NEW YORK — This humid, teeming city was taken over Friday by George Wein--or so it seemed to the thousands of jazz fans who converged on the various halls around town where the veteran producer launched his 18th annual New York Jazz Festival--now known as the JVC Festival.
The annual slings and arrows to which Wein has often been subjected by the media for booking too many "safe" names cannot in all honesty be aimed at him this year. The first weekend offered a fair mixture of mainstream, traditional, fusion and electronic sounds, with the promise of several avant garde events later this week.
"Hamp and George Salute Benny," presented Saturday at Carnegie Hall, paid tribute to Benny Goodman, partly through the use of Lionel Hampton, George Benson and other alumni, but also with the help of an orchestra assembled by Loren Schoenberg, a tenor saxophonist and Goodman archivist who took his band through a slick 45-minute set that ranged from the sublime (Mel Towell's "Clarinade") to the ridiculous ("And the Angels Sing"). The 31-year-old Ken Peplowski relived the clarinet parts with remarkable accuracy.
As soon as Lionel Hampton took to the stage, the evening turned into a jam session, with Benson taking over the old Charlie Christian parts on "Soft Winds." Though Benson's relationship with the clarinetist was tenuous (they made one record session together and a few joint appearances), his participation was both logical and authentic. Except for one brief scat solo, he refrained from singing.
Clarinetist Kenny Davern was clearly reluctant to become a Goodman clone, but he made up in emotion what he lacked in fidelity. Trumpeter Joe Newman was in poor form, and a couple of young additions, Terence Blanchard on trumpet and Ralph Moore on saxophone, seemed hopelessly out of place; despite Hampton's consistently inspired playing the evening finally fell apart. (Georgie Auld, where were you when we needed you?)
If this Saturday's session was the most newsworthy, there were pleasures to spare among the preceding events. The festival was launched at 5 p.m. Friday with a piano solo recital in Weill Hall, a 300-seat room adjoining Carnegie. John Bunch (another Goodman alumnus) is a safe, sedate performer. Leaning often on the compositions of other pianists--Randy Weston, Fats Waller, Jimmy Rowles, Bunch even included a work by Denny Zeitlin dedicated to a third pianist, Bill Evans. The result was a pleasant stylistic mishmash, weakened now and then when Bunch's left-hand rhythms tended to become beats of burden.
What becomes a legend most is a standing ovation simply for walking on stage. This was the greeting accorded to Joe Williams as he opened the Friday evening Carnegie Hall show. It was a triumphant hour for the 70-year-old bass-baritone. His a cappella opening, "Let My People Go," had a Paul Robeson majesty, yet 10 minutes into his show, joined by his rhythm section, he brought his unique brand of pop-jazz beauty to Johnny Mandel's "Close Enough For Love," then turned "Every Night" into a hip monologue. By the end of the evening he had dug deep into rip-roaring, single-entendre blues, with the backing of the Count Basie Orchestra.
Joining Williams at the end of his first set was another former Basie singer, Marlena Shaw. A glamorous woman with a jazz-inflected sound, she was less than well served by her two novelty duets with Williams, one of which, the antique Louis Jordan novelty song "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby," had too much of a Las Vegas flavor.
The Basie band has been welded into a stunningly cohesive monolith by director Frank Foster. With drummer Duffy Jackson back in the band, commandingly driving the ensemble, the set was notable for its avoidance of the predictable cliche material, and for the inclusion of Foster's 17-minute "Basie Remembrance Suite."
The delicate use of piccolo, flutes and bass clarinet in the second movement reminded the capacity crowd that this band has unlimited expressive and dynamic range. Carmen Bradford, the perennial Basie vocalist, was in powerful voice on "Young and Foolish," followed by the blues novelty "Papa Fos," named for Foster.
Still later on Friday, at Avery Fisher Hall, Wynton Marsalis shared the bill with Miles Davis. Both have played recently in the Southland, but the experience of hearing them on the same bill was educational. Marsalis, in a gorgeously lyrical solo on "Embraceable You" and a stupendous whirlwind muted outing on "Cherokee," left no doubt that he would be a very hard act to follow.
Although Davis was well received by the post-midnight crowd, the contrast was striking; the electronic uproar came across as a creative anticlimax, ironically bringing to mind Davis' recent comment that Marsalis is "a perfect trumpet player."