It’s not that I see a lot of concerts. I don’t. So in the context of relative superlatives let it be henceforth:
Sunday’s concert of the Dave Brubeck Quartet followed by the Ramsey Lewis Trio was the best jazz concert I have ever seen.
This includes seeing Mr. Brubeck in Little Rock in 1993, ’94 and ’95, which would have rated fourth through sixth. The third-best concert was of Pharoah Sanders in late 1985 or early ’86 (The progressive Mr. Sanders turns out to have been a Little Rock native and was in town visiting family) playing sincerely in a Little Rock bar that wasn’t designed for live music, much less his intense jazz. Second best was Sonny Rollins at Stanford University in about 1978, when his horn’s microphone went out and he played on, changing his embouchure and breath to fill the auditorium acoustically.
Brubeck a decade ago moved slowly until he sat at the piano then he dropped 30 years; we thought we were seeing the last of him. Later this week, he is to turn 86 years old. He still moves slowly, and he still plays majestically. Two of his sidemen were the same; the bassist was new (though of a comparable age). Brubeck’s is still a largely cerebral music, even when he and his group play a standard like “St. Louis Blues.” The blues feel there was authentic, though, and the improvisations throughout the set all were fresh, neither canned nor frozen.
Fellow pianist Lewis followed, and the change was like sunshine breaking open after a dramatic thunderstorm. He and an incredible drummer showed both tremendous flexibility and a playfulness that was just implicit in Brubeck’s men. Lewis himself is 71, but he is comfortable even sneaking in a rock motif occasionally.
It can’t be unusual for any professional, but a cell phone interrupted a long solo of his. I only watched Lewis: He instantly stopped playing, holding his fingers directly over the keys to next be struck. He stared ahead, upstage. When the commotion died, he began exactly where he left, face still impassive. The audience after just that unaccompanied piece gave him a standing ovation that he accepted gracefully: We’re better than that, the applause said, and his smile said, I know.
I asked around afterward; we knew some people who sat close to the jerk. It seems his cell rang and he fumbled around for the phone so long that it stopped squawking. He looked at its screen to ascertain who the caller was, and he returned the call from his seat! He began to say, “I’m at a concert,” when at least dozens of people shushed him. He silenced the phone, Mr. Lewis resumed his piece, and a couple of minutes later the jerk walked out and did not return.
Lewis’ sidemen came back for the next song. As they wrapped up, the whole of the evening became as clear as the metaphorical post-storm above. Dave and Ramsey demonstrated a range of American jazz. It wasn’t the whole continuum by a long shot, but their sonorous contrast will stay with the audience for a long time. -30-