Last weekend at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club provided the fortunate listener with two sterling examples of the intersection of artistry and stagecraft. If you haven’t been to the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, physically and artistically its an attractive and comfortable space. Some years ago the KC’s artistic director for jazz, the late NEA Jazz Master Billy Taylor, and director of jazz programming Kevin Struthers hatched the KC Jazz Club by craftily converting what had been a multi-purpose room on the penthouse or Terrace level of the complex. The space has enabled the Kennedy Center, the closest thing to a national cultural center for the performing arts in this country, to present a varied menu of jazz performances they might not otherwise present due to the economic considerations of filling their prodigious concert halls. The weekend of February 8/9 proved to be a good time to visit the KC Jazz Club; and once again it was about two guys who’ve regularly appeared on these pages precisely because of their fine blend of intelligent music-making and ability to deliver a message to their audience that is both challenging and fun, which is no easy balancing act.
On Friday the hit was drummer Matt Wilson‘s Arts & Crafts quartet; Saturday night belonged to Dr. Taylor’s successor, pianist Jason Moran and the Bandwagon trio. Wilson, whose unit includes the exceptional trumpeter Terell Stafford, bassist Martin Wind, and Gary Versace on piano and Hammond B-3 organ, has developed one of the most consistently witty, cohesive and swinging small bands in jazz. And wit is no small element in any Matt Wilson presentation; he’s an absolute master at making an audience comfortable and prepared for whatever journey is underway. Wilson skillfully ropes an audience in with his cheerful asides and happy-to-have-you-here-with-us mentality, able to ease an audience into what might otherwise be a knotty, if not daunting, selection. At the drums Wilson is an impeccable craftsman, tastefully employing sidebar toys, including a string of pearls dragged across his rims to produce an effective rattle. Stafford skillfully manipulated several different mutes to alter his sound. Throughout Arts & Crafts set it was evident that these guys genuinely enjoy playing together, all the while realizing their obligation to be both informative, entertaining, and artful without compromise. Towards the close of their set Matt enthusiastically invited veteran bassist Butch Warren, DC resident and bass chair with Monk and on many a Blue Note classic (including with Donald Byrd, apropos given Byrd’s passing earlier that very week), up for a tune – Wilson having played with Butch recently on a Baltimore gig at An Die Musik with pianist Freddie Redd. The respect and warmth with which Wilson musically embraced Warren was yet another feather in the drummer’s cap.
Saturday evening was Jason Moran and the Bandwagon’s turn, with his musical intimates Taurus Mateen on bass and the ever-inventive Nasheet Waits on drums. Throughout the set, the Bandwagon featured liberal doses of Moran’s clever re-imaginations of Fats Waller’s music (which will comprise his next Blue Note date and be expanded at an April show in the KC’s expanded “Supersized” Jazz Club space in the Atrium). He also made significant use of sampled archival material as intro or inspiration for Bandwagon explorations; including their opener, a riff that sprang from a loop of the original “California Dreaming” Mamas and Papas hit. Later he took on Waller after playing an excerpt from a hilarious interview between Fats and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, presumably from an old Jack Benny show. After deconstructing “Lulu’s Back in Town”, recalling Monk’s play on that seemingly unlikely vehicle, Moran waxed rhapsodic on listening to Billie Holiday as Lady’s classic “Big Stuff” track unspooled underneath, another sampled launch pad. Throughout the set, certainly befitting the impresario role he has so capably occupied at the KC, Moran blithely detailed each piece for the audience, skillfully inviting them into his inventions. Then he closed with another example of his humanity and humor, this time showing his Dad side by inviting his young twin sons up for the closer, one to bring some extra rhythm on tambourine, the other to free form dance to the trio. You had to be there, though it might sound hokey, it was refreshing and the crowd literally ate it up.
Matt Wilson and Jason Moran are two supreme examples of creative, uncompromising artists who know how to skillfully work a room, and engage an audience without any sense of sacrificing their creative impulses all while consistently delivering fresh artistic expression.