Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 23/4/2014
published: 3 /
Lisa Torem at the Old Town School of Folk Music enjoys the Chicago date of a tour from some of its regular players to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the iconic Newport Jazz Festival
It is not every Sunday evening you get to hear a superb line-up of international musos whose collective knowledge of jazz stylings lead to seamless arrangements, but Sunday’s Old Town School performance delivered both. The tour celebrates the 60th year of the iconic Newport Jazz Festival, which was first produced in 1954 by pianist and now octogenarian George Wein, who still remains committed to the festival and who still retains a sharp eye for spotting contemporary talent. The current touring ensemble features musicians from both American coasts as well as Israeli-born clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen.
A few players had already established a musical history prior to this 'Newport Festival: Now 60' celebration yet all onstage looked like old friends in awe of each other. World class multiple Grammy winner and trumpeter Randy Brecker stood to the side watching the captivating blend when not engaging in a precise note-for-note paux de deux with clever Cohen, who, on clarinet, later displayed a series of sounds resembling urgent mating calls of indigenous birds. But Cohen and Brecker demonstrated their solo talents through out the evening too, coursing through the lush, vintage and contemporary selections with enviable technical skill and emotion.
The set list was also international. The first number, ‘The Dip Shit’ was played up elegantly in elongated fashion, which included several choruses and ample time for each player to strut his (or her) immaculate stuff. Cohen and Brecker first set the stage by doubling on the cartwheel-like melody with Cohen embracing some poignant low and pure tones. Vocalist Karrin Allyson, wearing a flowing black and silver blouse, began her first scat. Whilst this first offering was animated and lively, framed by pianist Peter Martin’s rich block chords, fluid ornamentations and arpeggios and, finally, the ensembles’ big blast of an ending, the more conventional and mellow ballad ‘Can’t We Be Friends’ followed. Allyson’s voice was especially warm and effusive. The interplay between the rhythm section members was contagious. In contrast, the moody and mysterious melody of Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ turned the bright concert hall into a smoky after hours post-war getaway. Jump-started by a moaning bass set against brooding vocals, it ended in a throat-clenching growl.
What made the early evening show especially strong was the mindset that lurked behind the sequencing and varied styles of the set list. The late Dave Brubeck’s chart-topping ‘Take Five’ was awarded a surprising take-off and illuminating landing. The typically pronounced 5/4 rhythm took a nose dive; replaced with a jagged, jerky cacophony. Who knew that that song could go there? Brecker and Cohen showcased their wares and then rejoined more conventionally.
Vocalist and polyglot Karrin Allyson, who can rattle off Brazilian and French phrases as easily as her native English, put a curious spin on Edith Piaf’s classic ‘La Vie en Rose'; - the breathtaking ballad conveyed a carnival atmosphere. First off, Brecker and Cohen played in tandem than broke away leaving Cohen to up end a series of thrilling birdsongs and trills, which rose abruptly and then quivered to a halt.
Brecker headed off ‘Two Bass Hit’. His take was upbeat and fierce. Cohen duplicated that intensity and drum meister Clarence Penn served up a spellbinding, hard-hitting solo. For the moment, Brecker and Cohen manned the tambourines as Allyson broke into ‘Favela’ co-written by Brazilian composer Carlos Jobim.
Bassist/composer Larry Grenadier stood under the spotlight performing a melodic piano-driven original. The “trio” (bass, keys and drums) played ‘Pettiford’, a tribute to the composer of the same name (Oscar Pettiford). It was another swirling ninety-degree contrast from the previous composition. Unlike the sway of that Brazilian ballad, ‘Pettiford’ really swings with sharp, jabbing harmonies and plenty of bluesy epiphanies. Piano comping led to a fine bass solo and a drum solo interjected with the seductive sweep of brushes. Penn incorporates a welcoming sense of humour into his skilled performances and plays with supreme confidence.
Then Long Islander Mark Whitfield treated the audience to a slow-moving but crisp and loving ‘Midnight Sun’. The glimmer of his guitar’s tuning heads reflected against the seams of his leather trousers. Now centre stage, his natural affinity for performance really became apparent. But in between numbers, various musicians paid tribute to their colleagues. After this juncture, several paid tribute to Brecker’s longstanding legacy. “We’re learning from him,” stated Penn, who inspired nods from the others.
‘Yeh Yeh’ is a saucy ballad revved up by the versatile, non-stop Allyson. After the audience demanded an encore, they got the original, ‘Cuba – New Orleans’. Allyson sat at the piano this time, at the ready, whilst keeping time. Cohen added some menacing squawk. It was impossible not to notice the respect these musicians feel for one another. It’s got to be challenging to celebrate sixty years of jazz performance in the duration of one 75-minute set but, by George, I think they’ve got it.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.