Concerto in Improvidoodle

Review: An Evening with Bobby McFer­rin, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette, Sun­day 13 April 2008, Wal­ton Arts Cen­ter, Fayetteville

As admirable as jazz crit­ics like Gary Gid­dins and Nat Hentoff are, even they couldn’t describe last night’s evening of “free jazz” ade­quately. It’d be like explain­ing a joke, ruins it. I won’t try, but surely a sum­mary is at least harm­less. Call this a night­cap or a root beer recap.

It’s not Dix­ieland or swing. It’s never in a hun­dred miles of so-called “smooth jazz” radio. It’s not the expected vari­a­tions on a theme with soloists tak­ing turns but vari­a­tions on vari­a­tions in an ensem­ble of equals. (It obvi­ously was McFerrin’s to lead, though.) We saw a con­certo in four move­ments with no break, with an intro­duc­tion, then a bit faster devel­op­ment fol­lowed a thought­ful ada­gio, then a dra­matic flour­ish of a cli­max. It might have had 40 move­ments: Who could count?

McFer­rin set it off with his expected scat singing, tap­ping his fin­gers rhyth­mi­cally on his chest cav­ity to color the vocal. If the utter­ances weren’t all word­less, they might as well have been: only 45 min­utes from the start of the absolutely non­stop 85-minute cycle came lyrics, some­thing about “open the door, open the door, here’s a key,” and min­utes later a feel of blues and somebody’s “Momma.” In about the third or 27th move­ment, he word­lessly mim­ic­ked an oper­atic alto and other times a rich bari­tone, show­ing his per­sonal roots.

Corea played a sup­port­ing role, but not just to McFer­rin but also DeJohnette. He even accom­pa­nied him­self. Corea at times reached under the lid to pluck the strings/wires of the grand piano, not just its keys.

DeJohnette drummed on every­thing, includ­ing an extended solo on rims. Play the rims is part of drum­mers reper­toire, but for the long­time per­cus­sion­ist rims included every part of the trap set but the heads, includ­ing speaker cabinets.

They traded places. Corea grabbed an extra pair of DeJohnette’s drum­sticks and hit the amps and mike stands. He’d scat-sing, too. DeJohnette vocal­ized as well, in low pitches. The drum­mer had handy a melod­ica. With its mouth­piece he took on McFer­rin and its key­board teased Corea. Then he sat on Corea’s stool and played a haunt­ing melody on the big piano. After a bit Corea joined him for some four-hand work. McFer­rin leaned over Corea a few times, too.

The impro­vi­sa­tion was musi­cal but it also was the­ater. The three danced a few moments, maybe an old-man stomp. One could pic­ture in them Sid Ceasar, Ernie Kovacs and Robin Williams speak­ing gib­ber­ish as if they’re play­ing cards, review­ing the good old days or arguing.

Corea was heav­ier than expected while McFer­rin was thin­ner. When DeJohnette sat at the piano, his arms seemed so long. All had gray in their hair. That matu­rity is key: Musi­cians at any level can get silly — and free jazz like the best drama touches the child­like play at their cen­ter — but it takes matu­rity and full com­mand of musi­cal skills to make it cohe­sive, to seduce with infec­tious joy even reluc­tant audi­ence mem­bers, who seemed numer­ous, judg­ing by the squirming.

Who knew what to expect? We who know a lit­tle about jazz know of DeJohnette’s steady pro­gres­sive style, Corea’s “Spain,” and the man who moves from “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to the clas­si­cal con­duct­ing podium all the time. Sure I missed hear­ing hits live, but being treated to fresh new music always ranks above another her­itage act.

For the first 20 min­utes or so, an older cou­ple behind us not only dis­played their dis­com­fort but wanted every­one to know. The woman talked, ques­tion­ing her com­pan­ion, Why, What and so on. After a while he emit­ted loud yawns. Yawns don’t have sound just breath, but his included groans. DD402 and DD403 faced my fan­tasy punches in the nose. Why didn’t they walk out? Peo­ple still do that.

After a while they shut up. Maybe they took a nap. Maybe they sur­ren­dered. Maybe they got it. –30–

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