Guest blogger Walton Muyumba is a University of North Texas professor who teaches classes on blues, jazz and American literature. He is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation and Philosophical Pragmatism.
Al Jarreau makes “adult contemporary” music. That’s not a problem, except that Jarreau’s set at the Winspear Opera House Wednesday — which opened the Larry Rosen Jazz Series — offered the opposite of jazz. With his five-man band and a back-up singer, Jarreau interpreted four standards, including “My Funny Valentine” and “Midnight Sun,” as smooth jazz numbers. Though Jarreau’s vocal style and the band’s musicianship were buffed and well polished, the music’s sheen was glaring, saccharine, and annoying. Jarreau was playful and jocular throughout his show, teasing the audience with witty repartee and even serenading Donna Joyner, Tom’s wife, with sweet birthday wishes.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio opened the evening, working through a selection of original pieces from their recent album, Songs from the Heart. Lewis and his rock-solid band mates, Leon Joyce (drums) and Larry Grey (bass), capped the set with a rousing blues and gospel medley. The compositions were pleasant, but the soloing sounded perfunctory, rote. Lewis’ music sits both within and adjacent to mainstream jazz: He’s always been interested in referring to straight-ahead, improvised jazz while letting the music drift into the pop and smooth jazz idioms.
Both acts put on a show, made the opening an event; however, the music felt canned and easy, rather than interesting, risky, dangerous or compelling.
The whole series seems short on invention or challenge. I wondered as the evening proceeded why the planners did not think to bring Roy Hargrove to open the series. An alumnus of Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School and one of contemporary jazz’s premier trumpeters, Hargrove would have been an inspired choice. As well, had the organizers wanted to maintain the Texas flavor, the excellent Houston-bred pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper would have been fitting. Even more, given their annual appearances with the DSO, Branford or Wynton Marsalis would have given the series gravitas.
And had no one thought to invite Ornette Coleman back to Dallas-Fort Worth to blow the doors off the building, announcing his return to native grounds?
Though the Winspear Opera House is a beautiful, generous listening room, it seems suitable for almost any art music except for jazz. Jazz performances deserve — even demand — intimate performance spaces where listeners can dance, shout, sing or listen in close proximity to the musicians. Given the need to drum up physical and financial support for the programs at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Rosen’s program is beneficial because of its strong commercial appeal.
Yet the jazz education promised from the evening did not materialize.
- John Gempel’s review for Renegade Bus