Cassandra Wilson and Charlie Hunter packed the Masonic Auditorium last Friday with the promise of somethin' else. Diva of the moment for four years running, Wilson wanted to reheat long-dull lounge-jazz standards with a fresh piano/bass/conga trio, featuring hotshot young keyboardist Jacky Terrason. Hunter, the local fretboard wizard who plays a special instrument that combines bass and guitar strings, wanted to introduce an innovative guitar/drums/vibes/percussion quartet before defecting to New York City. Expectations were high at this, one of the top billings at the S.F. Jazz Festival. But despite crowd-pleasing performances by both acts, neither really fulfilled its potential.
Instead of a showcase for Charlie Hunter's fleet-fingered fret work, his new group sounded like a vehicle for Stefon Harris' melodic vibes and Scott Amendola's multirhythmic drumming. But it's difficult to know exactly if that was the intent: The sound mix gave the room the acoustics of a high school cafeteria. Still, Hunter was definitely in the back seat, insouciantly bumping to and fro between bass and guitar lines on his custom eight-string, and laying down funky chordal accompaniment for Harris' mostly unheard leads. A surprisingly modest leader, Hunter's infrequent solos lasted for just a few bars. Despite flashes of brilliance, they were largely anticlimactic.
Which best sums up percussionist John Santos' contribution as well. Santos is widely acknowledged as a master of the deep Afro-Cuban rhythmic tradition, and his work with Latin groups like Machete Ensemble and Coro Folklorica Kindembo ranks among the best of its kind. But in Hunter's straightforward funk-jazz context, the percussionist's rudimentary conga beats added little to the overall sound. He was more restrained than even Hunter, as if Santos didn't want to muss the tidiness of the grooves, even when Amendola (the de facto star of the evening) pushed for more polyrhythmic punch. Then again, who knows? It was hard to draw any conclusions given the way Santos' instruments failed to cut through the muddy mix.
The audience didn't mind much. Hunter's hometown fans cheered every tune, and the guitarist replied affably. Throughout the set, Hunter and Amendola shared mutual head bobs and constipated facial contortions. But only a handful of fans in the lower decks conspicuously moved to the music. Given the applause, the crowd must have been grooving high on the inside, which seems at odds with funk's fundamental goal. But then what to expect at the capacious, sterile Masonic?
Cassandra Wilson's pianist, Jacky Terrason, didn't funk, but got people out of their seats (at least at the outset) by leading bassist Lonnie Plaxico and conga player Jeffrey Haynes through a high-spirited Thelonious Monk vamp. Then Wilson came on, all cheekbones and hips, pursed lips and elegant-cool attitude. As the crowd cheered her to the microphone, she clapped in time to the trio's update of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," an inane tune from the musical Oklahoma! (A lot of jazz singers have recorded weird musical numbers in flailing attempts to turn the trite into the transcendent.) The song starts with lyrics about "chicks and ducks and geese" -- not exactly emotional subject matter. Then again, Wilson could sing the ingredients on a bag of Chee-tos and still melt your heart.
The group's dynamics fluctuated from pin-drop pianissimo to vibrant crescendos, which at times created a curious imbalance -- either too quiet or almost unbearably beauti-ful. Bassist Plaxico and conga player Haynes complemented Wilson's honeyed voice with an earthy energy.
While much of the performance was pleasant enough, it lacked those eerie moments of originality and strangeness on Wilson's hit albums New Moon Daughter and Blue Light 'Til Dawn. By the end of the hourlong set a steady stream of lounge standards like "Old Devil Moon," "My Ship," and "Tea for Two" from the new CD Rendezvous had me nearly nodding off. Maybe if Wilson had raised her voice above a smoky whisper (I counted this happening a mere three times), these rearranged chestnuts would've seemed a bit more vital. Granted, the closing "Tea for Two" overcame its inherent cheesiness with an inexplicable beauty. But that didn't seem like quite enough given the $38 ticket. Wilson did sing "Until," but she could have played more than one of her own tunes. If she's really hung up on odd covers, "Last Train to Clarksville" would have sufficed.
-- Sam Prestianni
One Day It'll All Make Sense
The rambling introduction on Common's One Day It'll All Make Sense is as exasperating as the preludes on a dozen other rap albums released this year. Over a simple bass line and ethereal sound effects, Common explains that he's worked really hard on the record and it's a reflection of who he is. Neither illustrative of his lyrical dexterity nor emblematic of his trademark ear-catching production, Common's prologue isn't as ambitious as Wyclef Jean's mock-trial on The Carnival or the sermon that opens Wu-Tang Forever.
The heartfelt but hopeless start is instead an invitation from the Chicago rapper, formerly known as Common Sense (he lost the second half of his moniker in a legal battle), to step inside his "mental window" and take a trip to "places that I've been, and to the places that I want to go." Although he promises he's "injected his whole being" into this third record, those first 96 seconds sound more like a soundbite for MTV's The Week in Rock.
Common's first two offerings -- Can You Spare a Dollar and the excellent Resurrection -- won him critical acclaim, but rap fans have been slow to acknowledge his integrity and prowess. One Day's rightful first dish, the brief but savory "Invocation," showcases the talents of this traditionally underappreciated rapper. Here a George Benson-inspired guitar loop massages a lazy old-school beat (like Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" at half the tempo) accompanied by a distant, swaggering horn line. Common applies a short order of verse slightly behind the beat. He starts off talking about the afterlife and listening to Stevie Wonder, he brags a little, condemns drugs and violence on the street, and tells a kid that his new record is out. It's the real beginning because the string of stream-of-conscious rhymes says Common has a new record better than the deep-thought cliches in the opener.
In "Invocation," and several other places on One Day, Common uses clever wordplay and production littered with post-bop samples and breakbeats. He plunges into live instrumentation elsewhere ("Retrospect for Life," "All Night Long," "G.O.D. [Gaining One's Definition]," and "My City"). He also allies himself with a who's who of hip-hop personalities, including De La Soul, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, Erykah Badu, Canibus, Black Thought of the Roots, and Cee-Lo of the Goodie Mob.
The results are far from perfect. Though his usual hip-hop producers, Dug Infinite, No I.D., and Ynot, continue the progressive funk tradition of Resurrection, their stabs at live arrangement (particularly No I.D.'s) are burdened with a heavy-handed sentimentality that flirts too closely with the rap status quo Common had avoided so expertly in the past (notably "I Used to Love H.E.R." and "Orange Pineapple Juice").
One Day is supposed to be Common's conscience record, but when he's at his most reflective he moves away from what he does best. Admittedly, with the recent birth of his first child, his initiation into the Native Tongue Family, an album finally out a year late, and the hard-won respect of hip-hop colleagues, critics, and fans, Common has every reason in the world to get mushy on his listeners. But that does not mean we have to like it.
-- Victor Haseman