Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stories To Tell

Jazz musicians often use the phrase “He [or she] really had something to say” when referring favorably to a player’s improvised solo. The premise, of course, is that the solo possesses meaningful content. But it’s a meaning that has far less literal specificity than, say, a short story, play, a film or, for matter, a political speech.

Jazz improvisations, obviously, aren’t based on words or phrases. (With the possible exception of their very fascinating spontaneous use by vocal artists such as Bobby McFerrin, J.D. Walter, Rhiannon and others.) The only reference point for the listener is a sequence of chords or, perhaps, a set of modal phrases that provide a kind of subliminal feeling of pattern and structure. In so-called “free jazz,” where neither chords nor modes are present, the player’s “something to say” can flounder amid disjunct rhythms and flurries of seemingly disconnected notes.

But it seems to me that there also are other aspects to what jazz artists communicate. Other stories they have to tell.

And a trio of programs I heard over the past week and a half underscored both the elusiveness and the significance of those stories. The performers were three iconic jazz artists: tenor saxophone/flute player Charles Lloyd; tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Lloyd and Hubbard, performing a week apart at Catalina Bar & Grill, were celebrating their 70th birthdays. The subtexts for each player’s story included issues of both maturity and mortality, impacting what they had “to say” at this point in lengthy careers that now find them decades beyond their salad years.

Rollins, 77, making one of his rare stops in Southern California via an appearance at the Cerritos Center, had a particularly compelling narrative. Many of the extraordinary powers of his youth – a gorgeous, rich tone, an assertive articulateness, a constantly shifting approach to the links between melody and harmony – were clearly reduced in intensity. But, declining to compensate by choosing the reductive methods of, say, late Picasso drawings, with their diminution of grand ideas to minimalist lines, Rollins’ playing often reached into startlingly expansive exploration.

Setting aside the tonal and thematic orientation that characterized his playing of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he often revealed an improvisational vision that embraced the free flying methods more closely associated with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. It didn’t always work, but when it did, Rollins’ story was an enthusiastic expression of his belief in the wide open “try it, you might like it” opportunities in what the French call Le Troisieme Age.

Lloyd’s story had more pastoral qualities. His playing – reaching back to the floating lyricism of “Desert Flower” – has always emphasized muted, pastel tones, even during his most aggressive, envelope-stretching periods. And this time out, he took a laid-back, pater familias approach, turning over much of the improvisational space to his gifted band – pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers.

When Lloyd soloed, it was with clarity and maturity. In the setting of his younger, vigorously inventive players, his story was that of a confident master, spreading his wings over a busily seeking flock of successors.

Hubbard’s tale, on the other hand, was touched with poignancy. The packed house crowd at Catalina’s was obviously filled with long-time Hubbard fans. Most were surely aware of the various physical and personal maladies that have afflicted Hubbard, and darkly impacted his music, over the past two decades.

After the band -- a version of the New Jazz Composers Octet -- played an opening number, the moment for Hubbard’s first instrumental appearance arrived. What story would it have to tell? Its narrative unfolded quickly – a perils-of-the-flesh struggle between Hubbard’s damaged lips and the hard metal mouthpiece of his flugelhorn. It was a struggle that Hubbard lost, at least in a musically explicit sense. But it also was an admirable display of both courage and accomplishment. Like the later performances of Frank Sinatra, Hubbard celebrated – through the essence of his phrasing and the emotions of his musical thrust – the presence of the still feral musical lion that prowls through his creative imagination.

Stories to tell, all different, all worth hearing, all examples of the capacity of jazz improvisers to create experiences that reach beyond notes, harmonies and rhythms and into the heart of life, itself.

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