Carnegie Hall, CareFusion NYC Jazz Festival, June 24, 2010
George Wein is the godfather of the outdoor music festival. Well before Coachella, Lollapalooza or even Woodstock, Wein was gathering the best jazz musicians for a festival in Newport. Over the decades he has produced sterling shows, and he has recently taken the reins of the CareFusion NYC Jazz Festival. CareFusion has taken an admirable hands off approach, allowing Wein to create an artistically satisfying range of shows. In celebration of Hancock’s 70th birthday, Carnegie Hall was the site of an eclectic concert, covering the range of Hancock’s prodigious output.
The first half of the evening drew on the recent cream of post-bop jazzmen. Ron Carter and Dave Holland alternated bass duties, and there was an impressive array of brassmen: Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard and Joe Lovano.
The band was a bit jagged for the first few numbers, but Carter’s composition “81” seemed to anchor the band. It was then smooth sailing through the first set’s closer “Maiden Voyage.”
The second set was devoted to Hancock’s new disc, which he noted was released a few days earlier. Hancock has been crossing musical barriers for years. For instance, his 1983 “Rock It” introduced a vast MTV audience to scratching.
The Imagine Project had all the pre-release fears of an accomplished talent straying from his canon, out of fear or boredom. On disc, however, the music works well. On stage at Carnegie Hall, any concerns of a dilettante out of his depth evaporated. With only the guitarist Lionel Loueke on stage for both sets, Hancock introduced an expanding set of fellow travelers. Kristina Train anchored the vocal slot. Her debut album (Spilt Milk) did not sufficiently reveal her broad talent.
“Court and Spark” opened the second set (from his prior recording, 2007's River: The Joni Letters, which was the first time a jazz musician was awarded the Grammy Award for Album of the Year since saxophonist Stan Getz's 1964 gorgeous Getz/Gilberto). But tears were elicited from this semi-jaded observer when Train traded vocals with India.Arie on the title track of the new Hancock album. Lennon’s ageless lyrics were delivered with a sincerity and global flavor that was stirring. Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” oddly lacked the tasteful coda from the former prog rocker’s live version, but keyboardist Greg Phillinganes assayed the melody with style. Phillinganes has honed his prodigious skills as a session man for the likes of Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and a host of others.
Throughout the evening, Hancock was the informative MC, welcoming the expanding list of friends joining him onstage. The preternaturally young bassist Tal Wilkenfield was amazing, but when she displayed her vocal prowess on the opening verse of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’” there was an audible gasp of amazement from the audience. She accompanied herself solo on bass, her rich vocals belying her youthful visage. Phillinganes then strode from the back of his electric keyboard to center stage as the song glided into Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” for the second stirring moment of the evening.
It became clear that in the hands of a seasoned pro, revisiting seemingly sacrosanct songs can be done successfully.
Wein extended his reach Thursday evening by organizing a beehive of activity at the classy City Winery in SoHo. A packed house enjoyed a bevy of up and coming jazzbos exploring the wide range of Hancock’s canon. Feeling the subway rumble underfoot, as the night grew old and the morning became young, was a quintessential NYC jazz experience.