Music: George Cables Trio at Village Vanguard
In the wake of Gary Peacock – one of the great bassists, especially in a piano trio format – an exemplar of classic post-bop piano jazz George Cables played a Vanguard set with nothing to prove and everything at his disposal, backed by as good a rhythm section for this kind of heart-filling music as you could hope for, Essiet Okon Essiet on bass (who I last saw live with the late, great Harold Mabern, one of Cables’ few peers in this lane) and the almighty Billy Hart on drums.
Cables took us on a mesmerizing journey through the history of modern jazz piano with a rapturous version of McCoy Tyner’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing” with tumbling darkness threading the chords, a righteous dive into Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” and a version of Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” that made me forget every other version for a little while.
He also restated his unshakable command and glittering crown on standards, with jaw-dropping versions of “All The Things You Are” and “Body and Soul.” Just as good as those unassailable classics were originals of his like “Traveling Lady” with fiery propulsion underneath its deceptively light touch and the touching elegy “Farewell Mulgrew,”
Music: Jason Moran Cecil Taylor Tribute at Harlem Stage
For fans my age, Jason Moran did more to turn us on to a spiky, rich legacy of jazz piano that felt in danger of being sidelined or marginalized in the early ‘00s: Geri Allen, Jaki Byard, and especially Cecil Taylor. He’s still one of my favorite players, as evidenced by him appearing on several of my favorite sets at the last Big Ears I made it to.
Almost as valuable as live streams in this isolated age are institutions digging into their archives and this Harlem Stage tribute to Taylor they brought back the Moran set from is an event I distinctly remember wanting to go to and the logistics and timing of travel just wouldn’t work. It’s not as good as being in a concert hall but sitting here watching the sunset out of my office window, I feel the magic in this brand of witnessing and giving thanks.
Maybe the greatest night of jazz I ever had in my life was watching Taylor lead a large ensemble on my birthday at the Iridium. Moran conjures that impossible-to-replicate quality while sounding like himself. He makes the piano sing with nods to Taylor, the way those spikes are flecked with a romanticism that’s born of being in touch with a greater mystery. The cracks in the very sky. It’s a breathtaking 15 minutes that made me end a long day (an exhausting 11 hour workday, an excellent meal) feeling like I was flying.
Music: A Friday Night Despair Reprieve (or Turning Despair Into Gold): Red Baraat, archived from SFJAZZ Fridays at Five; Lucero Livestreamed from Minglewood Hall with Jade Jackson and Laura Jane Grace streaming from venues near their homes.
Even for those of us who (in the before times) try not to live our lives desperate for Friday or a vacation or some great disruption, who know it’s important to include joy throughout the week, Friday night feels sacred and that specialness has eroded some with most of us having another night we only see the members of our household after getting off a zoom call with the same people from work.
Had a little frisson of that specialness this Friday, logging off of work and tuning into bands who mine their past and even when they look at uncomfortable truths, they never, ever despair. Started with the weekly Wussy broadcast – one of these days I’ll do a deep-dive on these regularly scheduled streams that make my heart sing and whose joys aren’t as easily summed up looking at any one episode, but this was a particularly good installment.
I bounced after an hour of Wussy to the essential SFJAZZ Fridays at Five series that’s shown up here before. This time was the great Red Baraat, which stirred a lot of personal feelings for me – they played one of my best friends’ wedding years ago, and I was texting that friend earlier in the day, worried about the fires in Portland.
Led by Sunny Jain – also on the personal tip, I was glad I made it out to see his electric Wild Wild East band in NYC for APAP in January – Red Baraat plays ecstatic, spiritual party music that’s rich in community. Melding long rock guitar lines with traditional bhangra, Latin claves, and go-go, they’ve found a way to honor the differences in these various dance musics and cultures without ever feeling appropriative or like they’re using something as garnish. In a rippling set, they hit all their major hits from “Tunak Tunak Tun” to “Gaadi of Truth” to “Shruggy Ji” including a dance competition in the middle of the latter. If you get a chance – in whatever form the aftertimes looks like – to see Red Baraat, don’t miss it. It will make your heart full.
Another band that digs into their own history and kept their eyes open, but even when they confront disappointments and disillusionment their songs always leave room for hope and possibility. Lucero’s the rare band that got more interesting to me as they added elements, keys and horns, as they took on the burdens and benefits of their Memphis lineage, giving Ben Nichols’ voice (the raw tonal quality of his physical instrument and also his history-drenched songwriting).
Part of what makes Lucero interesting is their perpetually open ears, and this show drove that home with the openers. Northern California’s Jade Jackson’s set took the sharply observed and lived-in songs off her two records and sent them into the world with such authority I’d be shocked if kids in bands aren’t already playing them in their garages, especially “Motorcycle” and “Bottle It Up.”
Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace gave us the stunning intensity she’s known for on classics like “True Trans Soul Rebel” and brand new songs that already sound like classics, including “The Mountain Song” which was a lilting lullaby for a life going wrong with tenderness for the choices taken and the choices never offered, and the chunky, dancing “Apocalypse Now and Later.”
This stream, playing a fan-chosen set list, prompted witty banter “Apparently, our fans don’t think most of our fans know what they’re talking about” as they went through a cross-section of exactly what makes them beloved in a perpetually replenishing ocean of bands born out of the raw material of The Replacements and Social Distortion.
Surprises for me included a lovely cover of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss The Bottle” and two of the songs that always feel like Memphis to this regularly visiting outsider. “Smoke” roared through its keening, empty-streets melody as Nichols exhaled that for-the-ages dialogue in the chorus: ‘He said, ‘Lesser men than me have put up better fights.’ She said, ‘We’re doing pretty good if we can just get out alive.’” “Downtown” featured Brian Venable’s guitar playing that sticky horn riff, giving the lyric’s pleading at the start of the night a foreshadowing of a party going out of control.
This was a night – including a stop at Goner Records’ Goner TV with a reading by the great Ross Johnson from his new memoir – that reminded me there’s good if you’re looking, it’s not all always dire.