Conventional wisdom holds that the contemporary jazz scene is ultimately weakened by a lack of the type of innovative visionary that dominated the 50s and 60s. Although it may well be true that there are no young Miles Davises or Ornette Colemans, modern jazz is by no means a wasteland.
Much of the credit for this goes to the genre’s willingness to tap into world music, by definition as prolific and pure a scene as one could ever hope to find. Three of the most exciting recent jazz releases — Ernest Ranglin’s Memories of Barber Mack, Dean Fraser’s Big Up! and Arthur Lyman’s reissued Hawaiian Sunset play jazz as a fresh multicultural phenomenon. Even the old guard is responding. Ornette Coleman has worked with a diverse group of international artists, and Herbie Mann, the jazz floutist pushing 70, now performs concerts as rich in Brazilian compositions as American standards.
A standing room only crowd witnessed a logical extension of this trend Saturday evening at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. Freddie Bryant and the Brooklyn Rain Forest performed a unique, compelling set that aspired to, and often succeeded in playing Brazilian music on jazz music’s terms.
That this was a jazz concert, not a world music show, was of vital importance; Bryant and company made this explicit throughout. It wasn’t just the cover of Miles Davis’s “Solar” or traditional improvisational stretches that made explicit this connection. Equally important was the confident, unassuming demeanor of the players. They weren’t proselytzing, they were playing, and that made all the difference in a concert that was elucidating without sinking into pedagoguery.
Even as pure jazz, the concert was enjoyable, largely due to the skills of guitarist and bandleader Bryant, the quintet’s lifeblood. Introducing pieces with guitarwork that was alternately plaintive and ominous, Bryant showed off dexterity and range without subjugating the music. In fact, he proved to be a first-rate mood setter, working minimalist pizzicatos, charging crescendos and hints of flamenco and samba into a surprisingly coherent, uncluttered vision.
The other players fed off of Bryant’s work to a point; eventually they showed off a unique understanding of their own. Trumpeter Scott Wenholdt and tenor saxophonist Shamus Blake are adroit, if unspectacular in an arangement in which spectacular performances aren’t called for. More important than their individual talents is their interaction with each other and drummer Portinho.
Portinho is the band’s greatest singular personality, a crafty drummer who seems to relish tossing in unexpected flourishes and boosanova and samba flavored beats. It makes for an exciting racket, but also a difficult one to follow. One could see this difficulty played out betweeen Portinho and Blake. At times Portinho would force Blake into an entirely different melodic strain; Blake would pick up on it and dictate the drummer’s cadence for a time. It was, in short, a very productive tension.
One wishes, however, that Dennis Irwin, who played the greatest of jazz instruments, the upright bass, had been afforded a larger role in this tension. For much of the performance, Irwin’s bass was lost beneath the din of the drums and horns. This isn’t especially unusual, but it was made more dissapointing by the fact that Irwin didn’t log much solo time. His bass never really got a full chance to speak until the second set; it could have given a much desired root to the earlier pieces.
That said, the quintet really took off after the break. Three consecutive songs summed up the performance. “Patchwork in G” soared from Bryant’s opening guitar crescendos and never let up, buoyed by some of the evening’s best work from Irwin and Wenholdt. Even better was a reworking of Miles Davis’s “Solar,” which was, ironically, the most outwardly world-influenced song of the set, stating its mission immediately with a bossa-based guitar and percussion excursion and working into a furious improvisation. “Serenade” was a wonderful counterpoint, coaxing the most lyrical performances out of the horn players and even harnessing to an extent Portinho’s unpredictable percussion.
These moments defined not just a concert but a genre, that, for all its emphasis on tradition, can still look forward to new avenues of expression without forsaking the venerated principles on which it rose to prominence. The beauty in Brooklyn Rain Forest is that they are not revolutionaries, merely jazzmen who have seen the revolution.