October 30, 2011

Respect for the Masters

Two recent dates at the San Francisco Jazz Festival (SFJAZZ) show that the jazz tradition continues to thrive and change with the times. On October 10th, pianist Benny Green paid a  birthday tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk with a concert called “Monk’s Dream: 50 Years Fresh.” He was joined by the regular members of his trio, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, along with a guest saxophonist, the venerable Donald Harrison.

They played tunes from the aforementioned 1963 Monk album, Monk’s Dream, such as “Five Spot Blues,” “Bye-Ya,” and the title tune, as well as other music from the master. Green, who looks considerable younger than his 48 years, is a talented and engaging pianist, bring bop and stride sensibilities to his playing. He has played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and in Betty Carter’s band. All the band members seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves while playing Monk’s music, and they showed that his quirky music can be played afresh without falling into mere imitation.

A week ago, October 23rd, I saw a master in the flesh, guitarist Jim Hall, who is now 80 and still going strong. Hall has been active on the jazz scene since the mid-1950s, playing with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Sony Rollins, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Lee Konitz, and on and on. He has recorded over 30 albums as a leader and almost as many as a sideman.

His current group includes Greg Osby on saxophone, Steve LaSpina on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums, and all contributed significantly to the evening of standards, originals, and free-floating improvisations. Hall, sitting on a folding chair, sits hunched over his Gibson - the guitar almost seems to have replaced the mid-section of his body - and he shakes out baby powder on his fingers between songs. But he still produces a beautiful, rounded sound from his guitar and seems to have lost little in dexterity. Hall is a quiet presence on the stage but the music he produces is magical.

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