At each Jazz Foundation in America annual concert the logo stresses “saving jazz and blues…one musician at a time,” and the several younger musicians who performed Friday evening at the Apollo for the 13th annual concert assures the continuation of the foundation and its overall purposes.
There were a number of highlights at the event billed as “A Great Night in Harlem,” but the youngest of the performers, 11-year-old Joey Alexander from Bali, was singularly impressive with a very probing and mature rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” With Herbie Hancock, the concert’s most prominent honoree, seated behind him, Alexander eased into the classic, teasing out its challenging harmonic colors, shifting comfortably from tempo to tempo without losing the tune’s haunting melody.
Upon accepting his award from the foundation, Hancock said Alexander “is stealing my job.” But the renowned pianist and composer demonstrated that what Alexander promises, he long ago achieved and reprised with two of his former bands: Mwandishi and Headhunters. With the first group, featuring bassist Buster Williams, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bennie Maupin on flute and Julian Priester on trombone, the tune was “Toys,” and Henderson was particularly compelling with a sharp, precise recollection of his solo from the past. “Chameleon” was vintage Hancock, with him on what appeared to be a Fender Rhodes and locked in with choppy rhythmic exchanges with bassist James Genus and guitarist Ray Parker Jr.
Hancock was also at the keyboard with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Wallace Roney as they worked through the intricacies of “Ginger Bread Boy,” which was really a tribute to the great Clark Terry. When they concluded, Heath was presented with a birthday cake. “He will be 88 at midnight,” said Wendy Oxenhorn, the foundation’s vice-chair and inexhaustible drum major.
But let’s get back to the young’uns, who held their own in an evening with such stalwarts as singers Angélique Kidjo and Chaka Khan during a salute to Earth, Wind and Fire, blues master and mistress Charles Bradley and Susan Tedeschi and Questlove and brief film footage of the late Babi Floyd and Little Jimmy Scott, as well as dignitaries on the level of Quincy Troupe, Bruce Willis, Rachel Robinson, Richard Parsons (the foundation’s chair) and even a prince and princess from Luxembourg.
None of the musicians was on stage as long as the visually impaired Matthew Whitaker, who opened the show and stayed at the keyboard more than half an hour with repeated versions of Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” and “What a Wonderful World.” And thankfully, he’s a wonderful pianist and a real trouper for keeping the crowd entertained while things were being prepared behind the curtain.
Cuban pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco isn’t much older than Whitaker and Alexander, but already with a bundle of prizes and awards, his international acclaim is arriving almost as fast as his arpeggio runs, and along with an abundance of creativity, he seems to possess boundless energy.
From the upper mezzanine, it wasn’t possible to gauge the size of the crowd, but according to one photographer, who was able to roam at will among the 1500 seats, it was a very good turnout, and given that the least expensive seats in the balcony were $75, the Foundation raised considerable funds for its mission, making “A Great Night in Harlem” both an artistic and a financial success.