Monday, September 26, 2011

NYT - "Jazz Classics, Still of the Moment"

(Jon Hendricks & Arnaldo DeSouteiro in NY)

Jazz Classics, Still of the Moment
by Stephen Holden for The New York Times

September 26, 2011

"There's a rumor going around that I'm 90," Jon Hendricks remarked from the stage of Frederick P. Rose Hall on Saturday evening, as he flashed a sly believe-it-or-not smile. In his imagination, he admitted, he was still only 11.

Because a large part of Mr. Hendricks, one of the originators of vocalese -- the application of fanciful, pirouetting lyrics to jazz instrumental solos -- is a precocious, inexhaustibly voluble boy carried away by musical word games, the smaller number feels about right. As for Mr. Hendricks's influence: I don't know if he would agree that the leap from vocalese to rap isn't that great, but it seems obvious. Both are a matter of snatching words out of thin air and infusing them with rhythm. Beneath Mr. Hendricks's sophistication is an unquenchably playful, boyish spirit.

Mr. Hendricks and friends and family took up the first half of Saturday's program, "An Evening with Jimmy Heath and Jon Hendricks," the season opener at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Mr. Heath, the saxophonist, big-band leader, composer, arranger and middle brother of the Heath Brothers, who shared the bill, is also seemingly ageless at 84. The same question that Dianne Reeves, one of Mr. Hendricks's guests, posed to Mr. Hendricks -- "Where is it?" -- could as easily be asked of Mr. Heath, agile and grinning as he conducted his piece ensemble. "It" was "the fountain of youth."

If Mr. Hendricks's voice, at 90, is a husk of what it used to be, its rhythmic component remains intact. So is his legacy, which is being carried on by his talented daughters, Aria, a brash, flashy improviser, and Michele, who is softer edged and closer in style to Ella Fitzgerald. Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, who with the three Hendrickses filled out the quartet that opened the show, is a virtuoso scat improviser. Backing Mr. Hendricks and his guests was an octet led by Andy Farber. The third special guest, the singer Sachal Vasandani, seemed underused.

Ms. Reeves applied her stamp to "Social Call," the Betty Carter signature song, with lyrics by Mr. Hendricks. If Carter's self-contained angular style and Ms. Reeves's lush wide-open singing couldn't be more dissimilar, the song welcomes both approaches. That one-man acoustic-music machine Bobby McFerrin joined Mr. Hendricks for an extended improvisation, "Scatting on the Corner," in which they took turns singing the bass. The set closed as Mr. Hendricks and his guests gathered to turn "Jumpin' at the Woodside," into excitable group chatter.

After an intermission Mr. Heath and his band played a gleaming set infused with the propulsive drama of a big-city soundtrack. Mr. Heath's compositions, like "Big 'P,'" "Gemini," "Togetherness" and "A Sound for Sore Ears" all have the solid structure of elongated songs that combine a brawling propulsion with an undertone of melancholy. Throughout you could hear distant echoes of the film composer David Raksin, but with the strain of noirish melodrama overwhelmed by layered, bebop harmonies that didn't stray into abrasive dissonance; minor keys prevailed.

Mr. Heath's arrangements are remarkable for their clarity, even in the most piled-up instrumental passages. The set's narrative momentum, the sense of a story rushing forward, rarely flagged. The band's crowning glory is its trumpet-flugelhorn section -- Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Terell Stafford, Sean Jones -- whose members paraded to center stage for solos that hit near-maniacal peaks of sassy braggadocio. Within the orchestra they provided blasts of explosive punctuation that drove the arrangements like whiplashes.

You could describe the evening, with its luminaries whose careers date from the 1940s, as historical, and its theme, the intertwining of jazz vocal and instrumental traditions over many decades. But it was also, often thrillingly, of the moment.

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