The jazz renaissance came into focus here over the weekend with the opening of George Wein's ambitious, 10-day JVC Jazz Festival.
The quantity and diversity of sounds set to take place through next Sunday is beyond question. Of the 34 events, mostly in mid-town Manhattan but some as far afield as Stanhope, N.J., and Waterloo Village, N.Y., several provide "safe" talent in predictable shows (Miles Davis and B. B. King), while others offer new and adventurous artists in intimate settings geared to their as-yet-untried audience appeal.
In the latter category was Geoff Keezer, presented Saturday as one of a series of solo piano recitalists in Weill Hall, a small, elegant room next door to Carnegie. Keezer is one of the most astonishing symbols of his generation, a new broom sweeping away the cobwebs of yesteryear.
Just seven months out of his teens, he displayed a technique that would be amazing in an artist twice his age. He all but floods the ear with streams of polyphonic dissonances, top-speed two-handed parallel lines, and original works intermingled with sublimations of such standards as "Blue Monk."
It's remarkable that someone of his tender years combines so much wisdom, expertise and creativity. True, at times the barrage of ideas tends to become a battering ram. Keezer needs to rein in his work, as he does now and then: He brought an almost hymnal reverence to "For All We Know."
In the same hall the day before, Ralph Sutton, who at 68 could be Keezer's grandfather, cruised through an amiable set of works mainly in the stride tradition. At ease playing Fats Waller chestnuts ("Viper's Drag," "Honeysuckle Rose"), he seemed less comfortable translating Cole Porter into his own terms.
The first session at Carnegie Hall itself exemplified the use of established talent strengthened by an overall concept. "An Evening With Mel Torme" on Friday consisted entirely of music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
A big-band set led by the ex-Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry never quite got into gear. The band seemed under-rehearsed, the sound balance was off, the arrangements lacked fire. Terry played one solo holding his fluegelhorn upside down, pushing the valves upward--to what point? The one highlight was a tenor sax solo in which Frank Wess emulated the famous Ben Webster chorus on "All Too Soon."
Everything came together when Tommy Flanagan's Trio took over. With Lewis Nash on drums and bassist George Mraz, pianist Flanagan brought ebullient charm to an imaginative program that included such Ellington arcana as "Sunset and the Mocking Bird."
Torme opened the second half playing drums with the band on "Rockin' in Rhythm," and somehow he brought everyone to life. His vocal set was a masterful collection, reflecting his serious study of the Duke's work in all its aspects, from amusing trivia such as the seldom-heard "Riff Staccato" and "Tulip or Turnip" to songs from extended works--"I Like the Sunrise" from the "Liberian Suite"; "The Blues" from "Black, Brown & Beige," and "Reminiscing in Tempo," which Torme first heard as a 9-year-old Ellington fan in Chicago and for which he himself later wrote the admirable lyrics.
Gerry Mulligan joined Torme as the surprise guest. With Terry and the band, they put a thousand new twists on "It Don't Mean a Thing," climaxed by an incredible Torme-Mulligan scat-and-baritone sax duet. "Perdido," the encore, was only a hair less exciting.
Saturday evening offered a three-way choice: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz Futures group (reviewed here last week at the Playboy Festival), a Latin program with Tito Puente, and a blues show presented at the Ritz, a ballroom on 54th Street.
The Ritz show began with a dismal '60s-style blues-rock group, led by Elvin Bishop, then added insult to injury by placing the contemporary alto sax star Arthur Blythe in this crude setting. The Harper Brothers, instead of leading their own band, were teamed with blues organist Jimmy McGriff. But this kind of inept booking seems to be the exception at the festival. Superior sessions, no doubt, lie ahead.