Remembrance: Paying Tribute Through The Art Of Jazz Composition
The idea for this month's column came about in January when I traveled into New York City to see vibraphonist Joe Locke perform at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. This club is the smallest of the three performance venues in the beautifully crafted Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, and it's stunning. For those who haven't had the opportunity to see it, a brief description will have to suffice. It's an intimate room overlooking Columbus Circlethe Southwest corner of New York City's Central Parkand its shape and wood features make you feel like you are on the inside of a giant piano. The acoustics and atmosphere in the room truly suit the groups that play there throughout the year.
During this particular week, Locke and his band were celebrating the release of his newest album, For The Love Of You (E1, 2010). Locke and his band, including bassist George Mraz, pianist Geoffrey Keezer and drummer Clarence Penn, traveled through different moods, styles and sounds during the set and they were enthusiastically received by the audience. The icing on the cake was the presence of vocalist Kenny Washington, who appears on the album and sang beautifully throughout the evening.
While the set featured many great performances, and Locke and his group were in high spirits, the emotional and musical centerpiece of the night proving to be Locke's "Verrazano Moon." Locke wrote the music and lyrics to this song as a tribute to saxophonist Bob Berg, whose life was cut short when he was killed in an automobile accident on a snowy day in December of 2002. From the late 1960s up until his passing, Berg had worked alongside everybody from Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Randy Brecker to Locke himself. While Locke has recorded this song in different musical contexts prior to this album, hearing Washington deliver the touching lyrics that Locke wrote to honor Berg gave the song greater depth and emotional power.
Locke is that rare musical artist who can play as fast and furious as anybody, but can also get to the heart of the matter without resorting to musical fireworks. On this particular night, his gentle, descending flights were balanced out with some lush, yet tender, chords ringing out in the air. Though this song has only been recorded a few times, it serves as one of the most touching jazz tributes to be written in recent years; hopefully more musicians will explore it in times to come. In doing so, they'll have the opportunity to interpret a wondrous composition and pay tribute to Bob Berg.
Sadness might be an obvious part of tribute songs, but melancholic strains aren't a necessity, and many songs actually celebrate the positive energy that the honoree(s) bring to so many people. Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" is the perfect example. Wonder generally doesn't get placed in the jazz category, but neither is he borrowing his connection to the music. His relationship to jazz is actually an important part of his being. While funk laced hits like "Higher Ground" and "Superstition," the reggae-inflected "Master Blaster (Jammin')," or his long list of R&B songs come more immediately to mind when thinking about his musical legacy, Wonder has been mentioning his jazz ties from the very beginning.
Wonder's debut album, The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie (Motown, 1962), arrived decades before he was performing at jazz festivals in various locales throughout the world, and gave Wonder an opportunity to stretch out on some instrumental-only tracks. While the general public will always clamor for his hits, jazz has been an important part of Wonder's live performances as well. Whether dishing out his rendition of Chick Corea's "Spain," improvising on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," or performing Miles Davis' "All Blues" at the Montreal Jazz Festival, he has made it clear that this music is an important part of him. Plenty of people may never see him perform any of these jazz classics in a live setting, but many of these same people have heard him sing the virtues of jazz on "Sir Duke."
This hit song, from Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life (Motown, 1976), is a celebratory statement about the feeling that jazz can bring, and the joy that the masters brought to the music. While the song honors Duke Ellington, who had passed away a few years before its release, it also name checks other giants of jazz. Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, with her voice "ringing out," all receive nods on this grooving masterpiece. Ultimately, Wonder makes clear that it's all about the feeling; the joyous and dancing nature of jazz. In doing so, he forever cemented his relationship to the jazz elders and the music in general.