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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

16 February, 2005

Al Jarreau Spinning Magic

Like most jazz lovers, I have a soft corner for instrumentalists. Vocal jazz has never ever been a high priority in my list of purchases –and except for an odd Louis Armstrong vocal number or an Ella Fitzgerald number on a compilation, I can hardly remember any thing else.

Al Jarreau I had heard many times on the radio, and other jazz aficionados’ parties and all. However to see him in person is a different trip altogether, let me assure the reader… The Gateway of India seemed like an intriguing site to me, what with the torrid traffic and the hordes of tourists milling around as if it was the last day on the earth, not to speak of the increasingly chill in the air as the sea-breeze cooled after sunset.

Al Jarreau made a belated entry, and we were in time to sit and stare ahead for a quarter of an hour. The stage was more than professionally set-up and a profusion of psychedelic lights with a wall of sound sort of speakers around us, seemed just right. He made the sleepy audience sit up, as he came running in from the left, a wireless microphone in hand, his khaki coloured beret jauntily placed on a balding head, and his agile manners concealing his age. He came running in, with some pretty complex tune –sounding rather like scat singing where words are not used and the sound is modulated to offer a rich palette of tonal excesses. It was amazing, whatever he was doing and one was forced to watch his left hand twitch and twist unceasingly as in a fit. Shannon, who plays the electric guitar and is on a perpetual quest in Blues and Jazz, seemed pretty cynical till then. By the end of the number he was nodding as if in a trance. In the mean time musicians were trickling in and taking up their places almost like soldiers on guard, around some important monument.

George Duke, whose name conjures up the halcyon days of yore when jazz-rock ruled. Well Rock had been around for ages and Jazz had been around for aeons but the marriage of the two seemed a distinct possibility what with the younger jazzmen turning more and more to Funk in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Miles Davis and his path-breaking album The Bitches’ Brew was a defining moment in the history of Jazz and Rock both. From those days, when George Duke used to be the sideman for many a brilliant soul singer who left their mark on the history of music e.g. Gladys Knight and The Pips, Anita Baker, Smokey Robinson and some brilliant Jazz-rock musicians like Stanley Clarke [whose short-lived group Compost did feature this brilliant keyboardist], he’s come a long way indeed.

Al Jarreau in his sing-song manner introduced George Duke, and a shyly smiling young-looking coloured guitarist Earl Klugh –whose star-like nature was too awesome to picturize him in one’s mind, and who seemed a generation younger than any such attempt could have conjured up an image… and Ravi Coltrane –the product of two geniuses all right, John Coltrane –a virtual god to many and Alice Coltrane whose highly intellectual approach to jazz piano is a familiar landmark indeed.

With his gusto and gumption, Al went on trying out numbers in contemporary idiom, old-fashioned jazz standards, even a couple of Latin Jazz hits with a bouncy Brazlian beat, and some plain nonsensical stuff based on his astonishing vocabulary of sounds. Very few musicians would dare to attempt mimicking the whizzzzing fizzzz of the steam generator installed to make the audience feel they were on Cloud Nine, and even the distant but horridly irritating short and long spurts of the Bombay taxis : “you guys honk more than the Nooo Yorkers… “ crooned Al, rolling his eyes, twisting his body and leaning on an imagined horn.

Like a superstar that he is, Al vanished now and then to throw open the field to the other talented marksman. George Duke, not only performed heavenly pieces on his electric piano, he loosened up with the applause and the cat-calls and the wolf-whistles from hundreds hanging around the sealed off boundaries.
He let himself go, and sang a couple of numbers with a funky touch that comes helplessly roaring in whenever he tinkles the piano or sings, and one admired his Bluesy voice which places him in a class apart.

Earl Klugh on the whole presented a very sober face to the audience by playing short and long solos on his amplified hollow body guitar that had my companion Shannon squirming with increasing anticipation –and the audience asking for more… but he kept vanishing and re-appearing like a firefly too. There were four Indians to match the four Americans… and the most feared one was Pune’s famous tabalchi Vijay Ghate, one with the long locks and and reddish beard. He has earned a reputation for himself at home, for hogging the limelight as most tabalchis do, and for probably dimming the enthusiasm of the main artist, especially the jazzmen who tend to respect the thunder applause religiously and bow out, leaving the spotlight to our man. Comparatively, Vijay behaved himself like a hyperactive kid given a good chastening before the moment of truth arrived. He played the tabla amazingly well, quite in tune with the proceedings.

Ravi Coltrane, informed Al, was named after Pandit Ravi Shankar -in tune with the indophilic inclinations of the parents. His music seemed simple, though sufficiently intellectually expressive to make him a front-runner in the category of contemporary jazz with dollops of free jazz type improvisation. He made fewer appearances, but gave a solid account of his own musicianship and easy interpretation of complex melodies. Great saxophonist, very comfortable with his soprano sax.

A totally unforgettable evening, one which has been etched deep in the memory and one which will need some more real giants to perform and supersede these four who came, saw [performed] and conqured us !

(c) Max Babi Feb.2005


Blogger Pragya said...

Hi Max!
Really enjoyed reading your write up.

17 February, 2005 00:02  
Blogger raindanseuse said...

I wish I were there at this concert. The whole picture - psychedelic lights, the gateway background and the anticipation of live jazz music - makes for a scintillating feast. I love, yes, I do.
Good briefs on all the artists, Max. But then, you're the pro at this aren't you? You've been writing jazz mags forever :)

17 February, 2005 12:02  
Blogger Max Babi said...

Hey Tks Pragya, Sonia.
No, I have not been writing jazz articles forever... hard to believe, my jazz writing career is barely two years old ! The first article I wrote at age seventeen for a British school mag [they were astounded by my knowledge of British jazz...] and then till 2002, I wrote nothing. Am planning to write a book on serious jazz in collaboration with an L.A. based composer/saxophonist/flutist Chris Greco.

18 February, 2005 00:30  
Anonymous Anil said...

Ah...finally found time to read it in comepletely..lovely article Max...loved the atmosphere it evoked in my mind and the bios interspersed throughout just rounded it up nicely...

18 February, 2005 16:09  

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