Night of The Cookers!
For music lovers New York is a fabulous feast of magnificent variety. On a very hot Sunday night during the heat wave in June I had a thirst for some good music and dropped in at Dizzy’s Club, a fabulous night spot located in Jazz At Lincoln Center, having no idea who was performing. But I was sure whoever was playing they would be cooking. Dizzy’s is quite possibly the most beautiful nightclub in the world – with its glass wall behind the bandstand looking down on the fanstasic fountains in Columbus Circle at 59th and Broadway, then out over Central Park to fabulous Fifth Avenue.
When the lights are low it provides a spectacular back drop for the magic vibes the musicians conjure up onstage. For Dizzy’s is quite possibly the greatest Jazz club in the world in regard to the artists who are featured there – considering that it is the premiere performance venue in the Mecca of Jazz. On this night the headliners happened to be the great young pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Eric Reed, accompanied by virtuoso players on bass and drums that provided a powerful and seamless rhythmic cushion.
This is an unusual instrumental combination; generally a trio features one piano. Given the dominance of the piano in the jazz ensemble – whether it is a trio, quintet, septet, or big band it is not easy for pianists to collaborate in this fashion. Jazz music being what it is – a free flowing musical conversation among master musicians conducted within certain agreed upon boundaries demarcated by chord changes and rhythmic configurations – successful performance requires a high level of collegiality. This means that the performers must really listen to what each other are doing and respond intelligently in ways that coalesce rather than clash, thus enhancing the overall sound of the band in a coherent aesthetic statement.
To accomplish this the musicians must approach their task with a highly developed sense of democracy and a reverence for invention and personal freedom; which makes Jazz the most representative of American fine art forms. In the smaller ensembles like quartets a high degree of instrumental virtuosity is assumed – since each player is expected to make a solo statement sometimes during the performance. But that is just the starting point. To excel at this endeavor the instrumentalists must have a fertile imagination, blues sensibility, good taste, a finely developed sense of nuance and proportion, and know how to tell a story with their solos. But even so, as Mr. Ellington warned: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!
The great Jazz players have mastered all of these elements, and their performances can achieve a kind of sonic alchemy; that’s why listening to this quartet was akin to a continuous eargasm. They were swinging so hard they rocked the house and wiped the audience out with musical statements that reached such intensity they became ecstatic. It was the kind of performance that combined technical virtuosity with deep emotional content. The band worked with the precision of a 24 jeweled Swiss watch. To the untutored listener, unfamiliar with the ways Jazzmen construct their music, it would be impossible to believe that they were not playing from a score
The way that Eric and Cyrus played off each other is possible only among master musicians with the kind of profound mutual respect that allows a deep spiritual communication. It is only then that competition and cooperation is possible in a performance where each is trying to push the other to achieve their greatest potential. Listening to these pianists and watching the way they complimented each other when speaking to the audience about the music, it was clear that we were witnessing a mutual admiration society. That’s why their performance reached such a high level of artistry.
I was reminded of a story the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean told me about Bird and pianist Bud Powell – two of the greatest artist in the Jazz pantheon who’s playing has influenced everyone who practices the art form with any competence and respect for tradition. Bud and Bird were shooting pool one day and Bird bested bud in the game. Bird began talking smack, telling Bud: “you can’t beat me doing nothing.” But when Bud said: “I guess that includes playing music too,” Bird quickly replied: “No man that’s different, playing music is something else. It takes the contribution of everybody in the band to make great music.”
Willie Jones III
This is the kind of thinking that underlay the musical rapport between the members of the quartet – especially Eric and Cyrus. Sometimes they would play together, and other times they would play separately as a trio with the drums and bass. At other times they played solo, as in Cyrus Chestnuts’ trio rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful ballad, ” A Flower Is A Lonesome Thing,” a composition that combines joy and pathos in ways that suggest a sound portrait of the brilliant composers’ tragic life, and Eric Reed’s solo tribute to the peerless piano master Hank Jones, who lately danced to join the luminous souls who have moved to what the poet William Cullen Bryant calls “that mysterious realm where each shall take his place in the silent halls of death.”
Eric selected “Standing In The Need Of Prayer,” a gospel tune, to perform in Hank’s memory. Recalling a conversation with the elegant piano virtuoso Eric, who is a knowledgeable and eloquent spokesman for the art of Jazz, pointed out that Hank told him: “A little gospel never hurts.” For Eric this was like returning the rabbit to the briar patch, because he began his career as a musical performer playing in the church. This was no prissy Episcopalian affair but a rousing Pentecostal church, where the congregation passionately heeds the biblical injunction to “make a joyful noise unto the lord!”
In Eric’s performance we were once again reminded of the spiritual roots of jazz, after all gospel music is just the flip side of the blues, and many of Jazz’s brightest stars developed their skills playing in church. One of the routine miracles in Jazz is the way the musicians can take a simple tune and develop it into a magnificent musical presentation with their erudite improvisations – which were called variations on a theme in Mozart’s time. That’s what Eric accomplished in grand fashion, as he built increasingly complex statements that combined poignant emotions and technical brilliance with a fecund imagination to invoke the spirit, if not the presence, of the divine – converting the nightclub into a temple celebrating sacred art and obliterating the age old distinction between “God “ and “the Devil’s” music. And when he played his last note the audience erupted in tumultuous salutation.
Cyrus Chestnut also brought the house down in his performance of Strayhorn’s haunting ballad. He has a laid back style that makes the most difficult musical passages seem effortless. And such splendid taste it sounds as if he has mulled over each phrase for days; yet he is inventing the music right before our eyes, composing at the speed of thought. Over the course of the evening we were treated to the entire vocabulary of piano playing in western music.
The pianists moved effortlessly from Bach to the blues, with citations from Professor Thomas A. Dorsey – the blues pianist who invented modern gospel music when he quit his gig as Ma Rainey’s pianists and began writing songs for the great Mahalia Jackson. At some of the hottest points of their performance, when the music was swinging hard, Cyrus and Eric would exchange passages from the compositions of European classical music masters without missing a beat. They are extensions of the great virtuosos of the tradition such as: Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Ramsey Louis, Jacki Byard, Herbie Hancock, et al.
Aside from the technical brilliance and musical erudition of the pianists, this kind of improvisational freedom was made possible by the tightly constructed, relentless swinging of the bassist and drummer Willie Jones III. Quite naturally I, like any serious jazz fan, especially those who have been around the New York Jazz scene for a while, thought the drummer was related to the great Brooklyn percussionist Willie Jones. I figured him for a grandson. Hence I was more than a little surprised to discover when I talked to him after the show that they were not kinsmen. However his hard swing and superb taste sounded as if it might have been seasoned by several generations of grooming. His playing was both dynamic and subtle, something many seasoned drummers – like Danny Richmond for instance – find nearly impossible to achieve.
I was especially impressed with the young bassist, Dezron Douglas, because I had recently had the rare privilege and exquisite pleasure of listening to three of the best bassist in the business: Stanley Clarke, Esperanza Spaulding and Carlos del Pino. So I was not inclined to be easily impressed. However when it comes to a big warm sound and solid swing Dezron Douglass was excellent. He and Willie constructed a firm rhythmic foundation, on which Cyrus and Eric erected their improvisations like epic tone poems; spitting off streams of bullet like notes in brilliant timeless Jazz statements.
I get a special exhilaration whenever I hear Eric and Cyrus play because I saw them early on in their careers. I first heard Cyrus at Betty Carter’s jazz festival for young artists held at the BAM Majestic Theater in Brooklyn. In fact, I wrote about him in a essay for the Sunday Times Of London – it was published in their arts magazine, The Culture, under the title “School For Cats.” At these events the late Mistress Of Swing scoured the country in search of the most talented young jazz virtuosi and provided them an opportunity to sharpen their skills by performing together under the watchful eyes and instruction of seasoned pros.
Over a decade has passed since then and Cyrus has fulfilled the promise I saw in him back in the day. Much of his growth and development occurred during his tenure as the pianist in Ms. Carter’s band. Although quite young Eric Reed was an accomplished pro when I first heard him; as he was the pianist with the world renowned Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Marsalis, he has gotten better.
I have heard a lot of young pianists lately who have excellent technical skills, but they strike me the way many of the young Classical pianists affected the great piano virtuosos Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz: They can’t tell the difference between technical exhibitionism and making music! To our good fortune, Eric Reed and Cyrus Chestnut has decided making beautiful music is paramount, and their prodigious technique is employed to achieving that end. Bravo!
* To see Eric reed in Performance click this link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Hvrjhw2Lv4
* To See Cyrus Chestnutt Click this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A-4sDnGJIs
Harlem, New York
June 28, 2010