As a certain Hollywood icon weirdly made clear at this year’s Republican National Convention, not all jazz folks are Obama-backing Democrats. But as “Jazz for Obama 2012” argued on Tuesday night (Oct. 9) at Symphony Space in New York, a lot of them are; more to the point, they’re Obama-backing A-list musicians who share history and friendship with pianist and organizer Aaron Goldberg. His remarkably brisk three-hour program at Symphony Space was a smartly planned cavalcade of diverse headlining talent, punctuated by some sloganeering but not too much. Most of the time, the music transcended the message; even in support of very well-intentioned politicians, it usually does.
That’s not to say the politics were obscured completely. A few speakers reminded ticket-buyers-entry cost $100, with half-price admission available for students and seniors-why they were there. Comedian and New Yorker columnist Andy Borowitz kicked off the night and killed, taking predictable partisan shots at Mitt Romney and Fox News but also turning his guns toward MSNBC; music journalist Ashley Kahn skewed poignant, with some useful jazz analogies about wanting the Pres to “stretch out” during a “second set”; and Dee Dee Bridgewater, a host along with Goldberg, improvised her earnest remarks.
Aside from some meaningful song titles the music never became explicitly political, but it made its own indelible argument nonetheless. Pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Gregory Hutchinson backed Jimmy Heath on two standards the octogenarian tenorman delivered with hearty tone: “There Will Never Be Another You” and “Autumn in New York.” Carter dueted with the saintly Jim Hall, who showed the signs of age more than Heath. Still, with his archtop guitar at a whisper, Hall dealt his always surprising chordal improvisation on “All the Things You Are” and exercised his funky, percussive right hand on “Bags’ Groove.”
Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. worked in Classic Quartet mode. Ravi Coltrane, as he proved last week with his working quartet at the Vanguard, is a player, composer and bandleader who doesn’t require surname recognition. But here he invoked his father to thrilling effect. He and the band played “Wise One,” off John Coltrane’s sober Crescent album from 1964, as if it were “Acknowledgement,” stretching and wailing atop Peterson’s thundering foundation. (He didn’t so much accent his swing as detonate it.)
More powerhouse tenor sax and Trane associations followed with the duo of Joe Lovano and McCoy Tyner, who revisited their terrific union from a half-decade ago with “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner delivered his stylistic trademarks in fine form, spiking his fourths with near-violence and submerging his attack in sustain. Another duo, this time featuring McBride and Bridgewater at her bawdy best, proved on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” that proper funk doesn’t require a drum kit or Fender bass.
Vocalist Gretchen Parlato and vocalist-guitarist Becca Stevens, two-thirds of the singer-songwriter unit Tillery, offered their intelligent, musicianly brand of folk on two numbers. It surely wasn’t jazz per se, but it was certainly jazz-informed, with advanced harmonies and chordal movement that probably reminded the middle-aged-and-older crowd of Joni Mitchell.
Brad Mehldau took to the piano accompanied by McBride for a take of Monk’s “Think of One.” Here, the unflagging internal meter of both men was revealed: McBride grabbed hold of the melody, ornamented it and soloed with his typically commanding technique and intonation while Mehldau laid out for long stretches, reentering with sparse comping at precisely the correct moments. They were already swinging when Jeff “Tain” Watts entered midway through and set the trio on midtempo (and midcentury) cruise control.
A band of pianist Arturo O’Farrill and his sons, drummer Zack and trumpeter Adam, plus bassist Alex Hernandez, percussionst Craig Haynes and vocalist Claudia Acuña, overhauled (and cluttered) Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Allen, Watts and bassist Henry Grimes played driving, cutting freebop-and, courtesy of Watts, free-neo-soul. Allen and Watts formed an axis, propelling the performance toward accessibility while Grimes improvised walking lines and tumultuous arco drones.
The final group, with Goldberg on piano, Lovano, McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, manhandled Monk’s “Epistrophy,” wrenching every bit of blues and funk and sleaze from the theme. When it came time for Haynes to solo, he embarked on a marathon. He rolled and bashed and settled into a lengthy series of accents against McBride’s precision-timed ostinato. Smacking mostly the snare, rims and toms as if trying to break his kit, he expertly teased the beat, dropping his attacks before or behind it with the sort of panache that only a lifetime of swinging can bring. It was an immaculate evening climax.
Bridgewater returned to the stage after the tune ended, saying, “That’s it, it’s over,” and reiterated to the crowd the importance of voting Obama. It was a necessary reminder: The last thing on anyone’s mind during Haynes’ solo was politics.