Love and Jazz
by Marilyn Lester
Jazz – America’s own music – played anywhere is a marvelous thing, especially so to hear it emanate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Such a lofty endorsement of this precious musical art form matters a great deal to the gravitas and furtherance of jazz music. But, oh, that the program had been a little more varied and inspired. The love in the title of the program Love and Jazz, billed as a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald (who both have centenaries this year), was decidedly tipped in favor of Gillespie. Only two numbers in an entire evening’s worth of entertainment were dedicated to the great First Lady of Song. And while it’s essential to pay homage to bebop pioneer, horn player and composer Gillespie’s genius, the celebration of Fitzgerald got short shrift. At least Fitzgerald had jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater firmly in her corner, with a smashing, if short, tribute. Gillespie’s music, as played by the Gerald Clayton Trio, with guest performer, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, faired far less well.
The quartet opened with Gillespie’s extended work “Tour de Force,” followed by the shorter “Shaw ‘Nuf,” two swinging pieces played in this instance without much heart. Host and leader, the incredibly laid-back Clayton, son of saxophonist Jeff Clayton, knows a thing or two about jazz, and plays a fine, nuanced and delicate jazz piano, but his group just couldn’t get a connect with him or each other. Bassist David Wong, although competent, seemed to be occupying his own distant world, without realizing he was on stage with other musicians. Guest trumpeter, the accomplished former child prodigy out of New Orleans, Nicholas Payton (son of bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton), phoned in a technically competent but lackluster performance. The instrumental star of the evening was drummer Obed Calvaire, whose energy and connection to his kit was breathtaking to observe and hear, especially with his solo turn on “Con Alba.” Overall, despite each musician being well-schooled in his craft, this group simply couldn’t find a groove.
The appearance of jazz icon Dee Dee Bridgewater brought the proverbial breath of fresh air to the evening. With her right leg encased in an orthopedic boot up to the knee and her left foot clad in a four-inch-heeled pump, Bridgewater proved she’s a trouper with sex-appeal in tact. Her two Fitzgerald numbers, “Mack the Knife” (Kurt Weill/English lyrics Marc Blitzstein) and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) perked up the energy on stage. Bridgewater’s vocal instrument has the same timbre as Fitzgerald’s, but of course, the styles are quite different, even in the mastery of scat. Bridgewater’s father (and first husband) was a jazz trumpeter, and as a result of early listening and early training, her musicality and phrasing emulate that noble brass instrument. Bridgewater connects readily with the other performers on stage and with the audience in a collegiate way. She’s totally at home in her skin and that confidence translates into stirring performance. Scatting to Gillespie’s playful “Ooh-Shoo-Be-Doo-Bee” (lyric by Joe Carroll) was a master class in how to have fun with interpretive jazz and liberally share the high spirits in the process.
Wrapping up an evening that went frustratingly between instrumentally pallid and vocally swinging was an all-out effort on Gillespie’s early work (1942) and signature composition “A Night in Tunisia,” with its Afro-Cuban rhythms melded with traditional jazz harmony and melody. The tune is also known as “Interlude,” and was recorded by Sarah Vaughn under this title, with lyrics by Vaughan. Bridgewater vocalized some of those lyrics but mostly scatted and delivered a vocaleze emulating a fifth instrument. With at last a swinging play-out and audience pleaser, the hope is for more of America’s music at the Met, with perhaps a more carefully curated set of instrumental performers.
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Friday, February 10, 2017 at 7 PM
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-662-3397, www.metmuseum.org