By Don Heckman
The performances by the Christian McBride Trio and the Ravi Coltrane Quartet at Royce Hall Saturday night provided a fascinating prologue to Sunday’s Grammys. A prologue that revealed some of what was largely missing the next day in the granting of the awards.
Start with the fact that the McBride and Coltrane choice of bandmates demonstrated an awareness of the superlative qualities present in the newly arriving generation of jazz players. An awareness that was virtually non-existent in either the Grammy jazz nominations or the awards. Add to that the far-reaching collection of music, ranging from the Coltrane group’s adventurous explorations of boundary-less improvisational territories to the McBride Trio’s equally imaginative transformations of the jazz mainstream. A range of music affirming the still-mesmerizing creativity present in the jazz art.
Ravi Coltrane was less than two years old when his legendary saxophonist father, John Coltrane, died in 1967. And it would be completely understandable if – after deciding to make a career playing his father’s primary instrument, the tenor saxophone – he had decided to build a style calculated to avoid any comparisons. Instead, he has gradually matured as an important independent voice, embracing his musical inheritance while continually expanding his creative horizons.
The Coltrane set largely consisted of several original works bearing titles such as “Coincide” and “Prelude.” Each was framed as a springboard for Coltrane and his young musicians – pianist David Virelles, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Kendrick Scott – to leap into unrestricted improvisational flights. And each made the most of the opportunities, supported by spontaneous accents, counterlines and rhythmic embraces from the other players. The result was gripping, an irresistible display of the way in which instant, wide open improvising can make as much deep connectivity with a listener as traditional, chord based playing.
The Christian McBride Trio was equally compelling, coming at the music from a variety of different directions. Despite the familiarity of most of the selections, each was viewed from a new perspective. Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” found both the wit and the jaunty musicality of its composer. “My Favorite Things” surfaced in a challenging 5/4, with drummer Ulysses Owens’ solo revealing every element in his drum kit as a musical instrument rather than an object for bashing. “Cherokee,” energized by McBride’s propulsive, high speed drive and the dynamic piano of 22 year old Christian Sands, revived the song’s history as a daunting, jam session challenge to young players. A challenge thoroughly met by McBride’s youthful associates. In contrast, “I Have Dreamed,” a lovely tune from The King and I, featured McBride’s cello-like arco playing. At its best, it recalled Ben Webster’s assertion that jazz musicians should only play a ballad “if they know the words to the song.” McBride clearly did.
As an enthusiastic crowd poured out of Royce Hall Saturday night, the Grammys were looming on the horizon for Sunday. And when the fateful moments arrived, the Grammy voters selected McBride’s fine big band album, The Good Feeling, as the winner in the Large Jazz Group category. (Although one couldn’t help but wish that 93 year old Gerald Wilson – six times nominated – would finally have received the acknowledgment he deserves via his Legacy album.)
But after all the statuettes had been handed out, the thought remained: Could new recordings by youth-oriented, envelope-stretching groups such as the Coltrane Quartet and the McBride Trio make it to the nominations, much less the awards, at the 2013 Grammys? One hopes so. But I have my doubts.
To check out my more detailed comments about the 2012 jazz Grammy awards, click HERE.