by Bill Barton
TULA’S JAZZ CLUB, FRIDAY, MARCH 21
Some performances transcend the whole concept of music as art or entertainment and reach an entirely different level. Love, trust, respect, communication and joy in the act of creation can touch the heart in ways that can’t be described in words. In over 30 years of attending concerts, there aren’t too many that have moved this listener that deeply. Friday night’s CD release party for Hadley Caliman’s Gratitude at Tula’s in Seattle is one of them. One doesn’t go to a concert, theatrical production or dance performance for something mundane. One should leave transformed, renewed, healed, seeing the world through new eyes, hearing harmony and consonance everywhere, feeling like a newborn baby who’s experienced beauty for the first time. Every once in awhile this ideal is met.
At age 76, Caliman is a Pacific Northwest treasure, a master of his craft who exudes humility and humanity. Now retired from teaching at Cornish College of the Arts, he has by no means retired from sharing his muse. An inspiration to several generations of players, he ranks among the living giants of the tenor saxophone in the world of jazz. There aren’t too many other cats out there with a track record comparable to his. He’s in the rarefied company of Chicago legends Von Freeman and Fred Anderson in this regard.
One of the reasons that this was a do-not-miss event hinged on the appearance of vibraphonist Joe Locke, who has a sizeable following in the Seattle area. He’s no stranger to the Pacific Northwest, having performed at the Ballard Jazz Festival with Geoffrey Keezer and in Port Townsend. His visits are rare enough that this was an occasion. Locke is a true virtuoso on his chosen instrument. Sometimes a prolix improviser, he can spin off dizzying flights packed with so many audacious ideas that a comparison to Art Tatum or Cecil Taylor might be in order. Everything has a clarity and pinpoint articulation that can boggle the mind. Dazzling technique doesn’t amount to a hill of coffee beans in the bigger picture though. It’s what he does with it. There is deep spirituality, rhythmic intensity and true story telling in his playing. He’s fun to watch as well as to hear. It’s obvious that he is in that famous “zone” whenever he’s onstage. An animated, physical, constantly moving presence, his facial expressions continually mirroring the process of spontaneous creation, mouthing along with labyrinthine passages, once in awhile scatting along sotto voce, he doesn’t just play the music, he inhabits it. The man’s a perpetual motion machine. Those 12-hour days playing on the streets of New York City with George Braith definitely paid off when it comes to stamina and focus.
All of the musicians who played at Tula’s are on Gratitude, with the exception of Seattle’s ubiquitous Matt Jorgensen on drums, replacing Joe La Barbera. Jorgensen is an aggressive, polyrhythmic drummer, and his entrainment with Locke was a joy to behold. They were Locked in, if you’ll pardon the expression. Thomas Marriott produced the session for Origin and his brother David provided the superb arrangements. Particularly during the second and third sets this evening, the former’s trumpet and flügelhorn playing was packed with joie de vivre and a sense of adventure. There was no holding back. Marriott can be a very subtle player, on occasion appearing to backpedal and eschew grandstanding. This is one of his strengths. Better that than the effusive bravura of someone like James Carter, who tends to play everything he knows in the first ten minutes and then tries to figure out the next step. This evening’s music found Marriott more willing to teeter on the edge of the abyss than he had been at other live performances I’ve heard. He never fell over. Bassist Phil Sparks is a long-time Caliman associate, and their simpatico communication is obvious. His time is rock-solid, an essential ingredient in a music that takes as many rhythmic twists and turns as the arrangements on Gratitude do. He also has a full, deep, rich sound and beautiful intonation; no slipping and sliding to reach the “right” note here.
Attempts at a play-by-play would be pointless. It was the experience in total that made such a strong impression on me. I have to single out Caliman’s infectious composition “Joe Joe Dancer Bossa Nova” though, which included some of the most memorable solo work from all hands and his radiant interpretation of “Lush Life” in quartet format. Caliman obviously knows the lyrics to this heartbreakingly beautiful Billy Strayhorn classic, and his tenor saxophone exuded saudade in an emotional solo that juggled the world-weary sentiments of the song with a life-affirming optimism.
Looking back on the experience, I’m reminded of something that the late pianist Andrew Hill once said: “I’m trying to make music a sensual expression, not an academic experiment.”