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.
But even with the dynamism of Henderson's trio -- if the other bassists and drummers that evening had taken nearly as many chances as Foster and Mraz alone, the evening of music might have achieved transcendence -- the night belonged to the Kansas City All-Star Band. A piecemeal collection of strong musicians, most of whom were associated with the original motion-picture soundtrack of the film Kansas City, the big band swung through six numbers and a well-deserved encore (though perhaps not as deserved as the encore Henderson couldn't or wouldn't take). The mood was right, the crowd was spirited, but thanks to the pell-mell seating, no one could dance. That didn't keep the band's standouts -- David "Fathead" Newman and Jesse Davis on alto sax, Don Byron on clarinet (and occasional baritone sax), Craig Handy on tenor sax, Mark Whitfield on guitar, Nicholas Payton and James Zollar on trumpet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, and Henry Butler on piano -- from re-creating a page out of a jazz history book. Starting with a gutbucket arrangement of Count Basie's "Blues After Dark" featuring solos from Newman, Davis, and others, the band wasted no time assembling situations where it could feature prominently the instruments and styles of playing long forgotten by most jazz listeners. And this approach yielded the band's best numbers. Byron's wailing clarinet solo, for instance, on Coleman Hawkins' "Queer Notions" made a quick case for the resilience of the clarinet as a classic jazz instrument.
When it was all said and done, the format of Verve's Fest was both its secret weapon and Achilles' heel. By the middle of the show, the audience had simmered into a group of people who would have sat around and listened to (maybe even danced to) the music of Haden, Henderson, and the All-Star Band all night. But it was ultimately meant as a sampling of musicians that the mainstream doesn't get a great deal of exposure to. I say, if a record label wants to get its artists exposure, have them do a guest performance on a late show with Leno or Letterman. Because there's no such thing as a short and sweet jazz performance.