There was no absence of irony when Jimmy Heath announced that “Old Folks” would be the NEA Jazz Masters’ next song. His words and the song were a wink and a nod to pianist Barry Harris, who at 85 is four years younger than the ageless Heath. Harris provided a tinkling obbligato setting the mood and tempo for the evergreen, and Heath on soprano saxophone eased slowly into the ballad.
Like two senior citizens on a stroll down memory lane, Heath and Harris offered the often fast-paced concert at Flushing Town Hall last Friday a moment of reflection. Only occasionally did Heath expend rapid crescendos on his horn. And Harris was of a similar mode, noodling at the edges of the timeless standard.
But other than trombonist Steve Davis’s thoughtful rendition of “There Will Never Be Another You” with soft and sweet fragments of “I’ll Close My Eyes,” the packed auditorium heard a good sample of the Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley repertoire, including romping versions of “Work Song” and “Walkin.’” It was during these excursions that drummer Al Foster and bassist Bob Cranshaw showcased their rhythmic mettle, the informed veterans that they are to the American songbook.
When the group settled into Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird,” a good number of jazz fans knew this would be an opportunity for Harris to display his wisdom of the tune and his understanding of Dameron’s creative genius. A unique aspect of a Harris solo is his way of refining, and sometimes reordering, a song’s harmonic structure. On YouTube you can watch him do this for his students, and the less learned among us heard it rendered this evening without explanation against Foster’s intimate time-keeping and Cranshaw’s resonant bottom notes.
After a brief intermission the sextet returned with Michael Philip Mossman’s muted-trumpet leading the way on a lovely treatment of “Green Dolphin Street.” Mossman’s execution was superb and his searing interpretation was warmly enhanced when Heath on tenor sax and Davis’s trombone combined in a counter melody.
Most rewarding was to hear the group in unison, especially the horns as they did so eloquently on Heath’s “Ginger Bread Boy.” They not only invoked what Miles Davis and ensemble did with the song many years ago, but they gave it a fresh patina, particularly Heath’s solo, which he delivered with tuneful layers that only the composer could apply.
“All Blues” was all that and more. Again, it was a flashback but without any lingering sentimentality. If it wasn’t burnished with the fever of the past, it was no less harmonically delightful. Mossman gave it a nice Milesian touch with his open valve attack with Heath and Davis once more embellishing the solo with their own sense of the blues tradition.
The Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, thanks to the sensitivity and insight of an up-to-the-moment staff, has once again demonstrated its ability to present the very finest in entertainment and education. It was pure “edutainment” as a great griot of the music used to say, and, recalling Heath’s comments, let us hope that the last lines of that song “someday there will be no more old folks,” is in no way imminent.
(Photo by Chris Griffith)