The Billy Taylor Trio, who appeared in Chapin Hall on Friday night, did not play the watered-down jazz we are used to hearing as it leaks into elevators and courses through trendy coffee shops. Billy Taylor (he of the gigantic black glasses), who has lead his own trio since 1951, still plays vigorous, emotive piano at 78. Chip Jackson, the bassist, proved himself skillful and musical, while drummer Winard Harper gave an enthusiastic performance. Guest vocalist Sheila Jordan (she of the red velvet shoes) sang, as Taylor put it, “like a horn.” This trio, who began the concert with five instrumental charts, was not at all watery.
The concert was recorded live by National Public Radio, giving audience members interesting insights into the performers’ minds as they engaged in several musical discussions which also significantly extended the concert length. The program, which will be aired in May on Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, is intended for a projected audience of 250,000 listeners, while Friday’s audience filled little more than half of Chapin Hall’s 1000 seats. The musical discussions allowed Jordan and Taylor to reveal interesting facts about subjects ranging from their early careers to their present tastes, and to answer audience questions. The novelty of cue cards and headphones soon wore off, though, as Taylor and Jordan’s discussions prolonged the concert to three hours, causing many to leave early.
The Trio’s first chart, “Hot House,” showcased the hallmarks of their performance: energy and virtuosity. Taylor used the moderately fast tempo to combine lengthy runs with sections of condensed, heavy chords. Bassist Jackson, was extremely agile, playing chords nearly as often as pizzicato. He played generally very high and did a lot of strumming, especially in this tune. Taylor, it should be noted, accompanied the bass solo with incredibly well-placed and delicate chords.
The Trio, though, was in no danger of being precious. On drums, Harper pushed and visibly enjoyed himself throughout. Alternating between the light sound of drum edges and sticks, and heartier bits of Latin rhythm, he played very physically, even leaping up regularly to reach the front of the cymbals for what appeared to be the pure fun of it.
The last chart of their set, Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” let Taylor show off his virtuosity. To begin, he played the energetic, syncopated introduction with only his left hand. The wonderfully distilled sound progressed to a two-handed extended solo, in which he did not return to the melody, but only improvised within the chords. After some fast, sweeping scales, he finished again with one hand. Taylor popped up to his feet the moment he finished, to enthusiastic applause.
In his smooth (radio-friendly) speaking voice, he then introduced Sheila Jordan, “71 and a half,” who finished off the concert with eight more charts. He went on to explain that she “was a very important part of a very important time in Detroit,” having been introduced to jazz after leaving her home in a Pennsylvania mining town. Her voice was high and breathy, characterized by hovering vacillations in and around the melody. Although she sometimes seemed simply out of tune, for the most part her unusual sound pleased and challenged the audience.
Without a doubt, Jordan’s scatting was the strongest, most versatile part of her performance. Her voice was fullest at these times, achieving a sound that was both sharp and bubbly, deep and calm. When she scatted, her entire performance style changed from a relaxed sauntering about the stage to an inward, focused, still position. In “Quasimodo,” she lowered her head and pulled the microphone in with a deliberate, two-handed grip that focused the attention of the entire hall, including her own, on her improvising.
Despite being a guest of the Trio, Jordan appeared very comfortable on stage throughout the performance. She led a section of call-and-response with the audience, in which we scatted her scat back to her in the closing section of “Quasimodo.” (I must say, we were quite good – full participation and accurate pitch matching, though not much energy.) In the conversations that dotted Jordan and Taylor’s joint performance, too, she spoke openly in her girlish voice about herself.
Jordan covered a wide range of topics: her childhood in her coal-mining family’s shack; the fact that jazz alone saved her from alcoholism; the profound influence the Bird (a.k.a. Charlie Parker, alto saxophone great) had on her development as a musician. Despite her depth of feeling for the Bird, her lyrics about him left much to be desired; in one song, she simply repeated “Bird” all across her range, then added a hackneyed “Charlie Parker was his name.” However, her rendition of “Hey Mama Can I Have Dat Big Elephant Over Dere,” a song in a child’s innocently greedy voice, was charming and funny.
Her preference, she emphasized in one discussion, was always for ballads. While “Autumn in New York” is nearly always a good choice, her emphasis on slower music dulled the tone of the concert as a whole. If the trio hadn’t been so vigorous, however, the change would not have been so noticeable. As it was, the concert ended calmly at midnight, having been drawn out by the NPR recording and somewhat diluted with a slow vocal set.
With talented bassist Chip Jackson, passionate drummer Winard Harper, and the renowned Dr. Billy Taylor, the Trio itself was unusually good. Sheila Jordan’s rich scatting and airy melodies gave breadth to the performance. That Jordan and Taylor took a moment before playing “Good Morning Heartache” to observe Billie Holiday’s (April 7) birthday epitomized all the performers’ gently reflective and exuberant performances.