The jazz jam, a time-honored tradition in the world of improvisational music, takes on grand dimensions during “Carnegie Hall Salutes the Jazz Masters,” tonight’s installment of PBS’ “Great Performances” series.
Held April 6 in New York’s fabled recital venue, the salute, honoring the 50th anniversary of Verve Records, brings together a host of distinguished artists, mostly pulled from the Verve roster, in mix-and-match sessions that sometimes finds them searching unsuccessfully for common ground. Case in point: guitarist Pat Metheny’s failure to equal the contributions of saxophonist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Roy Hargrove as the three trade licks on Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle.”
The oddest grouping comes early, when co-host Vanessa Williams sings “Tea for Two” with backing from fellow host and keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Joe Henderson, trombonist J. J. Johnson and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. The instrumental ensemble is fine, but Williams’ phrasing lacks for want of that central jazz ingredient: swing. Her efforts pale even further after fine performances from vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter.
Worse, Williams’ between-tune patter, forced and insincere, gives the 90-minute concert the air of a cheap beauty pageant. Hancock fares better, especially when narrating clips honoring departed or retired jazz legends.
The historical footage of Art Tatum, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and others make for the salute’s best moments. But it’s also studded with fine musical presentations, notably pianist Hank Jones’ solo rendition of “Willow Weep for Me,” Joe Henderson’s suave tenor solo on “Desafinado” (with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim at the piano), Jimmy Smith’s whining organ blitz on Elmer Bernstein’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and almost anything that includes aggressive young trumpeter Hargrove.
And when the jams click, as happens on the contemporary-minded “Call It ’94" with an ensemble led by Hancock, and Charlie Parker’s be-bop anthem “Now’s the Time,” which features a wild exchange of phrases between Carter and Hargrove, the improvisational art of jazz breathes with life.
* “Carnegie Hall Salutes the Jazz Masters” airs tonight at 8 on KVCR-TV Channel 24 and at 9 on KCET-TV Channel 28. It airs at 2 p.m. Saturday on KPBS-TV Channel 15.