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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Despite a snowstorm that threatened to shut down the government, an enthusiastic audience turned out on a frigid Friday night to see the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Sextet perform its portrait of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Such tributes can be problematic: Adderley was not only a popular crossover musician, he was also an extraordinarily accomplished and charismatic player, and the only way such a tribute can work is if you have a compelling soloist and articulate host to bring out the spirit and context of Adderley’s music. Fortunately, the SJMS can call on saxophonist and Howard University Music Professor Charlie Young to fill those very big shoes. Young shared insightful, personal and sometimes funny stories about Adderley that gave everyone a flavor of the rotund man behind the recordings. But it was the music that people came to hear and the Sextet didn’t disappoint.

Young and his colleagues began the program with one of Adderley’s earliest works, “A Little Taste,” from his 1955 Savoy session. The tricky theme was expertly played, and Young and trumpeter Tom Williams both came out swinging. A couple of tunes from Adderley’s tenure with Miles Davis followed. “All Blues” found tenor saxophonist Luis Hernandez taking his time, building tension and generating heat à la Warne Marsh by playing slightly behind the beat. Drummer Steve Williams kicked off “Two Bass Hit,” and the solos segued as Young began his by incorporating the final phrase played by Hernandez.

Young plays with an impressive, big sound; he certainly didn’t need any amplification for this 300-seat auditorium. While he can run the changes as well as anyone, it’s refreshing to hear someone double- or triple-time something, then wrap it up with an in-the-moment melodic phrase. The other members of the sextet did more than accompany Young. Pianist Robert Redd doesn’t look like he’s worked a 1,000 one-nighters playing funky hard-bop blues, but on the Bobby Timmons soulful waltz “This Here (aka ‘Dis Hyunh’),” he sure sounds like it. The inevitable “Work Song” found Williams incorporating unconscious gestures into his trumpet solo. He would play a hot lick, adjust his glasses with perfect rhythmic punctuation and then rip off another mighty phrase. This guy is so musical he probably solos with his spoon while eating his breakfast cereal. Other highlights of the concert included the relaxed groove of “Nippon Soul,” Nat Adderley’s bluesy boogaloo “Jive Samba,” Young’s gorgeous inflections on the Charles Lloyd ballad “The Song My Lady Sings” and his heartfelt, sanctified solo on “Country Preacher.” Young plays with more clarity, authority and creativity than most of the recent Berklee Music School grads with record contracts. Someone should sign this guy up, right quick.

Despite the sluggish economy, draconian federal budget cuts and diminishing philanthropic support, the Smithsonian is hanging in by utilizing its resources with tenacious and creative programming. Other programs scheduled this year include a tap workshop and performance celebration of dancer/actress Jeni LeGon, a Bix Beiderbecke tribute with Randy Sandke and a concert with the Artie Shaw Orchestra under the direction of Dick Johnson.

Originally Published