• This Week in JazzSet History: Sphere, Badi Assad, Marcus Roberts and Stanley Cowell

    April 11, 2012. Posted by Alex Ariff.


    By Alexander Gelles Ariff, our weekly historian

    Week 15 in JazzSet history contained a massive amount of stellar moments: it was painfully difficult to select these four, but I did it!  We’ll examine re-harmonization methods by Marcus Roberts and Stanley Cowell. Both pianists both take a tune that we all know, and introduce new textures and grooves. We'll conclude at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to hear a truly one of a kind artist from Sao Paolo, Brazil.

    But first, let’s have an early toast to Earth Day, April 16! In honor of the land we live and breathe, JazzSet aired Sphere on April 15, 1999. The group celebrated with a program of mostly Monk tunes, but I chose the Billy Strayhorn tune "Isfahan" to showcase this all-star band. It features saxophonist Gary Bartz on alto, playing the part so iconic to Johnny Hodges on the Far East Suite album. Bartz makes the piece his own without falling short of the classic melody played by Johnny Hodges. This recording is from November 21, 1998, at the Dayton Arts Institute (.. another fine Duke Markos recording - Ed.).

    Promotional Flyer for Sphere's Gig

    It's no coincidence that Sphere chose to play "Isfahan." Strayhorn's home town was Dayton, OH.  The band featured Gary Bartz, alto; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; and former Monk drummer Ben Riley on drums. Riley has been leading the  Monk Legacy Sexet, but is currently performing with a new group featuring Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax. They will be releasing a new album coming out on April 24th entitled Grown Folks Music. Escoffery's bold new release, The Only Son of One, is available today.

    Now let’s turn to two piano masters. The clip below contains two excerpts. The first one you’ll hear is Stanley Cowell performing “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Alladin, recorded at Pro Piano Hall in NYC in October of 2001. The next clip is Marcus Robert’s modern take on of the Fats Waller classic “Aint Misbehavin’,” from the 2002 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. I especially love the way drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin lock up in the groove at the end of the clip.

    I chose these two clips not just for their inventive interpretations—there is a common thread I’d like to identify. You know the moment after  Cowell plays the melody “I can show you the world…” In  the space after the “world" in the melody, he infuses a harmonic gesture common in jazz. Popularized by John Coltrane,  this harmonic motion has been most famously executed on "Giant Steps." Simply put, Coltrane created a new path to arrive at a familiar destination.  Marcus Roberts also introduces a new harmonization to “Ain't Misbehavin'," adding a modern, J-Master twist on a timeless standard.

    Marcus Roberts, 2010; Photo credit: Alex Ariff
    Marcus Roberts, 2010; Photo credit: Alex Ariff

    I have a special connection with Marcus Roberts: he is a professor at Florida State University where I earned my B.A in Jazz Studies. I only took one private lesson with him—I'm a saxophonist—but he frequently gave lectures, master classes and performances (which were like lessons in their own right). We still stay in touch, and he continues to inspire me with his humble generosity and relentlessly creative and diligent ethic. One afternoon at FSU, he surprised the jazz department by hosting a Master Class with modern banjo legend Bela Fleck. Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio were  workshopping their new music for us before premiering it at the Savannah Jazz Festival in Spring 2011. Roberts also believes strongly in the power of mentorship. He will employ three Florida State University alumni for his James P. Johnson program, coming to JALC May 11 and 12.

    I’d like to close out with a musical performance of acrobatic proportions. Guitarist Badi Assad performing “Asa Branca,” a traditional Brazilian song, on November 18, 2005, at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club. She shared the gig with a “Three Guitars” ensemble featuring Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie. “Asa Branca” startled me so much that I couldn’t believe it was one human producing the sounds. She plays guitar and sings through her nose, while doing mouth percussion.

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