NEC Vocalist Showcase vs. HSBC Jazz Festival

By Howard Mandel

As spring starts, unusual presenters are offering stark musical choices to New Yorkers, demonstrating just how far apart the poles of jazz stand.

Spyro Gyra, the jazz-fusion pride of Buffalo, headline a “smooth jazz festival,” along with vocalists Al Jarreau and Patti Austin, plus the married guitarist-singer duo Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart. It’s three nights of nice sounds (March 25 through 28) by pleasant people at the Nokia Theatre Times Square. Next to the name-recognition and sales power of that lineup, the musicians who’ve performed throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn since March 20 and continue through March 27 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the jazz program at Boston’s New England Conservatory (NEC) are quite esoteric.

Dominique Eade at Joe’s Pub March 26.

In fact, the late NEC educator and composer George Russell, whose legacy was the topic of an afternoon symposium last Sunday at Jazz at Lincoln Center, was a visionary. NEC’s curriculum, as divined by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and jazz historian Gunther Schuller, promulgates jazz and classical music as equals coming together in a Third Stream. The school has revitalized klezmer, certified other “world music” genres for re-creation and supported explorations of microtonality. It’s hugely influential. But when its vocalists’ showcase at Joe’s Pub March 26 is headlined by singer’s singer Dominque Eade, its featured combo that same night at Cornelia Street Café is the intensely cool John McNeil-Bill McHenry Quartet and the biggest name in its culminating “Jazz Summit” at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill on Saturday March 27 is highbrow jam-band keyboardist John Medeski, it’s clear which festival is pitched to casual listeners and which to hard-core fans.

The jazz ethos purports (though it may be honored more in the breach than the observance) that music is a big umbrella, under which it’s déclassé to sneer at one style or another. If we can respect what both so-called smooth and arguably cerebral jazz have to represent—they’re both jazz, right?—perhaps we’ll get closer to understanding the music’s essence, functions and how to help it thrive.

The musical proficiency of pop-jazz instrumentalists is not in doubt, but their material tends to soothing earnestness rather than edgy challenge. Spyro Gyra, which debuted on record in 1979, invented the “adult contemporary” format: tight ensembles with an out-front voice, horn, guitar or keyboard cleanly and repeatedly stating a mellow, wistful or chipper but generally unmemorable melody; bubbly backgrounds and chugging rhythms splashed with Caribbean percussion, given a glossy mix. South African guitarist-singer Jonathan Butler, who opens for SG March 25, croons rhythm ‘n’ blues love songs and gospel messages, typically with an unobtrusive, cushioning backup band.

Similarly, Al Jarreau (at Nokia March 26), graced with an unusually flexible voice, delivers bedroom ballads like “Teach Me Tonight” and disco standards such as “Boogie Down” with ingratiating fervor. Christian Scott, the New Orleans-based trumpeter opening for Jarreau, casts himself as a serious mid-tempo romantic. Patti Austin, the star on Saturday, is Oprah-worthy: She’s a hit-making singer since the ’80s who won her first Grammy in 2008 for the album Avant Gershwin, and since losing 140 pounds via gastric bypass surgery has led an effort to combat domestic violence besides singing on “We Are The World: 25 for Haiti” to raise money for earthquake victims. Tuck and the other Patti, launched in the ’80s by the New Age record label Windham Hill, are the most daring of this bunch, working fully exposed, just his guitar and her voice—clear and simple, utterly inoffensive.

But some like it feisty, and dogged New York jazzers tend to find this kind of fare a little bland. Faculty, graduates and enthusiasts out for NEC’s events will surely claim to get greater pleasure from music that’s more complicated than average easy listening, that demands immediate interaction from its players and rewards an audience’s informed, undivided attentions.

Half of NEC’s NYC weeklong activities are over by the time this will be published, but March 25, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring leads The New Mellow Edwards, a band that fits no category other than “quirky,” at the Douglas Street Music Collective, an artist-run space in out-of-the-way Gowanus. In contrast, Joe’s Pub is an elegant room for NEC’s singers to storm on Friday; Ms. Eade, a composer-improviser with the most crystal-clear voice in jazz, performs along with several of her distinguished former students.

What will happen at B.B.’s on Saturday is anyone’s guess: besides Medeski, pianists Cecil Taylor Ran and Blake and multi-keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic are scheduled. Point of comparison, hard jazz to smooth stuff: Hard has many more surprises.