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Editor's Note: The Jazz Foundation of America will present a live stream of the SPOTLIGHT JAZZ All-Star event on Wednesday, August 18, at 9 p.m. ET. The streaming event will feature performances by Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas, Robert Randolph, Davell Crawford, Clifton Anderson, Chris Bruce, Emmet Cohen, Rahsaan Cruz, Steve Davis, Robin Eubanks, Joe Farnsworth, Steve Jordan, Steve Turre, Peter Washington and George Coleman, captured live on June 27 at New York's City Winery. There is no charge to view the event, but donations are encouraged, with proceeds going to support the JFA’s COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund. Reserve your ticket here. The following is a review of the original event, with text by Ted Panken and photos by Jerry Lacay.
“It’s my first gig,” Norah Jones said, her tone halfway between bemused and ebullient, as she settled herself at the piano bench to begin the second half of the Jazz Foundation of America’s June 30th benefit concert at City Winery. We can assume that Jones has accumulated sufficient reserves during her two decades as a mega-star to survive the economic hardships imposed on the vast majority of the jazz, blues and roots community to whom JFA has provided medical care and financial assistance from its inception, and has continued to do during the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the lives of far too many members. But her remark also the emotional toll of COVID on professional practitioners of this most social of art forms, and the almost universal relief in that community at the end of performance exile.
The joy of playing infused the entirety of this well-conceived, well-rendered show, music-directed by Steve Jordan, before an upscale audience who paid prices up to $1500 for the privilege of hearing a multi-generational cast of characters. It’s a good bet that none of these JFA benefactors experienced buyer’s remorse.
As he has done at many JFA benefits, Jordan played drums for much of the proceedings, including Jones’ on-point trio, assembled ad hoc, with guitarist Isaiah Sharkey and bassist Chris Bruce. They cohered like partners of long standing, complementing Jones’ subtle phrasing and tonal inflections with nuanced groove-painting during an introspective, simmering three-tune segment that held the audience rapt. Jones opened with a ballad (“It Was You”) and the funky “Begin Again.” Of course, she concluded with her first hit, “Don’t Know Why,” uncorking a consequentially reharmonized piano intro before addressing the lyric with her soulful, instantly recognizable contralto.
The same rhythm section remained on stage for the final set, shape-shifting into rock-out attitude for steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph’s effervescent blues meets-gospel presentation. Randolph showcased his phantasmagorically creative chops, as he transformed his instrument into a kaleidoscopic orchestra, projecting a level of heightened expression that complemented his stirring voice. Matching his intensity on the opening number (“Going Down) was a one-voice four-trombone choir comprising Clifton Anderson, Steve Davis, Robin Eubanks and Steve Turre.
[caption id="attachment_39992" align="alignleft" width="2560"] Robert Randolph[/caption]
They exited as preacher’s son Randolph channeled church on “Baptize Me,” and then executed the Saturday Night Function on “Red House, then reboarded for the evening’s finale with New Orleans singer-pianist Davell Crawford – who himself received assistance from JFA 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina – on an idiomatically booting Second Line excursion through the Mardi Gras Indian warhorse, “Hey, Pocky-a-Way.”
Before his set, Randolph had mock-complained about the challenge of following Norah Jones, who, he said, had “kicked tail.” That encomium fully applied to old master performances during the concert’s first half by the evening’s two honorees, both NEA Jazz Masters – tenor saxophonist George Coleman and trombonist Slide Hampton. Joined by a hard-swinging rhythm section (pianist Emmet Cohen, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth), Coleman, 86, swung pointillistically on the Hank Mobley standard “This I Dig Of You” and addressed the Sinatra warhorse, “New York, New York,” which he customarily played at racehorse tempo during his physical prime, as a medium-slow ballad. Known during his 60+ years as a cyborg-level technical practitioner, he compensated for the debilitations of age by shaving away everything but the most essential, imparting high meaning and intention to every note and inflection.
[caption id="attachment_39993" align="alignleft" width="2050"] JFA Honoree George Coleman[/caption]
Hampton, 92, was represented by a performance of his arrangement of J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” by the same magnificent four-trombone group (each member is an alumnus of the maestro’s seminal World of Trombones unit of the 1980s), with pianist George Cables, bassist Rufus Reid and Jordan, who this time stated a medium-slow swing feel. for Jones. Then trumpeter Jimmy Owens, himself 77, took the microphone to talk about his long relationship with Hampton, before joining Slide to play “Four.”
The opening group, Force Majeure (the husband-wife duo of rising star harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas), played “Gospel Trane,” a modal soul blues that had a Bobby Timmons meets Dorothy Ashby meets Alice Coltrane feel. Younger spun out pianistic phrases and rapturous glisses, supported by Douglas’ stalwart basslines and tone of doom.
Production values were impeccable – the sound and acoustics, the livestream video, the emceeing from Angelika Beener and Danny Glover, the pithy video montages encapsulating the lives of Coleman and Hampton, and the testimonies from the distinguished musicians who participated in JFA fundraiser events during COVID. So was the food, particularly the cocktail hour offerings of grilled chicken, lobster rolls, shrimp with white bean and chorizo, and strip steak with chimichurri and fried potatoes. I didn’t drink, but reliable sources liked the wine.
The wait-staff came from a contractor, but the food was prepared in-house at City Winery’s kitchen, showing that one-time Knitting Factory proprietor Michael Dorf – whose latest Hudson River waterfront venue, one lot north of Barry Diller’s Little Islands venture, matches up design-wise to the nearby art galleries and Whitney Museum – has steadily continued to up his game.