[JPL] The Shape of Jazz's Past & Present
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Fri Dec 7 14:35:21 EST 2007
The Shape of Jazz's Past & Present Live Review By Will Friedwald
BY WILL FRIEDWALD
December 7, 2007
Over the decades the terms for a particular, oft-employed jazz technique
have changed, just as the technique itself has drifted into and out of
fashion: In descriptions of jazz of the 1920s, it is called a "chase
chorus." In the annals of swing-era jam sessions, it's referred to as
"trading fours." Later, Charles Mingus and other modernists had their own
variations on the idea. The idea sounds simple: One soloist plays a few bars
(usually a metrically divisible number, such as eight measures, four, or
two), then another horn player answers him with a solo statement of the same
brief length. Then the first player responds to the second, and so on.
Traditionally, these exchanges were used for the sake of variety, or as an
excuse to give the drummer a chance to interact with the front-line horns at
the end of a set. But lately, as in the music of the Dave Douglas Quintet
which is appearing this week at the Village Vanguard and that of the
all-star quartet Shapes of Jazz, with Joe Lovano and Tom Harrell appearing
until Sunday at Iridium this formerly marginal concept is becoming a key
driving force in the way contemporary jazz is created. It could be described
as a "conjoined solo."
In the opening set for each group Mr. Douglas on Tuesday and the Shapes on
Wednesday the first two numbers included a piece that was tightly
composed, with a clear and distinct opening melody, and another that was
largely improvised, leaving lots of room for the two central horns to
interact and create something new on the spot.
Mr. Douglas began with a memorable and hummable new piece, "Campaign Trail,"
before progressing to "Moonshine," in which the melody was less important
than the interaction the trumpeter-leader achieved with his longtime fellow
front-liner, the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
"Moonshine" is also heard in a very different form as the title cut on a new
album by Keystone, Mr. Douglas's more electronica-driven group, which will
be distributed to stores next month but is already available for downloading
at Musicstem.com. The Douglas quintet at the Vanguard also utilized some pop
elements, notably a Fender Rhodes in place of acoustic piano, played by
Orrin Evans, and, frequently, an underlying foundation of funk vamps. On
many of his conjoined solos with Mr. McCaslin, Mr. Douglas played with a
hard-driving, straight-ahead attack, while the tenorist has developed a
style that strings short, percussive notes into long phrases that come off
as somehow staccato and legato at the same time. The two horns sounded
together, yet distinct. It's also important to note that even when Mr.
Douglas, as a composer, doesn't stress the opening melody, he nonetheless
takes the trouble to write out transitional passages in between solos and
even backgrounds for the horns to play behind Mr. Evans's keyboard solo.
Where Messrs. Douglas and McCaslin work together regularly in this
long-standing quintet, the saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Tom Harrell
only appear jointly on special occasions. Still, they share a history of
more than 25 years of working together in different situations, all of which
they can channel in concert. Their most famous collaboration was on the 1994
"Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard," and, since this week they're
working in the same format of trumpet, tenor, bass (Cameron Brown), and
drums (Cindy Blackman), they began with two tunes from that set: Mr.
Lovano's "Fort Worth" and Mr. Harrell's "Sail Away."
Both are strong melodic lines, but it's the way the two tackle them together
that's remarkable. On Wednesday, Mr. Harrell played "Fort Worth" on
flugelhorn, and Mr. Lovano, appropriately, softened his own sound in
response. The latter can play with a biting edge when he wants to, but here
he made the timbre of the horn match the flugel, and the two interacted
throughout, playing equal parts that added up to a tune.
"Sail Away" is perhaps Mr. Harrell's most widely heard composition, a slower
piece that's not quite a ballad. At the Iridium, it sounded more joyous and
upbeat than on most of its many recordings, possessing a Gerry Mulliganesque
quality that I've never heard before. This was contrasted by the next piece,
which referenced the leader of the most famous two-horns and two-rhythm
group of all time, Ornette Coleman, via Mr. Coleman's famous dirge, "Lonely
Woman." Here, Messrs. Lovano and Harrell matched their sonic personalities
once again: When Mr. Harrell switched to the harsher sound of the trumpet,
Mr. Lovano pulled out the sharper-sounding and less mellow soprano
The Vanguard and Iridium sets had something else in common, too: The two
groups concentrated on their own originals at the beginning, then moved on
to jazz standards at the end. Halfway through Tuesday's set, Messrs. Douglas
and McCaslin treated us to one of Thelonious Monk's most touching ballads,
"Reflections," in a loose, not restrictively Monk-ish interpretation. Here,
Mr. Evans's solo was particularly impressive; I can imagine that it must be
imposing to tackle the work of the man who made the piano sound like a
completely different instrument on a Fender Rhodes. Mr. Douglas's big
surprise was "Nobody Else But Me," one of Jerome Kern's final songs, and
one, unfortunately, that is rarely played by jazzmen, as Mr. Douglas
indirectly acknowledged when he said he learned it from a Mabel Mercer
album. He gave it a bright and open tone, more like a swing stylist (e.g.,
Roy Eldridge or Bobby Hackett), taking the tune seriously but with a sense
of humor to lighten it.
For the second half of their set, Messsrs. Lovano and Harrell also gave us
unique takes on standards, or rather, variations on variations, namely "I'm
All for You" (the tenorist's revision of "Body and Soul"), and they closed
with a hell-for-leather "Oleo," Sonny Rollins's take on the "I Got Rhythm"
changes. In fast and furious numbers over familiar chord changes such as
these, the two horns up front tend to engage in more of a duel than a
collaboration, which is another venerated tradition of jazz: Even when
they're playing against each other, they're still playing with each other.
wfriedwald at nysun.com
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