Live: Allen, Carrington, And Spalding Play Jazz Rather Than Define It At The Village Vanguard
Better than: More sniping and griping about the future of jazz.
Maybe you've heard, but there's currently a storm, part lament and part manifesto, brewing in one quarter of the jazz scene, in which depending on whom you talk to, the very word "jazz" was either an abomination to begin with or has outlived its usefulness. My take? A deflection, really: The process is always better served by listening rather than talking. It's precisely what I wanted to do even more of last night after hearing pianist Geri Allen, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington together, primarily because the expansiveness of their set raised the kind of questions that rendered any speechifying moot. Neither mentioned the "j" word during their turn addressing the audience from the mic, but the allegiance to the idiom was clear as a bell. (And long before the jiggy bass'n'drum vamp that introduced Frank Loesser's "If I Were A Bell", too.) The set's expressionistic push-pull turned out to be a show of jazz fealty as disorienting as it was riveting.
Still very much a new entity, the trio was lifted out of the stellar assemblage of women that Carrington (a veteran of tenor icon Wayne Shorter's groups and talk-show comedian Arsenio Hall's late-night "posse") gathered for Mosaic, her 2011 disc. The drummer has insisted that Mosaic's gender makeup wasn't a "political statement", and why not believe her? Her sistuhs are very much in demand: Allen, 54, is indisputably the finest pianist to come along in the '80sshe might've ended up as influential as her twin Herbie idols Hancock and Nichols if jazz's waning popularity hadn't been further exacerbated by music-biz fragmentation in the digital eraand as for Spalding (a friend to the Obamas, Uniqlo pitchwoman, Prince opening-act, and arch nemesis of Justin Bieber fans), the line outside the Vanguard last night said all we need to know about her value both creatively and commercially. (Both sets were sold out.) Tenorist Joe Lovano, a Vanguard fixture and Spalding's employer in the ensemble Us Five, could be spotted in the audience.
Common ground was established much the same way it always is on the bandstand: through tunes. To some extent, the audience was witnessing the new amalgam feel each other out. Allen's rubato progression on the opener, Shorter's "Masqualero", set the tone for both the piece and the set, but perhaps it's fitting that Carrington, the Shorter alum, took the lead. The slippery dynamics, a catalog of rimshots and cymbals, were where she played with the tune's elasticity. It was then Allen's turn to assert herself on Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann," though Spalding's bass features added warmth to Allen's stately returns to the theme. If a performance is indeed a dialogue between player and listener, what I found most interesting is how the smallest kernel of familiarity went a long way with the audience. "Miss Ann" brought only slightly fewer howls of acceptance than "If I Were A Bell." Loesser's easy structure was as cloaked by the trio's freewheeling improvisations as Dolphy's more complicated one.
The distances between a stalwart from the American Songbook and a jazz standard were made even clearer on the final two pieces. Allen's arrangement of the Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky To Be Me," a ballad probably best known in jazz circles through pianist Bill Evans, made the most of limpidity. Allen reharmonized a bit of it, adding subtlety that allowed its progressions to ripple out in waves for Spalding to wade into. Although there was nothing even remotely obvious about it, in contrast to the multi-level edifice the trio structured for Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha", the set closer, the ballad seemed almost like a walk in the park. Before revealing itself, "Ah-Leu-Cha" went through several sectionssome discursively impenetrable, others thrillingly soloisticwith Carrington's drumming handling much of the suspense. When the trio finally settled into the tune, Allen's statement placed it somewhere between a classical fantasia and "Fascinating Rhythm." Given the composition's bebop pedigree, it seemed a statement of both reverence and its opposite, the sign of a group uninterested in resting on its laurels.
Critical bias: Two of the three instrumentalists are accomplished vocalist; glad neither showed it off last night.
Overheard: Nada...you've heard about the Vanguard's quiet policy, correct?
Random notebook: Midway through the set Spalding decided the group should be called the "ACS Trio." Music this bracing needs something more evocative.
If I Were A Bell
Lucky To Be Me