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July 13, 1998
by Lee Jeske

CitySearch Music

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? Barclay 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 full flower).

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 rhythmic foundations.

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.

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