GLOBETROTTING: For one riveting three-hour stretch this month, Santa Barbara was alive and abuzz with the sound of jazz, on a high, challenging, and world-class level. Of course, we’re talking about the night of the killer piano trios, when The Bad Plus and the Brad Mehldau Trio super-charged the Lobero Theatre with their respective visions of how this now-classical format can be addressed and refreshed. Traditions bumped up against experimental visions, and jazz felt very much like the innately progressive — yet also soothing and emotionally reassuring — musical energy force that it is.
Barring any surprise bookings, the Brad/Bad summit promised to be the jazz event of the year in Santa Barbara, where the jazz pickings have slimmed in the last few years, but the goods sneak through on occasion. Take the night Wynton Marsalis’s crackerjack Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra lit up the Granada with its thrilling and nostalgic ride of a concert. Strong as Marsalis’s show was, capped off by an E-ticket ride through his old tune “Knozz Moe King,” the Brad/Bad lineup exerted more of that new-fashioned sensibility, of pushing the jazz envelope for the good of the music.
Meanwhile, jazz continues its world conquest on a modest level in other parts of the known world. April has been deemed “Jazz Month,” and the concept was taken seriously in the last week of April in Europe. First stop: Bremen, Germany, the lovely northern city which has hosted the growingly important jazzahead! conference and expo. Now in its eighth year of a precipitous rise in attention and go-to importance, the expo feels like a variation on an American model, not unlike the now defunct IAJE conference, drawing together musicians, labels, educators, entrepreneurs, festival promoters, and all others with a vested interest in jazz for one weekend, and generating a sense of solidarity in the majestic yet marginalized jazz world.
Of the 30-plus showcases I caught, high points included the ECM-signed singer Elina Duni, an enlightened folk-jazzy Albanian-in-Switzerland, and Toronto’s Chloe Charles, whose soulful and new hybrid sound — vaguely Corinne Bailey Rae-ish — had the audience humming with admiration and murmuring about a potential new star in the making.
Speaking of intriguing jazz-piano neo-trios, Norway’s Helge Lien Trio basked in its own Nordic introspective glow, while the witty, wiry Belgian trio De Beren Gieren deftly mixed genres, structures, and preconceptions, with a rascal flair. Visiting the Belgian jazz booth, I was treated to CDs (natch) and the elixir that is Belgian beer. That’s a conference in action.
Timing was such that I then flew to another high-profile Euro-jazz moment — the second annual International Jazz Day in Istanbul, a grand and globally centric affair on April 30. Launched last year, with events in New Orleans, the UN in N.Y.C., and in Paris, France, the concentrated event materializes thanks to the evermore jazz ambassadorial Herbie Hancock, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and chair of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Coordinated events circled the globe, but the day of jazz sounds and supportive events officially culminated in an all-star, multicultural gala concert in the 1,500-year-old Hagia Eirene, peopled by a proverbial jazz who’s who: Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Esperanza Spalding, Terence Blanchard, Rubén Blades, Al Jarreau, Zakir Hussain, Milton Nascimento, Hugh Masekela, Dianne Reeves, Jean-Luc Ponty, Branford Marsalis, etc. It was almost too much, and yet it also had the feel of an extended-family gathering, a convivial spirit which is at the heart of the enterprise. Check it out on the interweb.
Slouching into the next morning, a very different special day was in progress in Istanbul, as the expected May Day demonstrations sparked a wary atmosphere in the Taksim area, with barricades and clusters of riot police at the ready. As my taxi slalomed around the ruckus, a tear-gas canister detonated, and we drove through a plume of the stuff, giving me my first exposure to that unpleasant business. But Turkey’s relative freedom of expression, on May 1, somehow had a call-and-response link to the Jazz Day idealism of April 30.