As rock and pop fill more slots on jazz festival bills each year, it can be tempting to discount anything that doesn’t fit neatly into the jazz genre as a straight-up bid for ticket sales. But George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival New York, which ran from June 17 – 26, focused a wide lens on new directions in contemporary creative music that thoughtfully underscored the far-reaching influence of jazz concepts and luminaries beyond the more traditional lineups of previous JVC programs.
One favorable effect of the more adventurous lineup was the crowd education evident at shows like Le Poisson Rouge’s double bill featuring Nasheet Waits, Eric McPherson and Abraham Burton’s Aethereal Bace and Chicago post-rock outfit Tortoise. The latter drew an audience of 30-something indie rock fans weaned on a crop of jazz-influenced electronic bands from the early ‘90s. But as openers Waits and McPherson created hauntingly spare melodies on two kits while Burton improvised a series of fearless and exquisite lines out front of the unusual trio, chatter ceased and the crowd edged ever closer to the stage. Complimenting Tortoise’s soaring orchestral themes and driving, angst-ridden drum parts, Aethereal Bace introduced what seemed to be a new flock of listeners to one of the most exciting new bands in today’s scene.
In a free show at Zebulon, the young Queens-based quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing also introduced rock elements (namely, Kevin Shea’s fast, trebly, cymbal-heavy drumming). Mixed with a bass-propelled swing and a frenetic, free frontline vibe that recalled Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry’s unbound aggression, the Moppa Elliott-led outfit nodded to the music’s history while carving out a new approach to its future within the space of one tune.
In addition to some blazing performances from rising stars, CareFusion heralded a parade of huge names, with a Carnegie Hall celebration of Herbie Hancock‘s 70th birthday claiming the dubious honor of the week’s most-hyped ticket. Expectations ran high for the bill, which boasted Hancock with Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnnette, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Wallace Roney and Lionel Loueke with emcee Bill Cosby.
Reaching back to the years he shared with a selection of the artists onstage in Miles Davis’ late ‘60s quintet, Hancock’s set kicked off with Blanchard’s arrangement of Shorter’s“Footprints,” performed alongside the tune’s author. Roney’s trumpet took the helm later with a fast, virtuosic solo on Ron Carter’s “81,” which Hancock introduced in one of many mimics of Davis’s signature scratchy voice. The group used the remaining time to have fun with the obligatory Hancock anthems “Maiden Voyage” and “Cantaloupe Island,” with Lovano, Blanchard and Roney often standing down and letting Shorter’s genius take over.
The first set was disappointingly short, with the second half of the program devoted to Hancock’s “Imagine” project, a concept album about the need for global peace, love and understanding that relies on guest appearances in a similar vein to the pianist’s 2005 release, “Possibilities.” Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and India.Arie — along with the strong backing band and brilliantly versatile Tal Wilkenfield (bass) and Greg Phillinganes (keyboards) – gave compelling performances.
But it’s hard to make material that hinges on familiar guest artists work in a live setting without them. (And putting a fresh spin on songs like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s cloying mid-‘80s pop hit “Don’t Give Up” is a task that needs all the help it can get.) With the exception of Wilkenfeld’s bluesy take on Bob Dylan, Phillanganes’ emotional rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” (each instrumentalist contributed lead vocals to at least one song) and Trucks and Tedeschi’s “Space Captain,” many of the tunes fell flat despite original arrangements and performances of near technical perfection.
If Miles Davis’ late ‘60s artistry informed the first set at Hancock’s birthday celebration, it was his next concept that gave way to a free presentation of the touring act “Bitches Brew Revisited.” Featuring some of the heaviest-hitting names in new creative music, the Graham Haynes-fronted ensemble seemed to defy laws of time and space. Progressions of Cindy Blackman’s undulating drum rhythms, keyboardist Marco Benevento’s modal harmonies and effects and DJ Logic’s samples updated the backbone of the classic album’s rhythm section, giving way to new approaches to improvisation over Davis’ legendary, open compositions.
Overall, more than 50 varied acts contributed to New York’s reincarnated event, which was on hiatus in 2009. Combined with June’s Vision Fest and new Undead Jazz Festival, the Big Apple seemed to regain its foothold as a summer jazz mecca.