Stewy sings the jazz blues
Decades ago, I bought the “Milestones” album (a cassette tape, to be specific) simply because I thought I should have a jazz album, a Miles Davis album, in my collection. I listened once, maybe not even all the way through, unable to grasp … anything … and put it in a corner of my room that housed an outgrown baseball glove, a broken lava lamp, a jar of pennies and some other items I wasn’t going to need anytime soon. Jazz, it appeared, was, at best, going to take years to grow into.And eventually, I did. The first album I ever got for free, just for being an arts writer for The Aspen Times, was jazz: “Allison Wonderland,” a two-disc collection of music by Mose Allison. It was mostly a stroke of luck – Allison’s take on jazz was steeped in blues; he had a great sense of humor; his tunes were easy to grasp – short, structured, and along with playing piano, he sang. I loved the collection – still do, in fact – and for anyone looking for an entry point into jazz, Allison is recommended. It worked for me.Thanks to Jazz Aspen and the Wheeler Opera House, I got close-up introductions to the incredible Wynton Marsalis Septet, the unfathomable Herbie Hancock, the magnificent Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, the wonderful Joshua Redman. I gobbled up jazz albums, old and new; among those that made an indelible impact were Roy Hargrove’s “Habana,” Hancock’s “New Standard,” Redman’s “Spirit of the Moment,” everything from Miles’ second great quintet era.And a few years after my introductory era ended, I got to see Allison at the Wheeler, and meet him backstage – significant markers on my music appreciation trail. (Worth noting: When my wife and I were having a child, my choice for a boys name was Mose. We had a girl, which averted what would have been a doozy of an argument.)I never lost my affection for jazz, exactly. But periodically over the last few years, I would notice that my love had dulled some. Where jazz used to make up maybe a third of the piles of CDs in my office, now it was a tenth. Other genres bumped it aside: There’s only so much time to listen, and my craving for bluegrass and contemporary rock was on the rise. Not that I couldn’t rise to an occasion. Concerts by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with the African ensemble Odadaa! at the Benedict Music Tent, and by guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau at the Wheeler were as good as music gets. My go-to bathtub music was drummer Paul Motian’s “I Have the Room Above Her.” But, difficult as it is for me to admit, my ears were getting a little tired of jazz – there was a lot that seemed predictable, overly familiar, unexciting. Events of the past few months have caused me to rethink things. Of the four concerts that have hit me hardest over the past half-year, all were jazz shows. And all of these shows had a real impact on me, the kind that doesn’t go away in a matter of days or even weeks.The first was in early March, when the keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood made its Belly Up debut. I had seen MMW – keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood – several times before, generally in less-than-ideal settings. This one was close to perfection. The groove laid down was powerful, unpredictable and always, always, pushing the envelope. I danced at the edge of the stage the entire show, watching every move, and came away thinking that I had never seen a group of musicians who poured everything they had into each note the way MMW did. There were no moments of laying back, easing off; even when the beat got slower and the music got quieter, every sound was played with maximum intention. For a week afterward, I’d run into people who had seen the show, and they were still experiencing the after-effects.Wynton Marsalis returned to the Music Tent in June, again leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Big-band jazz had never been my favorite style, but this was big-band executed at an extraordinary level, with heart and drive, imagination and a vivid sense of the history of the music. And even a bit of funkiness. Aside from how totally absorbing the music was, and how everyone seemed to be, for the night at least, as much of a big band fan as I, I was most struck by Marsalis’ humility. The biggest name in jazz conducted just one or two numbers, took only one or two solos, spotlighted other musicians’ compositions. For the most part, Marsalis took his place in the back row, just another cog in a phenomenal music-making machine.Among my great favorites has been guitarist Bill Frisell. Despite having grown up in Denver, Frisell has never played Aspen, and I was beginning to think I would need to road-trip to see him play. But wonder of wonder, Frisell’s name showed up on the schedule at the new PAC3 in Carbondale, of all places, instantly becoming my most must-see show in memory. Still, I had some doubts. Frisell’s mix of jazz and Americana, distinctive as it was on recordings, was slow and meditative and might, I thought, not translate well to the stage.Wrong I was. Appearing with a newly hatched string quartet (violin, viola, cello, electric guitar) plus drums, Frisell had me from the first note, playing a brand of jazz/classical/string-band/jam music unlike anything I’ve heard. The crowd was utterly silent; I could feel them hanging on each passage. Then the quintet moved into song mode, first with an instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” as Frisell found indescribable beauty in a melody I’ve heard a hundred times. When the show ended, I encountered a handful of people who appeared in the same mental state I occupied: We had just seen not just a musical happening, but a spiritual one.In August, the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, the current version of the Cuban sensation Buena Vista Social Club, played the Aspen District Theatre. Overcoming a slow start – the venue, not really designed for concerts, took some getting used to – the band caught fire when singer Omara Portuondo took the stage. Portuondo didn’t stay long – she is 80 – but her presence ignited both the band and the audience, and from there Buena Vista’s take on Afro-Cuban jazz was on fire.Sad to say, then, that jazz seems to be in short supply in the months ahead. Jazz is the one style that hasn’t done well at Belly Up; the Wheeler doesn’t do much of it. Jazz Aspen probably won’t have anything till after the new year.A shortage of jazz – that might be just what I need to realize how much jazz means to firstname.lastname@example.org
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