[Dixielandjazz] Another view of "Tribute" Bands

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Nov 2 09:45:06 PST 2003

Here is an interesting article about "Tribute Bands" and the "health" of
Jazz. It is a review of saxophonist James Carter and his "tribute" to
Billie Holiday. The article is long, not specifically OKOM. That being
said, it offers one man's view of one of the things he thinks is wrong
with jazz these days and parallels can easily be drawn about OKOM. IMO,
worth the read whether you agree with it or not.

Steve Barbone

Sun, Nov. 02, 2003 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Jazz's tribute-itis: What about present, future?

The strings and horns are tangled in a heap. They wail like wounded
animals, afraid and brutalized, in an outburst designed to decisively
punctuate James Carter's version of "Strange Fruit," the Billie Holiday
classic about racial lynching.

The sonic punishment lasts more than a minute, and as you listen, one
thought is inescapable: This is, without a doubt, the 2003 edition of
"Strange Fruit." Loud and outsized. Raw. Extravagant in tone and
temperament, it's a sharp contrast to the desolate, sorrow-filled
silences Holiday used more than 50 years ago to tell the tale.

The trouble begins when the flash of daring noise dies down. For
surrounding "Strange Fruit" on Carter's first effort in three years,
Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia **), are well-meaning and overly polite
period pieces, stately ballads, and gentle swing tunes that try to
wrestle with the late jazz singer's lingering influence.

That's right, it's another breathlessly reverent jazz tribute. Another
chance for a fully credentialed and well-regarded rising star to show he
knows the history, respects the classics, understands where his
inspiration came from.

Blah, blah, blah. Cue up "Thanks for the Memory" here.

It's easy to be impressed by Carter's relaxed, Lester Young-like
virtuosity and sheer saxophonistic prowess. The Detroit-born musician,
who is 34, plays a range of instruments, and brings a unique, sometimes
impish character to each one. But after hearing him interpret four songs
recorded by Holiday and others of the era he thinks she would have liked
(among them the Billy Strayhorn ballad "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"),
one problem with current jazz becomes clear:

This guy and a bunch of his peers are so busy tipping the hat to those
cherished icons, they've almost completely abandoned music that reflects
and embodies the present. They're pursuing a long-lost, gentle-age
ideal, and stubbornly refusing to engage what's happening around them.

Maybe the tribute disease is a lingering side-effect of jazz's
transition from club to concert hall, where the all-star
honor-the-greats show is a sure draw. Or perhaps it's another symptom of
the fear that defines the record business: Today's executives will talk
earnestly all day long about the important legacy of John Coltrane, but
seem disinclined to subsidize the work and development of the next
influential thinker.

 Add them up, and these tributes begin to look like a threat to the very
health of the form.

Weighed down with the baggage of history, obligated to it in ways those
who made the history never were, the jazz musician is now stuck
rehashing (or, in some cases, regurgitating) the old glories, hoping
that the mere association with a legend will generate sufficient luster
- or lucre.

Those who have followed Carter's career, which began in the early '90s
with several records that mixed standards and thoughtful original
compositions, cannot be cheered by Gardenias.

After all, his previous release, in 2000, consisted of two discs, one an
intermittently interesting electric jam, the other a skillfully
understated homage to guitarist Django Reinhardt titled Chasin' the
Gypsy. Though he's been touted as a major talent, Carter hasn't put
together a collection that displays his vision of a jazz future. If you
believe the hype, he's a promising firebrand. If you listen to the
music, you hear him pouring that promise into routine evocations of
stuff that's been done, and done better, before.

To be fair, the decision might not be all Carter's. The jazz-record
business is one of slim margins in the best of times, and lately the
major labels haven't been eager to subsidize new composition-based
projects. His new label, Columbia, might not have pressured Carter to do
something "classic." But surely the Gardenias concept - like that of
similarly themed "celebrations" cluttering the new-release rack this
year, from Bette Midler (!) singing Rosemary Clooney to trombonist Steve
Turre pondering the influence of slideman J.J. Johnson - was easy for
those who sign the checks to fathom. Hardly a recipe for art.

Carter would do well to study Pat Martino's screaming new Think Tank
(Blue Note ***1/2). The Philadelphia-based guitarist has said that
Coltrane was an inspiration for the music, which contains knotty chord
sequences that distantly suggest the master's "sheets of sound" period,
as well as freer explorations built on the simple modes the saxophonist
used later in his development.

But there's never the sense that Martino and his all-star crew -
Philly-native bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Joe Lovano (whose
discography includes canny tributes to Sinatra and Enrico Caruso, among
others), pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and drummer Louis Nash - are out to
redo anything the legend did. Instead, they cultivate an atmosphere of
daring, and brighten each of Martino's compositions with a hint of

Extended impromptu flights come tumbling out of simple melodic motifs,
and the written road maps give rise to spirited, multilayered
conversations. The music crackles with the vitality and contentiousness
of city life - it might have been born after a hectic rush-hour commute
through midtown on the New York subway. But it's never some throwback.
Martino and his crew are riding the current trains, sleek and purposeful
and totally on time in the present, and, thankfully, the players never
seem to long for the rattletraps those beboppers of the '50s used to

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