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Various Artists: A Great Night in Harlem

Mention the word “benefit” and jazz musicians respond. Build a jam and they will come-without asking about bread. They are the most giving because they are the most needy. As Nat Hentoff points out in the liner notes for this two-disc album, “Jazz musicians do not get medical insurance. Nor do they receive pensions…[W]hen they’re no longer working regularly because of illness or because they’re out of fashion, some become homeless or are threatened with eviction.” Thus, this benefit jam at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in September 2001 for the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund, under the umbrella of the Jazz Foundation of America, with all proceeds from this CD collection adding to the coffers.

It’s impossible to mention all who showed up, but here are some highlights.

The beauty of ballads outshined the excitement generated by crowd-pleasing, uptempo swing. Regina Carter and Kenny Barron turn Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” into a 14-minute violin sonata. Barron’s piano comping is sensitive; Carter’s fiddling is exquisite, climaxed by a classical cadenza, replete with double stops and sweeping arpeggios. “If I Had You” is a personal vehicle for blues-tinged Nnenna Freelon, but again, the comping by Barron and also Jon Faddis is riveting. They also take outstanding solos, the pianist in relaxed stride and the trumpeter in cloud-piercing mode.

More memorable slow moments: Ray Bryant’s solo version of “Con Alma,” which is devoted to a mostly rubato exploration; a heartfelt duet take on “We Have a Friend in Jesus” by guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Jimmy Owens; guitarist Marvin Sewell bringing the Delta to the Apollo as he intros the deep, soulful voice of Cassandra Wilson on Son House’s “Death Letter.”

Ahmad Jamal goes airborne on “Devil’s in My Den,” displaying astonishing technique. Equally amazing is that tenor George Coleman keeps up with him. Randy Brecker is in fine bop form on “No Greater Love,” propelled by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Good to hear Tommy Flanagan on Duke’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird.” Frank Foster’s chart “Fanfare for Four Trumpets” is a brief, swinging brass soli featuring Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, Randy Brecker and Eddie Allen.

Finally, Roy Haynes’ solo track is a master class in melodic drumming.

Originally Published