September 26, 2008

Musical Renaissance Men

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Eclectic percussionist Jerome Cooper came to Cornell “to perform, that’s under my contractual agreement. I’m not here to talk.” Or so he said at Tuesday’s American Artistic Renaissance Symposium panel, emphasizing the symposium’s performative element over its academic one. He led jam session with a glockenspiel-laden set, expertly harnessing the deep pulse of true, free jazz. Though his reputation was cemented as a soloist famous for short, rhythmic phrases, Cooper played alongside jazz legend Leroy Jenkins in the 1970’s “Revolutionary Ensemble.”
From his first conscious-piercing note, this one-man band burned a punctuating trail of cool, fluid emotion through the stage. Nimble fingers glided across an African tribal flute as Cooper keyed subtle hints of familiarity, while luring us into a unique realm of soul. Structurally provocative to the Western ear, diversity and inclusion were the norm. As the song wound down at a manageable 27 minutes, no one really knew if it was actually over. The audience, awkwardly waiting to strike hand against hand, appeared quite uncomfortable. Thankfully, Cooper playfully looked up, nodded his head and emitted a single “YEP!” to a wildly erupting crowd of academics.
For his next number, Cooper filled the concert hall with a fast approaching winter blizzard. The percussionist massaged his hi-hat, simultaneously spanking the bass drum with rhythmic punch. Jamming at the speed of sound, Cooper took his cues from the forbearer of the human condition. At the song’s climax, the audience was hurled down the metaphoric rabbit hole, through the looking glass and into a heap of sound. The audience was awe-struck. Now we knew why he didn’t waste his energy at the panel. Just like he told us: he came to perform.
Next on tap was Sam Rivers — self-proclaimed “composer, musician, flute, piano, saxophone, leader” — wielding a scalding sax to flip the crisp autumn evening. Following a brief stint alongside Miles Davis in the mid ’60s, Rivers signed with “Blue Note” and went on to record with greats Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. His tapered grey flannel suit stood stark contrast to Cooper’s free flowing festival of color. Rivers wiggled his fingers and took several short, quick breaths in preparation for the ensuing onslaught of jazz. Earlier in the day, Rivers chimed in on the current state of music, improvisation and the digital era.
“Musicians cannot repeat themselves, no two will ever be the same. But electronics,” he lamented, “make it exactly the same every time.”
At 84 years of age, even his greatest supporters must have been skeptical of the legend’s lung capacity. The naysayer, however, was proven wrong as soon as Sam’s lips touch glistening brass. Truly, he didn’t play a day older than phenomenal. In one blinding solo, Rivers raced up complex scales as if anthills and back down like an oil-greased chute. With unthinkable pulmonary strength, the sax man gracefully glided through a full set. Out of sight! I’ll be happy if I can still tie my shoes at 84.
Last on the bill was Charlie Hayden, joined by special guest President David Skorton.
“Haden,” Skorton declared, “is the most iconic and admired bass player in the jazz world.” With unrivaled precision, Hayden bred new life into the term virtuoso in a series of bellowing reverberations, dominating the stage with painful, cerebral, reflective backbone. Perhaps taking “perfectionist” a bit too far, however, the bassist stopped twice mid song — once to give the sound board technician a quiet scolding, and again to whine about a fan blowing off in the distance.
Commenting on the nature of creativity, Hayden testified, “Spirituality of improvisation is 90 degrees is the process. What happens when you touch music and you’re improvising, what you learn from that … No yesterday and no tomorrow. Just the moment, you learn about your ego, your insignificance and unimportance. Only then can you learn about your true significance.”
Three jams deep, Hayden beckoned a collaborator onto the stage: “Dave! Try to keep up!” Barely containing a childlike grin, Skorton went on stage; a Little Leaguer getting to play catch with the Mick. Donning a jazz flute (hackneyed Anchorman references omitted), Skorton — complementary, modest, patient and yet overwhelmingly sincere and emotional — more than kept up with jazz’s best. In my opinion, the guy just got a lot cooler.