Beyond “jazz” conventions from NEA Jazz Masters

Jazz, defined by creativity, pushes boundaries — a fact alluded to and demonstrated by two of the new NEA Jazz Masters at the gratifying if lengthy ceremony and concert held at Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, Jan 12. Muhal Richard Abrams and Yusef Lateef were inducted into the canon that now recognizes 114 musicians and advocates of what House Congressional Resolution 57 (passed with Senate concurrence in 1987) calls “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” Both men performed in ways that draw from but aren’t constrained by the heritage/legacy/tradition of swing, blues and ballads often cited by the conservative end of the music’s continuum as sine qua non for the four-letter, two-Z designation.

Muhal, the pianist-clarinetist-composer-improviser who has been a guiding light of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) since co-founding it in 1965, played piano seemingly without pre-determination, then moved to conduct the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis in an uncompromisingly modernist (angular, atonal, episodic, ambitious) score to start the concert, which included representations of the works of all eight of this year’s Jazz Masters: pianist Cedar Walton, singer Annie Ross, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, composer-arranger Bill Holman, pianist Kenny Barron and even pioneer producer George Avakian, besides Muhal and Lateef. 

Lateef, the 90-year-old reedist, improvised apparently from scratch (silence) a duet with percussionist Adam Rudolph, who has partnered with him on such music since 1988. The two worked without any reference to stated theme, principles of harmony or regular rhythm; they developed their interactions based solely on the sounds of their instruments, which included wood flute, metal tube, hand-squeezed air-bag, Australian didjeridoo, and the tenor saxophone with which Lateef first made his mark in jazz, as a leader and sideman (in Cannonball Adderley’s great sextet of the 1960s, for instance). Here’s a video sample of their music, though Rudolph played no congas at Lincoln Center.

The Lateef-Rudolph duo, edgy and unpredictable though it was, palpably moved the jazz-spangled audience, coming in the middle of a nearly four-hour show that featured videos of each Master, their introduction by previously named Jazz Masters (James Moody, Paquito d’Rivera, Gerald Wilson, Dan Morgenstern) some of whom were longwinded, and speeches by the new inductees. Listeners may have been surprised by the starkness with which the collage-like improv began, but were held rapt throughout its progress and exploded in applause as it came to a natural if hard-to-explain end.
Muhal’s piece, titled “2000 Plus the Twelfth Step” and originally commissioned by Jon Faddis’ now-gone Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, was dealt with a bit tentatively by the JLCO at first, but the ensemble grew to its task. A trumpet soloist (not Wynton — was it Marcus Printup?) tried heroically to launch a statement equal to the edifice Muhal had constructed, but drummer Ali Jackson offered a string of quotes from some great predecessors — Krupa’s double-bass drums, Roach’s isolated high-hat, Blakey’s cowbell rhythm among them — suggesting he was puzzled about how to approach the particular music at hand. A mature personal vision may be requisite to enriching, rather than simply performing, a piece as challenging as Muhal’s; Ted Nash was up to the task, playing a focused flute solo that moved the work towards its climactic ensemble finish.
By comparison, Bill Holman’s big band chart based on a Lester Young lick was fleet and frolicsome, exhibiting the light yet piquant instrumental blends associated with post-Stan Kenton West Coast jazz. The JLCO handled its parts supporting Cedar Walton’s song for his mother with professional polish, as it did on Hutcherson’s best-known composition “Little B’s Poem” and Annie Ross’ shout-out “Music Is Forever.” The Orch was at its best concluding the night with “Stompy Jones,” Duke Ellington’s sketchy backdrops for solos — here realized by Wynton, clarinetist Victor Goines, baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley and trombonist Vincent Gardner. This finale was Avakian’s choice, based on a project he’d dreamed up but which never happened: Louis Armstrong, Guest Artist, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Armstrong and Duke did record together, in 1961, in the context of a sextet rather than Duke’s full contingent, at the instigation of producer Bob Thiele).
The 2010 NEA Jazz Masters are not the first class of inductees to include titans who not only extended but revolutionized the jazz they’d grown up on. Sun Ra was among the first three Masters named in 1982 (Dizzy Gillespie, also a revolutionary, and Roy Eldridge, who always swung for the fence, were the other two). Over 28 years, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Gil Evans, George Russell, Cecil Taylor, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Abbey Lincoln, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Bob Brookmeyer, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Andrew Hill, Gunther Schuller and Lee Konitz may be identified as Jazz Masters who devoted themselves to exploring and establishing new frontiers of jazz’s expanding territory. I’m not sure any of them had their music played during NEA ceremonies comparable to the Rose Theater concert, which is why it was so heartening to see and hear Muhal Richard Abrams and Yusef Lateef honored on the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage. May the iconoclasts, innovators and visionaries of this art form continue to be lauded, and have their musics presented, as central to the lineage. When that happens, jazz assures its future.
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