Saw live jazz last Friday night. "Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour" was the program: an all-star sextet touring on the name of, and to promote, the Monterey Jazz Festival in its 55th anniversary (celebrate 'em when you can) year. It was one of those things we went to see because it sounded like a good night out (at the Hult Center), rather than because we really knew what we were getting into. Since my knowledge of jazz, such as it is, peters out sometime around 1975, I'd only heard of a couple of these players. And could only associate one of them with a particular record.
The lineup was Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals, Christian McBride on bass, Lewis Nash on drums, Benny Green on piano, Chris Potter on tenor sax, and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. It was only the second night of the tour, and they'd had a hard travel day, as was mentioned a few times from the stage. So it could have been a disappointment, and in fact the second number (the first by the whole band) was kind of rocky. Energetic, but most of the solos didn't seem to really go anywhere - sounded like everybody was warming up.
But that was it. Everything else was top-notch. Bridgewater (who was the one I sort of knew) came and went. She was co-head-billed with the MJF name, at least here in Eugene, probably because she's coming off a Grammy win. And she did three songs from that album, a Billie Holiday tribute. Fantastic. She sounds nothing at all like Holiday, and that worked for her, refusing to allow facile comparisons, forcing us to hear the songs anew. "God Bless the Child," for example, turned into a loose, rangy blues-gospel barnburner, with Dee Dee alternating between vocalese and soulful growling. (She's like a sexier, earthier Ella Fitzgerald, with a good dollop of Mavis Staples.)
While she was on stage that was what the band was like: a standards-ready jass band. When she left the stage, they turned into something a little more abstract, playing things I confess I didn't recognize but that, compositionally and spiritually, hit the sweet spot of early-'60s Coltraniana. Restless, moody, but never less than totally tuneful. Oceanic grooves and empyrean soloing.
It was an education for me. Christian McBride I'd heard of, but not only did I not know his stuff, I never really, I think, understood how crucial the bassist could be on a jazz stage. He was clearly, easily, the leader (although Bridgewater called the shots when she was on stage), and a magnificent soloist. And, on top of that, a charismatic co-front-person in the opening duet with Bridgewater. But Lewis Nash was the real revelation. Consummate drumming, every lick in perfect place. The other three were fine, too, and got better as the night went on, although I suspect Akinmusire was having a bad night - he never quite seemed to jell with the rest, although he had some interesting ideas.
They'd be worth seeing later in the tour, after they have time to work out the few kinks. But I have to say I enjoyed seeing them early like this. The obvious moments of indecision - the way the horn players would step off to the side and converse, and then one of them would duck around back to the piano player to ask a question - were instructive reminders that music like this depends on communication. It's human interaction at its finest, and that means uncertainty and, well, improvisation. And that's jazz.