Guest blogger Walton Muyumba is a University of North Texas professor who teaches classes on blues, jazz and American literature. He is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation and Philosophical Pragmatism.
On Monday evening, AT&T Performing Arts Center closed its jazz series, Larry Rosen’s Jazz Roots, with an impressive and exuberant finale, Latino Piano. Here’s some notes and thoughts about the performance:
- Alfredo Rodriguez opened the event with a stirring solo set. A young Cuban “discovery” of Quincy Jones’, Rodriguez made his Texas debut at the 2009 SXSW music conference. Rodriguez was impressive if unpolished. Though he’s a manic and mesmerizing musician, Rodriguez has no distinctive personal voice yet. I’m not complaining; the music was a hot, great stew of sounds and ideas. As he worked through the classic “Tres Palabras,” the song dissolved into a jittering, melodic blur. Rodriguez stomped, danced and grunted, establishing, embellishing and coaxing the abstract music into order. His improvisations were stylistic mash-ups, merging voices (Ahmad Jamal and Bebo Valdes) and smashing styles (hard bop, Cuban bolero and classical). Rodriguez is young and brash – he plays his virtuosity loudly, proudly. But he’s a cheeky prodigy too – he closed his set in a quick, tight, two-handed, Tin Pan Alleyed take on Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.”
- Michel Camilo is like a great “midlist” author – he produces special, elegant, startling art but doesn’t have the flash of youth or the heft of legend to push his name or his sales. The Dominican pianist has a strong, percussive style, splashing, knocking or banging his hands on the keys like a conga drummer. Camilo accented his improvised solos with third and fourth rhythmic ideas, bouncing them against Chris Armen’s pounding rock-drumming. However, Camilo is an instinctively quiet player, evoking Bill Evans-like licks and progressions from his right hand. During the performance, he had the luxury of working the light, melodic, high end of the keyboard because his astute and exceptional bassist, Charles Flores, maintained a buoyant, tight bottom. Unfortunately, the Winspear is not a favorable space for the jazz trios I’ve seen there; the space favors loud, pyrotechnic drumming, and not the contrabass’ low-end theories to fill its dimensions. Even though his fiddle was miked, I felt as though Flores’ mambo-ostinati and strolling blues lines kept dissipating under his bandmates’ more forceful playing.
- The headliner, Eddie Palmieri, a master Salsa and jazz pianist, closed the show, offering with his six-man outfit one useful model for what Rosen’s series ought to produce for Dallas audiences: serious musicianship, danceable rhythms and fun. Opening their set with Thelonious Monks’ “In Walked Bud,” Palmieri’s sextet managed the hall’s acoustics by fusing deftly Latin rhythms and bebop harmonies. Cubop, as Dizzy Gillespie called the mixture, bolsters bebop’s complex, fiery harmonies with equally intricate Afro-Cuban percussive patterns. When Yosvany Terry (alto saxophone), Brian Lynch (trumpet), Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Jose Claussel (timbles), Vincente “Little Johnny” Rivero (congas) and Orlando Venga (bongos) took their solos during the Palmieri-Cal Tjader dish “Picadillo,” Palmieri stood up from the piano bench to direct the audience into the traditional salsa clapped rhythm. No room on the floor to dance, we wiggled in our seats, pop-popping the beat.
- Rosen’s series is slated to return for next year’s performing arts season with six sessions. I hope for two things for next year’s shows: 1) Rosen will allow smaller acts, trios and quartets, to appear in the Wyly Theatre’s more accessible and intimate confines and 2) he mixes some avant-garde musicians onto his roster of performers. Imagine daring and danceable small groups like those led by Miguel Zenon or Vijay Iyer in an intimate setting. Part of Rosen’s “educational” ideal could be met by bringing older, boundary-busters like Henry Threadgill or David Murray through Dallas. It’s possible Rosen could bring in a large, brilliant ensemble like Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos to fill up the Winspear’s vast hall.
- Luckily, jazz enthusiasts will not have to wait for the next season: Wynton Marsalis and the adventurous, sterling Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) will perform three shows this weekend at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Since the early 1980s. Marsalis has displayed exceptional prowess as a composer and musician in both the jazz and classical idioms. Marsalis’ traditionalist sensibilities are born out in his leadership of JLCO – the organization’s repertoire contains very few avant-garde compositions. But this critique belies the group’s top-shelf musicianship, their ability to swing the blues out of any room, on any piece of music from composers as diverse as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Mary Lou Williams. Expect tight, ensemble playing and rousing, expert soloing from Marsalis and his crew.
Postscript: There is a strange incongruity at work when the nation’s leading large jazz ensemble makes an appearance in Dallas just as the new jazz series has ended. Marsalis’ appearance offers up a picture of institutional competition between the Meyerson and its new neighbor. Hopefully these arts-siblings can coordinate resources and agendas to bring in the best jazz acts for Dallas audiences. Dallas should be one of the main stops for national and international jazz artists.