What Becomes a Legend?
Glee. Pure glee. That's what shone in the eyes of legendary vibe man Lionel Hampton the other night at Sunrise Musical Theatre. Hamp played when he was supposed to. Hamp played when he wasn't supposed to (notably, when host Thelonious Monk, Jr., was bullshitting between songs, and later when he was supposed to let Max Roach have some on the skins -- he looked much like the chastised school boy when director Frank Foster told him to cool out and let Roach play). The octogenarian was ear-to-ear teeth as he bopped his mallets, producing the clear, swinging notes that earned him his fame. But Hamp wasn't the only musicmaker obviously enjoying himself at the Legends of Jazz show, which, despite haphazard organization and a few technical glitches, was a collection of almost nothing but highlights.
Starting an hour late (the Basie boys wanted cash up front, but the organizers had only checks, according to WLVE-FM (93.9) personality Stu Grant, on hand to introduce Monk, Jr. and start the proceedings), the evening's festivities began with a lone, dapper Max Roach sitting at his drum kit, performing two exciting solos -- the first deep and thunderous, played with mallets, the second all sticks, rims, and cymbals. Roach then stepped from behind his kit -- high-hat cymbals and chair in hand -- and proceeded to fashion a splashy and vibrant solo with nothing more than that, even traveling up and down the base and stand of the cymbals.
The Basie band eventually found their seats on stage, a bubble-gum pink tuxed Frank Foster leading a hard-charging, brassy attack on "Strike up the Band," and a luxuriant ride through "April in Paris." The audience went ballistic, granting the first of many standing o's for the venerable Cab Calloway, 86, looking frail but somehow suave as he was wheeled to center stage.
Elegant in his trademark white tails, the Hi-Di-Ho Man worked his way to his feet with the help of a cane and a tall kitchen chair, which was used both literally and figuratively as a prop. Still the epitome of Sportin' Life, Calloway grinned like the devil as he wrapped his distinctive chops around the melancholy "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," his phrasing italicized by muted trumpet. -- bluesy "St. James Infirmary," with Cab's trademark vocal yelps and a wild scat finish, and an exuberant, uptempo "Minnie the Moocher," were also testaments to his undiminished talents.
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Vocalist (maybe "stylist" is a better word here) Della Reese also joined Foster and the band, her voice loosening the rafters. "Shoveling Sand," an incredible song about the loneliness of show biz, and a funky-bottomed "Still Called the Blues," were standouts.
No stranger to South Florida crowds, Tito Puente and his Latin ensemble came out swinging hard, the Mambo King lofting his sticks above his head, pounding his silver marimbas with abandon. Puente tied with Hampton for most joyful performance, "Oye como va" sounding better than ever backed by polyrhythmic percussion and punching horns.
Monk, Jr.'s narration, often overglib and desperate -- probably due to the aforementioned lack of organization -- nonetheless provided some interesting insights from someone who literally grew up alongside giants. His father, he recalled, was often described by critics and audiences as "dancing at the piano," because of his wild leg movements. What they didn't know, Monk explained, was that his dad started off as a church organist, and his feet instinctually sought out foot pedals. With that tidbit lodged in my gray matter, I couldn't take my eyes off Jimmy McGriff's feet as he worked the huge pedals of his churchy keys alongside the amazing tenor sax of Lou Donaldson, squeezing every inch of blue out of the classic "Tuxedo Junction."
But the best set was saved for last. A horn section composed of saxman James Moody, trumpeters Clark Terry and Harry Sweets Edison, and trombonist Al Grey, was joined by drummer Panama Francis, pianist Junior Mance, and Lionel Hampton for a remarkable, blues-drenched celebration. A can-you-beat-this spirit prevailed as these old friends traded solos and drove each other to dizzying heights. Sweets Edison's influence on Miles Davis was obvious as he, Mance, and Grey provided the tastiest riffs. The evening ended with an all-star jam, Foster and his band backing everybody.
And Hamp just didn't want to stop.
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