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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