A Wild Celebration of 25 Years of Jazz at the New School
The New School’s jazz program turned 25 this year: to celebrate, they threw an eclectic, often transcendent bash last night featuring a mix of jazz legends, alumni, faculty and students, a younger generation practically jumping out of their socks to be playing with icons, the veterans just as psyched to be up there with what could be the next generation of jazz greats. The premise of the night – other than to get more than three hours’ worth of enticing video for students who might be vaccillating between jazz programs – was a tribute to former faculty members Frank Foster and Benny Powell. For whatever reason, the program ended up having more to do with Dizzy Gillespie than the Basie connection those two shared for decades. But what’s unplanned is almost always why jazz is so much fun.
The Foster/Powell tribute kicked off with a blistering version of Foster’s Manhattan Madness. Reggie Workman, as shrewd an observer of talent as there is, introduced the band and told everyone to keep an eye out for pianist Martha Kato, a student. He was right on the money about her: fearless when it came to mining the lowest registers for magisterial power, she showed off a crystalline, bluesy purism that made a perfect match alongside a mix of alums and faculty: Kenyatta Beasley (who conducted the ensemble) ; Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet; Arun Luthra, Keith Loftis and the Cookers’ Billy Harper on saxes; Christopher Stover on trombone; Rory Stuart and Mike Moreno on guitars; Josh Ginsburg on bass; and the Yellowjackets’ Marcus Baylor clattering up a storm on drums. Their take on a series of swing, Afro-Cuban and bossa nova themes reveled in the tunefulness that defined Foster’s repertoire.
The night’s single most transcendent moment was a rich, gospel-infused blues duet between pianist Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji. The two play together in Mance’s trio and share a finely attuned chemistry, Fuji adding an element of mystery with judiciously placed glissandos, Mance mimicking Fuji’s attack with some unexpected flutters of his own before returning to an otherworldly glimmer. The two were done all too soon. Mance plays with his trio most Sundays at Cafe Loup on 13th just west of 6th Ave. in case you might need more of him.
Close behind was an expansive, high-energy yet richly dynamic “trumpet battle” led by the great Jimmy Owens in tandem with Bridgewater, a tribute to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Thad Jones and also Thelonious Monk. Owens’ straight-ahead, often slyly witty style paired off with Bridgewater’s artfully ornamented attack; Bridgewater’s decision to do Clifford Brown’s Dahoud as a subdued, plaintive ballad was shatteringly successful. Again, it was a student, bassist Tony Lannen, who held the crowd rapt with both his wit – it takes nerve to punctuate your first solo of the night with a joke and make it resound like he did – and then a bristlingly precise, rapidfire spot later on which he played entirely with his bow. Meanwhile, Winard Harper put on a clinic in joyous, counterintuitive, latin-tinged beats: when he finally got a solo, it was all avant garde sticks and hardware and rims, and yet purist in a way that drew a straight line back to Elvin Jones. At one point, Owens wanted to take it all the way down to just his horn, but pianist JoAnne Brackeen wasn’t looking up: she’d become one with the resonant sheets of Monk she was playing at that point. Another up-and-coming talent, Alejandro Berti, joined in a genially crescendoing round-robin of trumpets to wind up the set on a literally high note.
For the night’s second duet, faculty pianist Andy Milne joined forces with Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a radical, slowly unwinding, atonalist reinterpretation of Body and Soul. The night ended on with the more traditionally ecstatic sounds of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, first backing nonagenarian tenor player Frank Wess and then fellow tenor legend Jimmy Heath, who’s five years his junior. Wess embodied pure soul, matched nuance to energy and got two standing ovations out of it; Heath, eternally youthful, refused to take a seat, cheered on his new bandmates – Mike McGarill, Tom Abbott, Lucas Pino, Asaf Yuria and big baritone guy Jason Marshall on saxes; the explosive Cameron Johnson and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet; Ivan Malespin and John Mosca on trombones; Yonatan Riklis on piano and Mike Karn on bass, with drummer Joe Strasser showing off a nimble originality matched to a power that never quite exploded – clearly, he was feeling the room and played to it perfectly. Chanteuse Brianna Thomas – whom none other than Will Friedwald has anointed as arguably the new generation’s finest straight-ahead jazz singer – joined them and battled a nonresponsive PA to put her message of sass and style across vividly in a rousing take of Lover, Come Back to Me. Otherwise, Vilner’s arrangements of Bud Powell (a potently percussive Un Poco Loco) and Diz nimbly articulated voices throughout the ensemble, Vilner himself taking the occasionally understated bluesy solo spots on alto sax. When they closed with what sounded like a Gillespie reworking of a Louis Jordan jump blues, Heath grinned and looked on deviously before choosing his spot to join in the raucous riffage as it wound out. It was something of a shock to see a handful of empty seats: concerts with the sheer magnitude of this one don’t come along every day.
The New School may not have weekly concerts like they had back in the early days, but those they do have tend to be extraordinary: both Marc Ribot (with his noir soundtrack project) and Ethiopian jazz masters Either/Orchestra have delivered equally sensational concerts here in recent months, something to keep in mind if you’re looking for major live jazz events percolating just under the radar.
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