Sunday, February 22, 2015

Indy Jazz Fest's 'Vision of the Visionaries' suggests the glories of the African-American musical heritage

Anticipation was nearly enough to carry the day. So last night I posted a link to a WISH-TV  feature on this Black History Month presentation by Indy Jazz Fest, masterminded by saxophonist Rob Dixon, leading a quintet supplemented by two vocalists and a poet.

The Jazz Kitchen accommodated a decent-sized crowd, though (he told me after the first set Saturday) it fell short in Dixon's estimation, given the amount of publicity he had devoted to it. He had more than a bright idea going for him in the verbal-musical blend.

In my anticipatory post, I used the word "glory" in a conscious echo of the acclaimed song in Oscar nominee "Selma" and alluding to the epochal Civil War movie from 1989. But I hedged a bit, given such lofty comparisons, by adding that hints of glory would be enough as "Vision of the Visionaries" unfolded.

And those hints of glory were delivered in due course. But I see this program's potential as being much more, with the mere hints eventually discarded and full glory achieved. And if Dixon gets the multimedia dimension of "Vision of the Visonaries" in place (bad weather prevented the Cincinnati-based designer of that dimension from making the gig), this program would be well worth refining and adapting to a variety of venues.

I will take participating poet Alyson Horton's reminder that "black history is American history" as my watchword here. That means that we don't have to quibble over who is entitled to weigh in on this topic.

And however that equation is interpreted, it could have been threaded more conscientiously throughout the program, especially in the verbal segments. The interpenetration of white and black musical activity could well be followed through with accurate historical appraisals while still putting the main focus on black contributions.

Brenda Williams testified to the meaning of the blues.
There was no need, for instance, to hear from the stage suggestions that Billie Holiday wrote "Strange Fruit," especially not with the legend that it arose from her personal experience attached. In fact, the song was brought to her fully formed by a Brooklyn teacher named Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name Lewis Allen, and Holiday made it her own. Isn't that enough?  It would have been in this show, had the song been sung complete, ending with the searing words " "...and such a bitter crop."

Bashiri Asad instead offered a version that lingered on the first of three verses. This is not a song with any expendable text, unfortunately. A version later Saturday evening was promised from Brenda Williams, and I would hope she knows the song all the way through. She certainly raised the temperature and shouted out the words clearly in "Stormy Monday," a rendition tough enough to nail the blues heritage in one fell swoop; trumpeter Marlin McKay's solo was less flamboyant but seemed just as deeply felt.

The Jewish-black cultural nexus was strong in the "Strange Fruit" era. The bond was also suggested in  McKay's account of the Benny Goodman band's westward tour in 1935. That's when the "sweet" charts that bulked large in its repertoire failed to connect with young people and the "hot" pieces took over, ushering in the brief reign of jazz as America's most important popular music.

McKay mentioned Fletcher Henderson and Goodman's adoption of the black bandleader's arrangements, but I think the connection could have been made even more striking with explicit acknowledgment that bringing black dance music into the mainstream was the key to the Swing Era's creation.  Instead, the commentary focused too much on Goodman's emergence into the limelight, as he left behind the "Let's Dance" radio show that had not been renewed when the future King of Swing headed west, only to hit paydirt in California.

Anyway, Saturday's  music was a strong basis on which to hang the narrative thread, which varied in focus and quality.  There was a strong groove laid down by the rhythm section — Steven Jones, keyboard; Kenny Phelps, drums; Andre Artis, congas — for both of the first two extended pieces. Dixon and McKay in the front line led the charge through the introductory number and an earthy one focused on the thwarted history of reparations, tracing it back to the withdrawn promise of "40 acres and mule" that, if fulfilled, would have given so many black families a start toward achieving the American Dream.

Asad returned for a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In,"  with a segue into a McKay original in the authentic "second-line" spirit. The singer's best outing during the first set was a song he seemed better suited for than "Strange Fruit" — the Sam Cooke hit "Long Time Coming," which made a thought-provoking conclusion to the first installment of "Vision of the Visionaries."