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What I learn about jazz from super-groups.

Tonight I had the opportunity to see a group comprised of six amazing individual players: Tom Harrel, George Cables, Dave Liebman, Billy Drummond, Lonnie Plaxico, and Jeremy Pelt. If you know anything about any of these players you might be thinking to yourself: “I would never guess in a million years that I would hear that group playing together”, and I’d be inclined to agree with you. Luckily, there is one place in the universe with special electromagnetic properties that creates such occurrences on a regular basis: Iridium Jazz Club in Midtown Manhattan.

What sounds good on paper can sometimes be a disaster once its transformed to sound. I’ve seen more than a couple of these ‘mash-up’ jazz supergroups with disastrous results. Reasons include the fact that usually little or no rehearsal time is scheduled (resulting in what sounds more like a jam session than a band)  and that most of these players have established themselves as big names because they’re leaders, not sidemen.

Jazz today has two polarized sub-genres to me: those that are centered around (incredible) improvisational solos, and those which are centered around collective ensembles which serve the compositions at hand. Reading that back to myself it seems like a harsh statement; sure some great improvisors do in fact submit themselves to the compositions they’re approaching, but more often than not I feel like the rhythm section finds some way to interfere with the process that can’t be called symbiotic.

I had low expectations tonight (I’d been burned before) but the results weren’t completely catastrophic, though the first tune almost was. When Dave Leibman played the first solo on Four he played exactly like Dave Liebman, but the rhythm section comped like they were playing for an Aebersold recording session. Billy Drummond in particular barraged the soloist with an egomaniacal backbeat which he repeated at least two more times during the set. The rhythm section managed to take an (albeit stubbornly) genius solo and boil it down to bunch of noodling honks. I’m not saying they were completely at fault; if I were Dave Liebman and I had been playing with this rhythm section for four nights already, maybe I would have tried to find some kind of middle ground so as not to completely disenfranchise the audience on the first tune of the set.

Fortunately, it was uphill from that point on. Maybe they got it out of their systems, or maybe it was the excellent bourbon I was drinking, but the rhythm section was generally more complimentary for the rest of the set. The show was a tourist-friendly bill: ‘Tribute to Miles Daves: Birth of the Cool to Bitches Brew’, but they never actually got around to the latter in this particular set, which I’m very thankful for. That period of Miles is much better suited for a group like the one that is playing Prospect Band Shell June 18th. Instead, they hovered around the 50’s and 60’s periods and the second tune of the set was a beautiful rendition of Someday My Prince Will Come. It happens to be one of my favorite standards, but all personal bias aside, on this tune Liebman was channeling tenor saxophone history a bit more and Cable’s ostentatious comping seemed both cute and more tasteful than the first attempt.

Bassist Lonnie Plaxico shines more in his passionate solos than his feel to me, but his efforts span a wide range of styles and I don’t really have anything negative to say about him – just that he wouldn’t have been my top choice to compliment any one of these soloists. George Cables is a legendary piano player and one of my favorites, but he’s confidently set in his ways and he knows what he’s doing (in this context I’m pretending that’s a bad thing). I think he’s much better received as a leader of a trio than a sideman of a sextet. He did take the role of straw boss on this gig, MCing for the evening, but musically there was no real leader.

Now, to discuss the trumpet players. Randy Brecker wasn’t on the gig as advertised, which I was somewhat relieved for (both because three trumpet players is two too many and because I’ve been less than impressed with Brecker’s playing in the past. That being said, Tom Harrell is one of my favorite trumpeters of all time. His strengths were all the more apparent tonight because he has a way of shining truth and his incredible voice through whatever circumstances he might be in. Every single solo was like parting the Red Sea.

Jeremy Pelt is not to be discredited just because he was sharing the stage with a legend of the trumpet. He took the most logical approach, which was to completely counter everything Harrell played. On two or three tunes he played with a harmon mute, but even when he didn’t his tone is brash and edgy. Next to Harrell’s incredibly round and warm tone, Pelt’s trumpet sounded like a completely different instrument. Luckily, he has a mastery of many corners of the jazz language and was able to take the reigns over this power-hungry rhythm section and make each solo stand alone. If he hadn’t, the set would have been nothing more than a glorified jam session since everyone soloed on every single tune. Pelt’s unique approach was particularly notable in the band’s version of 81, which he managed to turn both into a shuffle, Bird blues changes, and Serpent’s Tooth changes. Cable’s reluctantly followed suit. His solo on ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ was also poignant, particularly quoting two or three additional Disney classic tunes which sounded in no way contrived. Its refreshing when someone can effectively execute quote without making me feel uncomfortable.

The night was both good and bad but what tipped the scale to a win for me was a ballad medley in the middle of the set. This is just a personal thing. I absolutely love ballads and generally feel that the tunes are so perfect that most improvising over them is extraneous so medleys are one of my absolute favorite things and they’re rare enough that I consider it a treat every time I hear one. Harrell opened up the set of tunes with Darn That Dream and it seemed like everyone else tried to downplay the significance of their own tunes after his crushing rendition. Cables’ version of Stella by Starlight–  which immediately followed –  was refreshingly light and boisterous, and Liebman’s Blue in Green actually managed to invoke some visual stimulus in me (something which isn’t common). Jeremy Pelt closed the medley with I Thought About You which served as a final tip o’ the hat to Miles.

So all in all, sometimes these jazz super-jams sound like some kind of scientifically mutated animal that wishes you would kill it, but on the other hand when something is too disturbing to look at on the whole, it allows you to digest the separate individual features more thoroughly, which is nice once in a while. Jazz.

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