In July, the jazz focus shifts beyond New York, as our city's hordes
of jazz musicians--all primed and ready to go--hit the literally
hundreds of European jazz festivals and, in many cases, earn more in two
months there than they take in the rest of the year here.
But the New York season ended not with a whimper, but with a flurry of
bangs, including the one jazz critic Stanley Crouch delivered to the
face of another, Howard Mandel, the one several dozen Knitting Factory
regulars delivered, in the form of a petition, to the accounting books
of Knit owner (and Texaco Jazz Festival producer) Michael Dorf, and the
many delivered rhythmically in the name of Afro-Cuban music.
It was an incredibly memorable month, filled with good music and a
handful of emotional peaks. Texaco actually felt like a festival, with its humongous tent, bevy of Tribeca locales supplementing a stuffed-to-the-gills Knitting Factory, and hordes of hipsters
crisscrossing avenues they had previously never heard of (Murray Street?
The highlights were numerous--Previte, Baron, Rivers, Threadgill--but,
strangely, its two finest moments were achieved way north of Canal
Street. The double bill of Ravi Shankar and Ravi Coltrane was ravishing
in its emotion. Coltrane brought his mother Alice out for two stunning piano-sax duets and a full-band version of one of father John's anthems, as well as engaging her in some lovely and touching verbal interplay. Then, for the first time, he heard the man he was named for perform. And Shankar played a breathtaking hour (the usual amount of time, he pointed out, for his tuning), showcasing his remarkable daughter Anoushka on sitar. The younger generation stood tall and proud, leaving two beaming parents and one beaming audience.
The other emotional high point was the Knitting Factory's long-planned
New York Jazz Awards Show. Pooh-poohed by many--the "Who needs another
awards show?" ["would have been the" deleted] cartoon bubble over the heads of many
entering Alice Tully Hall for the event ["--" deleted] was quickly shattered by the
emotionalism and gratitude expressed by a surprisingly large and diverse
turnout of jazz elders. It's hard to remember who won what, but nobody
there will quickly forget the sentiments of the graying members of the
generation that created jazz, as Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, Charlie
Haden, Elvin Jones, Dewey Redman, Milt Jackson and many others each ascended the stage and said something like, "We've been waiting our whole lives for a night like this."
Don Byron expressed the sentiments of everybody in the room when he said
that he was "humbled" by the evening. Don Byron and "humble" are not usually used in the same sentence.
JVC went on its predictable way, with its emotional peak being reached
early, when Joao Gilberto hunched over his guitar, alone in the middle of Carnegie Hall's vast stage and, in his quiet baritone grown slightly husky with age, sang the gorgeous, bittersweet bossa nova songs he introduced to the world 40 years ago. Lush songs in a lush setting, and easily JVC's finest moment.
Among the other JVC highlights were the Brazilian singers Gal Costa,
Maria Bethania and Leny Andrade, and the Afro-Cuban (or salsa, if you
will) sounds of Celia Cruz, Cubanisimo, and Ruben Blades. Eagerly
awaited was Cuba's revered dance ensemble Los Van Van, but their set was
disappointing and tepid. Still, if June had a theme, Afro-Cuban music
might have been it. Texaco devoted a whole night to it, which included
an appearance by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett and her Spirits of
Havana band, which places her amid some of the island's finest
improvisers (their new Blue Note album, "Chamalongo" captures them in
If June left us with any notions about jazz's future, you couldn't help
thinking about that embargoed island floating just below Miami and the
music that grew out of it 60 years ago, 40 years ago, 20 years ago, and
the music that's growing out if it today.
There's no doubt that much of the thunder of Texaco and JVC was muted by
two Cuban events that were part of neither: the delayed Village Vanguard debut of pianist Chucho Valdes, and the Carnegie Hall appearance by Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club (produced by the Knitting Factory, which desperately wanted it to take place during Texaco).
Valdes was tied up by our State Department for a week, so the Vanguard
was an emotional tinderbox when he finally sat down at the piano, eight
days into his planned two-week engagement. The veteran pianist--he
founded Irakere decades ago--brought his Cuban quartet and then made
them superfluous, playing Art Tatum-esque amounts of piano, causing gasps
in the room with his kitchen-sink technique, built on ever-mutating
It's a type of piano that is somewhat distancing--a good word for it was
Jim Macnie's "garish"--but it is impressive, and impressive was what
Valdes was aiming for. The Buena Vista Social Club--musicians from a
different era--played the heartstrings that Chucho missed with a
pre-salsa sound that is gentle and majestic and a performing aesthetic
that favors subtlety and grace over bombast.
It's interesting to note that the only bands that were featured at both
Texaco and JVC (although at free outdoor shows during the latter) were Marc
Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos, Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye, and Ray
Barretto's New World Spirit.
Ribot, who has the strongest combination of downtown jazz (Zorn,
Medeski...) and hipster rock (Waits, Costello...) credentials of anyone
going, may have his finger firmly on a pulse. Unlike Cooder and Bunnett,
who just settle into a context and let the Cubans do the talking,
Ribot's Cubanos Postizos (Prosthetic Cubans) gives a 1998 New York twist
to the music of Arsenio Rodgriquez, a Cuban composer from the same era
as the Buena Vista Social Club's Cubanos Autenticos. They have just put
out a delicious album on Atlantic (a rare major-label issue for a Knit
regular) whose press copy calls it "Latin big band tunes for the post
punk generation." They rocked Bryant Park.
No, all in all, June's month of jazz festivals left us not with a bang,
but a clave.