WBGO ‘Champions’ Jazz Showcase Amid Storm
A nor’easter combines the strength of a blizzard with that of a hurricane. Yet even as one of these fearsome storms blew through New York on the evening of Nov. 7, blanketing the city with snow, those inside the Allen Room at Jazz At Lincoln Center barely noticed; they were rapt, in a celebratory mood.
They had come for WBGO-FM’s “Champions of Jazz,” an annual concert benefitting the Newark, N.J.-based jazz radio station. Retired record executive Bruce Lundvall was one of these “champions,” but he was also the evening’s guest of honor. Most of the performers, including Bobby McFerrin, Paquito D’Rivera and Marcus Printup, got their starts under Lundvall’s wing at CBS, Elektra/Musician and Blue Note, and they played selections from “Bruce’s Juke Box,” a playlist of milestones from Lundvall’s five-decade career.
McFerrin, also an honoree at the event, explained that his breakthrough 1984 album, The Voice, would never have been recorded if it hadn’t been for Lundvall. The vocalist discussed how he had been signed to Elektra/Musician at the time, but disliked the lush orchestrations producers wanted him to record. Aware of Lundvall’s reputation, he approached him directly with a different idea: to record a full album of solo vocal improvisation with no accompaniment or overdubs.
“Why do you want to do that?” Lundvall had asked him. “Because God wants me to,” McFerrin shot back. Lundvall’s response? “Well, there’s no higher authority than that, so I guess I’m going to go along!” True to form, he hired a crew to follow McFerrin’s next concert tour, and turned the resulting recordings into the platinum-selling album.
Lundvall has been a bebop fan since his teens, so McFerrin performed Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” with Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Gil Goldstein on accordion, Al Foster on drums and Doug Weiss on bass. D’Rivera then joined them on saxophone for an impromptu version of “A Night In Tunisia.”
D’Rivera was in Cuba in 1979 when Lundvall took advantage of a brief thaw in Cold War relations to invite his group, Irakere, to record in the United States. Irakere won a Grammy for the album, which opened the door for D’Rivera and other Cuban artists to pursue careers outside of the country.
D’Rivera and pianist Alex Brown also performed the “Adagio” from Mozart’s second clarinet concerto as a blues, which, he joked, Lundvall had discovered in some “rare early recordings of Mozart from New Orleans.”
Two 23-year-old pianists opened the evening’s program: Joe Alterman warmed up guests over cocktails, then Christian Sands started the concert with a medley of Herbie Hancock’s “Canteloupe Island” and “Dolphin Dance.”
Printup—who recorded four albums for Blue Note under Lundvall—also led a tribute to trumpeter Woody Shaw with Sands, tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., drummer Rodney Green and bassist Dezron Douglas that included “Theme For Maxine,” written for Shaw’s former wife, Maxine Gordon, who was in the audience.
“I called Bruce a few days ago to see what he wanted us to play,” said Printup, before launching into “Moontrane.” “I was hoping he’d choose something easy—but of course he chose something really difficult!”
McFerrin asked Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer for the hip-hop group The Roots, to join him for the evening’s finale.
“We’re both graduates of MSU—Makin’ Stuff Up!” joked McFerrin, before they launched into a joyful, stream-of-consciousness melee of scat and funk, in which he rhapsodized about everything from cashews to the falling snow to close the show.
Fortunately, snow—not destruction—was all the evening’s nor’easter left behind, and so concertgoers were able to get home safely. But there are rare moments in jazz when when the music seems to overflow with a sense of creative gratitude—the International Jazz Day concert at the United Nations this April organized by Hancock comes to mind—and this was one of them. While it may not have been a “perfect storm” outside, it certainly was on stage.