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NEA Jazz Masters 2015: Immaculate Presentation

Celebrating the new honorees with a smart, concise program

2015 NEA Jazz Master Joe Segal at the 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert on April 20, 2015 in Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York City.
2015 NEA Jazz Masters Charles Lloyd, Carla Bley, George Coleman and Joe Segal with NEA Chairman Jane Chu (from left)
Carla Bley, 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert, JALC, NYC
NEA Jazz Master George Coleman performs at the 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert, JALC, NYC
George Coleman performs with Harold Mabern (piano), Eric Alexander (saxophone), John Webber (bass), and Joe Farnsworth (drums), NEA Jazz masters Concert 2015, JALC, NYC
2015 NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd at the 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert on April 20, 2015, JALC, NYC

The 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert, held Monday, April 20, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in New York, was, as big-institution presentations go, a nearly painless experience. Honoring Carla Bley, 79; George Coleman, 80; Charles Lloyd, 77; and Chicago club owner Joe Segal, 89, it was fun, and moving, and its two-hours-plus runtime seemed neither too brief nor too long. That first sentence might seem cynical-how could an all-star jazz confab be trying?-but as awards shows on network TV keep proving, just because an organization has a lot of resources doesn’t mean it knows how to utilize them. The host at Rose, bassist and broadcaster Christian McBride, was pitch-perfect, and the speeches, including introductions by other NEA Jazz Masters, were mostly prewritten, which meant they didn’t ramble. The video presentation for each awardee was meaningful and reflective of a real budget.

The occasion merited such savvy and professionalism. The Jazz Masters Fellowship, which the NEA initiated in 1982, is accurately touted as the nation’s highest honor in jazz. It comes with a one-time stipend of $25,000, and is viewed as entry into a hall-of-fame for the music. In recent years the number of annual Masters has been pared down to three musicians plus a non-player recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy. Still, it’s a coup for jazz in 2015, when any new information about public arts funding is too often a tale of woe.

Before and after some brief opening remarks from new NEA Chairman Jane Chu, a quintet of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Helen Sung, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Rudy Royston paid swinging tribute to recently departed Jazz Masters Clark Terry (with his “Serenade to a Bus Seat”), Horace Silver (“Filthy McNasty”) and Charlie Haden (“Hello My Lovely”), and it was rewarding to hear Mahanthappa and Royston, postmodernists in other settings, play winningly standard bop.

JALC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis turned up to speak on behalf of the ceremony’s facilitators, before Latin-jazz eminence Eddie Palmieri introduced Carla Bley, haltingly but kindly. In her speech and video clip, Bley spoke about her romantically humble beginnings, working in the coat room and as a cigarette girl in New York jazz clubs, and how musicians like Paul Bley and Steve Swallow have changed her life’s course. With saxophonist Tony Malaby, electric bassist Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond she performed her “Ups and Downs,” a swinging midtempo tune with a skewed, Monk-like blues sense. Malaby, one of New York’s most dependably engaging avant-gardists, looked and sounded confident on the JALC stage, calling to mind an openhearted mainstream tenorman like Joe Lovano.

Saxophonist Lou Donaldson, jazz’s best living raconteur, introduced his pal and fellow saxophonist George Coleman, “the refugee from Tennessee,” as he called him. Donaldson delivered-one of the few, if only, speakers not to require a teleprompter-though a roundabout boxing anecdote lacked his typical pithy hilarity. Onscreen and onstage Coleman discussed his formative blues and R&B experience, which he put to burning use in a band with a cadre of hard-swing torchbearers who call the uptown New York club Smoke their clubhouse: saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth and pianist Harold Mabern, still levitating through his solos at age 79.

After an affecting tribute to late Jazz Masters by A.B. Spellman, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant commanded the room with a take on “Motherless Child” that moved stealthily from rubato to tempo and allowed her to showcase her striking range. The regal pianist Kenny Barron spoke about Charles Lloyd, who offered insight on his Memphis mentors and profound relationship with percussionist Billy Higgins. (It wasn’t long after Higgins died that Lloyd heard his current drummer, Eric Harland, at the Blue Note. “I knew Billy must have sent him,” Lloyd said.) The saxophonist performed an excerpt from his recent long-form masterwork, Wild Man Dance Suite, with most of the quintet that recorded it-including pianist Gerald Clayton, a more conventionally elegant, lyrical contrast to Jason Moran, who performed the work in Lloyd’s band two nights prior. (See JT Notes, p. 8.)

Joe Segal, proprietor of Chicago’s longstanding mainstream club the Jazz Showcase, was the evening’s final recipient. His advocate, Jimmy Heath, played soprano sax with Drummond, Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb on drums and two members of Windy City jazz royalty: Ira Sullivan on alto sax and Stu Katz on piano. They played “Dewey Square” with a rugged insight that only men raised in the immediate shadow of Charlie Parker can. It was old music in an institutional setting, but it had an edge.

Originally Published