indeed, we helped mongrelize the world, as foretold by Duke Ellington in his posthumously released The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: “It’s most improbable,” he noted, “that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom.”

Purity, like virginity, is greatly overrated except when refining olive oil. The more we study jazz in the context of its times, the more we are obliged to recognize that jazz is almost always locked in a willing embrace with other musical cultures, above and below, behind and ahead, or straggling alongside. Jazz gives mongrelism its good name, taking what it will from where it will. Consequently, the definition of jazz—or rather, the scope of its extended family—is constantly expanding.

As recently as the 1970s, as I began writing to make friends and influence people, Ethel Waters and Bing Crosby had been excised from jazz history; the Mills Brothers and Frank Sinatra were mocked as compromised performers; Louis Jordan and Julia Lee were ignored or forgotten (she still is!), and Al Jolson and Paul Whiteman were not only disregarded but vilified. Stanley Dance once reviewed a book about Jolson in these pages with the backhand recommendation that it might interest those who read, uh, me. I did my part with a fatuous dismissal of Whiteman. Yet today the name Bill Challis brings a twinkle to my eye, and if his name means nothing to you, you can download Whiteman’s recordings of Challis’ “Lonely Melody” and “Changes,” for starters.

It was in that same period that Gil Evans was critically assaulted for his adaptations of Jimi Hendrix, which grow in stature daily, and Miles Davis generated more fury than Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor at their most intransigent. The incomparable Waters, Cab Calloway and Helen Forrest were very much alive and still performing, but jazz was too hip to pay them much mind. Hip, like hep, is also overrated except when shopping for a zoot suit.

We tend to be more open now: Herbie hits a homer with Joni Mitchell and Cassandra expands the jazz fake book in many directions. So how come the imperious Brazilian singer-guitarist-songwriter-cellist-bandleader Adriana Calcanhotto is practically unknown here? True, Brazilian Pop Music (or MPB for Música Popular Brasileira) is a rapidly expanding universe and only so many inroads can be made in the North American market. Yet this artist, for whom jazz is merely an ingredient (but an important one, especially in the way she organizes her rhythm section), is one of the most enchanting vocalists I’ve heard in years.

Calcanhotto’s precision performance, as part of the 40th International Jazz Festival in Barcelona, and my appreciation were hardly diminished by the splendid setting: one of the world’s most magnificently ornate theaters, the Palau de la Música Catalana, a restored monument to Catalonian architectural modernism, built in the early 1900s. The Palau provided the colonnades, sculptures, mosaics, pipe organ and stained-glass skylight. Calcanhotto brought the giant shell that occupied stage right. I don’t know what the shell symbolism means, but she held a smaller one when she made her entrance, posing statuesquely at the stage apron, before seating herself amid a fastidiously responsive quartet and several guitars, each of which she used to distinct effect, including one with reversed strings (high E on the top, low E on bottom). The audience’s evident familiarity with most of her songs reminded me that it was in Copenhagen that I had previously discovered Rosa Passos. Musically, the distance between Brazil and Europe is shorter than between the Americas.

Joan Anton Cararach, the indefatigable director of Barcelona Jazz, concedes that he books pop acts he doesn’t like to guarantee sellout concerts, but Calcanhotto doesn’t fall into that category. Her angelic voice and instrumental acumen is inextricable from her ability to craft a set, so that practically each number alters the combination of musi-cians (from solo vocal numbers to extended percussion duets), as well as tempo, mood and attitude. At one point, she put down a guitar and a musician handed her a cello and bow and she rocked the thing. Then she swanned over to the apron to receive her due, a lovely apparition in colored robes—most people I spoke to assumed she was in her early 30s, but she had just turned 43. She has recorded many albums for Sony Brazil: Import them! Import her!

Another Barcelona highlight was an evening of duets by Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, reflecting Cararach’s decision to do something more unusual than a saxophone-plus-trio concert. The event, which nearly filled the larger L’Auditori, was received with a rapt attention and raucous enthusiasm that clearly inspired the musicians. The two-hour set began as an introverted dialogue, delicate pronouncements and rapid responses, a mutuality of courteous lyricism that grew increasingly assertive and even blissful, ultimately exploding in a dazzling “Donna Lee” and an amorous “Sophisticated Lady.” If this was a conventional jazz-qua-jazz evening, the racial muttdom spoke for itself, as it does so often in jazz. Yet the punch line of this peroration awaited me when I got home, and went to the Jazz Standard for the first night of a four-night/four-bands 50th birthday salute to Don Byron. This was the night devoted to the music of Mickey Katz with Jack Falk singing the parody lyrics mostly in Yiddish so that few could understand them. You didn’t need to: It was a mongrel evening. I didn’t understand Calcanhotto’s Portuguese either.

Originally published in January/February 2009

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