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Taj Mahal isn’t a jazz man, of course, but a blues legend —- and a powerful one. Put it this way: during “Annie Mae,” four songs into his guitar-drenched set, one of the speakers at the lip of the stage began smoking. The roadie who disconnected and hauled it off actually got an ovation from the crowd.
Even his blues, though, are constructed like jazz, especially in their draw from a variety of sources. He performed his work “Baby, You’re My Destiny” with a faint reggae beat, combined with a nasty Howlin’ Wolf croak in his voice. “Zanzibar,” meanwhile, was broader than the title indicates; it was a love song to all of Africa, backed with the Soweto grooves of South(ern) Africa.
For the last few songs, Mahal unexpectedly picked up, of all things, a banjo, mimicking the surprise of the audience: “Brother done pulled out a banjo! Lord have mercy! What he gonna do with it? Whatever it is, I’m outta here!” Just to drive the point home, he teased with a lick from “Dueling Banjos” (inevitable, but funny nonetheless), then launched into a feverish zydeco breakdown.
“Now we got that outta the way,” Mahal finally said, “We’re gonna play some blues with it.” He then proceeded into a burning urban blues in C, still on the banjo. Let’s hear Stevie Ray Vaughan do that.
From amplified electric blues to amplified electric jazz: the fusion fix was courtesy of the Christian McBride quartet, featuring Geoffrey Keezer on electric piano and organ, Terreon Gully on drums, and Ron Blake on saxophone. (Blake, by the way, never sleeps; he’s a member of the Saturday Night Live band who confirmed to me that he worked the show this week before hightailing it to D.C.)
The bassist’s set was stacked with Zappa-like funk-rock-jazz workouts that came primarily from the quartet’s 2006 Live at Tonic album. It began with “Technicolor Nightmare,” psychedelic jam that McBride later referred to as “a Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin-y thing, and ended on a roaring cover of Weather Report‘s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” that was heavy on Hammond organ and wah-wah bass.
McBride is the most revered bass player of his generation, equally at ease on upright acoustic or Fender electric. But the influence of bass god Jaco Pastorius was never so apparent as at this concert, with McBride zipping through super-fast, super-complex runs executed with crystalline precision a la Jaco. Yet another side of an enormously gifted musician.
Trombonist Conrad Herwig is best known for the Latin Side project, which he brought with him to the mall. It’s a format that has given Afro-Caribbean interpretations to the compositions of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and, soon to be released, Herbie Hancock.
Thus, while his band sounded fantastic, it was a bit of a disappointment that he focused exclusively on the Miles and Trane albums —- mostly Miles, and then the most obvious of his vast and deep catalogue. In one of many festival appearances, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera (to whom Herwig referred as “our secret weapon-in-residence”) joined saxophonist Craig Handy and trumpeter Diego Urcola for salsified renditions of “So What” and “All Blues,” the two standards from jazz’s most ubiquitous album: Kind of Blue.
The arrangements were unique and fun to listen to, and the soloists were incredible, particularly Herwig’s virile legato and Handy’s street-tough swing. And there was a less done-to-death moment when they mined Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament” (although Herwig did quote “A Love Supreme” quite extensively in his slow-drag solo). So if the material was a little underwhelming—-how I would have loved to hear their version of Shorter’s “Night Dreamer”—-the performances were more than satisfying. And in jazz, it’s the performance that counts.
The first jazz record I fell in love with was Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” (speaking of obvious), and in particular with McCoy Tyner’s ringing, heavy piano chords. The sound of them opening his set was an earful of warm nostalgia. That, of course, was before the sleek, blustery alto of Gary Bartz‘s sax, which joined Tyner, bassist Gerald Cannon, and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt for a set of dense, alluring music.
The only source of frustration in their short set was that Tyner only gave the title for one song: Ellington‘s “In A Mellow Tone,” which is an instantly recognizable tune anyway. It was a cheery, raucous tune and performance that was markedly different from the intensity of the rest of the set. Tyner loves very thick, percussive piano chords, and the numbers the quartet played tended to start with a two-handed monsoon on the keyboard before the propulsion from the band came in.
Bartz tended to be the mitigating factor: he made his name in the late ’60s and early ’70s with some noisy, just-this-side-of-avant-garde records, but here there was a sweetness and sentiment that belied its powerhouse technique. Gravatt seemed a bit uncomfortable, being a large man whose stool was a few inches too far from the drum kit: he had to hop around a bit in his seat to reach the cymbals. By outward appearance, he didn’t quite have full control of the kit; by sound, forceful yet deliberate, nothing could be further from the truth.
(Note that although it wasn’t really reflected in the set, Tyner has a superlative new album called Guitars that features duets with five prime practitioners of most people’s favorite instrument. It’s also a great primer for his basic repertoire.)
It was immediately clear when Dee Dee Bridgewater took the stage why she’d been saved for the close of the concert. Her head freshly shaved, Bridgewater looked incredible…and her very presence was electric. She brought her band of African and Latin musicians to support her on songs from her exquisite album Red Earth: A Malian Journey, and from the opening “Afro Blue” she was clearly energized and thrilled to be there.
It’s rare to see any performer who can command an audience that’s sat through six hours of music before her appearance – but we were Bridgewater’s willing slaves. She astonished with her rendition of Nina Simone‘s “Four Women,” an ode to the strong black woman, with an unlikely mixture of rawness, sensuality, anger, and anguish. The performance reached its apex, however, when she brought out Kabine Kayoute, a traditional singer from Guinea, to duet with her. Kayoute possesses a versatile baritone that could move easily (as it did on “The Griots”) from a low rumble to a full-throated wail, an instrument that made graceful complement to Bridgewater’s clear alto as it moved from near whisper to sublime fluidity.
Make no mistake about the strength of the band. Bassist and musical director Ira Coleman had a fat-toned solo on “Four Women” that was packed with appealing double stops and nimble guitar-like licks. Pianist Edsel Gomez, meantime, added dimension to the closing African-flavored “Red Earth” with a boogie blues stomp. The real foil for Bridgewater, however, was Lansine Kouyate on balafon – an African marimba. He executed a maze of interlocking rhythms in the instrument’s hollow tones, often sounding like the world’s most complex wind chimes, Bridgewater the marrow for his round, open notes.
Bridgewater ended her set at 8:00, 30 minutes late. Nobody wanted to leave.
Tomorrow: Photos from the Mall.