Sit-Down Sampler

Verve Jazz Fest
The Fillmore
Wednesday, Jan. 8

Like its cousins, classical, blues, folk, and country, jazz is a dues-paying art form, where the success and worth of a musician are measured not by his ability to make platinum hits, but by his knack for pioneering and perfecting new approaches for writing, arranging, and performing a music that has one eye trained on the future and another two (in the back of its head) on the past. But for their trouble, jazz musicians rarely make it big. They make it small to medium, achieving just enough notoriety to continue to play and live life comfortably in relative obscurity.

Take the three acts featured in the Verve Jazz Fest last Wednesday at the Fillmore. By the time this review is published, the Charlie Haden Quartet West, the Joe Henderson Trio, and the Kansas City All-Star Band will have performed five shows in five cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, Ariz., and Houston, Texas. And they're scheduled to play another 13 venues before the tour finale in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 2. Nineteen performances in 26 days. Now that's commitment you can hear. Still, your average Dick and Jane know the recordings of Kenny G better than, say, those of All-Star Band member David "Fathead" Newman, a master alto saxophonist who's played for well over 35 years. And Newman wasn't the only musician pulled from obscurity for Verve's Fest.

Wednesday evening was thick with gifted unknown, underappreciated, and forgotten players intent on wooing the 600-plus audience with good music. But while the crowd's reaction to Haden, Henderson, and the All-Stars was overwhelmingly positive, it was clear that the Fest's patrons were quick and easy. (Quick to pay $30 per ticket and easy to please.) The very promise of live jazz seemed reason enough to get this gang a-hootin' and a-hollerin' as they tossed back overpriced cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. And then there was the novelty of the Fillmore performance space itself. Equipped with skinny tables crowned in candlelight and attended by a staff of competent and agile waiters, the place looked as chic as Kimball's East. I couldn't help but wonder if the show might be better enjoyed the usual way: standing up. But if you found yourself standing at the Verve Fest, you were either guilty of being fashionably late, or trying to convert a small piece of the space into a dance floor -- namely, the use for which it was intended some 75 years ago.

Sitting or standing issues aside, each act's performance strategy had little in common with the others. The Haden Quartet insisted on heavy-handed coolness, while Henderson's approach was always intimate, flirtatious, and energized. And then there was the All-Star Band, who, as the Fest's third and final act, seized the opportunity to do what all big bands try to do: bring the house down with swingin' dance music. It was an all-day show crammed into about three hours. Haden, who you may remember performed a short, fiery set with Dewey Redman a couple of seasons ago at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, had only played three numbers -- a couple of which sounded like warm-up charts to me -- by the time he was signaled to take a bow. The quartet didn't strike out, but by its second number, a bebop-tinged Latin ditty reminiscent of "St. Thomas," it became difficult to ignore the fact that Haden -- even as the backbone of the rhythm section, and the occasional provider of a brooding solo here and there -- was letting his sidemen do all the work and collect most of the glory.

In fact, and I mean no disrespect, there were times when the quartet seemed to belong not to Haden, but to tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts. Watts, who plays tenor sax like a power forward, was always close for the assist or block, bouncing, rolling, and skipping up and down the range of his horn with true bebop panache. And then there was pianist Alan Broadbent, who played with the spirit of Bill Evans. But the show-stopper was drummer Larance Marable, who in the middle of the quartet's second number launched into a multifaceted solo that took on a life of its own, pausing occasionally to deliberately throw the audience off. That's what the Fillmore crowd was looking for: showmanship. And they got it, in increasingly large doses as the evening continued.

For my money, Joe Henderson's trio offered the evening's best performance, playing a mixture of originals and standards that showcased his power as an arranger and soloist as well as the skills of his colleagues, Al Foster (drums) and George Mraz (bass). The set, nearly double the length of Haden's, started with a bubbly rendition of "So Near So Far." Dressed in a black leather suit and a red tie, Henderson stood at the helm of the trio, hunched over his tenor sax like a sculptor bent over a piece of clay. The sound created with the assistance of Mraz and Foster was bold and flamboyant, rarely staged, and always submerged in improvisation, as the three men tinkered with melody, syncopation, and rhythm to play to the audience's mood without letting them know it. The trio's atypical renditions of the classic Strayhorn ballad "Lush Life" (a teasing Latin-flavored arrangement taken at a brisk tempo) and big-band staple "Take the 'A' Train" (featuring Foster playing the kind of thunderous breaks that would make the hair on the back of a hip-hopper's neck erect) set this mood exactly.

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