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Last Sunday just after 9:30 in the evening I walked from my house, up the crumbling path on the northern lip of Ithaca’s Cascadilla Gorge, over the bridge recently retrofitted with high black fences meant to hinder students from jumping into the rain-fueled torrent 100 feet below, to the finest small town jazz club in the world—the Hayloft of the Carriage House Café. It was pleasant walk of less than five minutes.
It took tenor saxophonist and towering musical talent Javon Jackson the entirety of that same Sunday to navigate the skies and airports of the Atlantic Seaboard and journey from Florida’s Gulf Coast to Upstate New York. The night before Jackson had been at the Child of the Sun Jazz Festival in Tampa, starting his Saturday evening concert at 8:45pm with a quartet led by the legendary Jimmy Cobb. A dawn flight brought Jackson to Newark only to be sentenced to a numbing day-long incarceration there, a plight that many in his Ithaca audience were sympathetic to, having themselves been similarly condemned to endlessly wandering the ironically-renamed Liberty Airport, which should more accurately referred to as a Purgatory of Postponement.
If those air-traffic controllers and USAirways maintenance crews had only known who it was they kept captive as they blithely gave priority to all those self-styled cosmopolitans jetting to distant destinations, while the lowly regional flights remained on the North Jersey tarmac. Inside dismal Terminal F, a saxophone great nervously watched as he risked becoming that most dreaded of entertainment-industry phenomena: a no-show. As the jazz-devotees of Cornell, of Ithaca and of the surrounding forests and fields went about their calmly-paced provincial Sundays awaiting the appearance of Jackson with a trio he would later described as “magnificent,” they did not suspect that the unforgettable late-night set that was to come might never have happened.
As the Newark afternoon turned into evening, Jackson was at last granted a reprieve and flown to Syracuse, then shuttled at high speed over the rural highways and byways of central New York to Ithaca more than an hour to the south. There he crowned the concluding events of Cornell’s 20th anniversary Jazz Festival, masterfully organized and creatively nurtured by Paul Merrill, the inspired and hard-working director of the university’s jazz program, who is himself a world-class trumpeter.
It is not ambience alone that makes the second-floor Hayloft a hallowed place for music of all kinds, but especially for jazz. Few venues are more welcoming, ethically and acoustically, than the second floor of this converted 1850s carriage house of Cayuga blue stone and 19th-century wood. Nestled among the elegant framing of the structure, which was rescued from ruin by the music and food loving owner Mark Chandler, are his collections of traveling trunks and typewriters, tarnished horns and vintage cameras, not to mention magnificent oddities such as the penny farthing bicycle affixed to the wall above the bandstand. These objects all suggest wide-ranging historical interests, an idiosyncratic pursuit of style, hard work and a sense of fun —elements which could also count as requirements of the art of jazz. A Hammond B-3 lurks in the corner of the room, a few feet from the resident Steinway with its wavy-grained walnut veneer. The bandstand, raised a step up from the floor of the hayloft, is enclosed, save for an opening at its front, by a handrail, a feature that irreverently gives this mini-stage the aura of an altar. When the music is as good as it was last Sunday, one is moved to worship, and maybe even to believe in miracles.
While Jackson finished his obligations up at the university with one of Merrill’s student big bands, the true source of the Hayloft’s allure was on display: resident pianist John Stetch, for a few happy years now an Ithaca resident. I will never cease to marvel at his expressive stylistic range, from feathery chamber lines to thundering, gospel chords worthy of a Sunday night prayer meeting. That he began to play the piano at the age of eighteen and achieved this level of technique and artistry makes him one of the most brilliant late-bloomers in the history of the demanding art he choose to make a life of.
Stretch commandingly plays the blues and swings, enough so to placate conservatives, those gate-keeping ideologues such as Albert Murray, Wynton Marsalis, and Stanley Crouch. But Stetch doesn’t deliver straight-ahead riches, nor race unerringly through up-tempo be-bop tunes with right-hand lines that he seems capable of spinning out ad infinitum in order to please critics, but out of what strikes me as a joyous embrace of the established idioms of jazz. Woven convincingly into these more traditional textures is a profusion of eclectic approaches to jazz pianism, many of which have been practiced by other players but never more imaginatively and convincingly than by Stetch: contrapuntal dialogues between the hands; laconically Monkish clusters and lacerating dissonances; wispy threads of arpeggios that stretch the harmonic fabric; chords depressed soundlessly on the keys with one hand, a strumming of the strings inside the case by the other; classical and world music strains, from the Carpathian Mountains to the 19th-century salons of Paris to the beaches of Brazil. All these and other effects are drawn on to adorn the large book of jazz standards he commands in his brain and in his fingers.
These forays away from the ancestral homeland of jazz always come plunging back into what you might call the Stetchian eddy of the mainstream. Or, to switch metaphors as quickly as Stech switches styles: awaiting the returning explorer is always the crackling fires of the blues and bebop. Stench’s penchant for experiment never becomes self-indulgent, and what is perhaps even more astounding than his facility in expanding on the harmonic implications of a given song is his ability to float above, and even outside the relentless rhythmic underpinning of jazz only to snap back into tempo with a kind of nonchalance that can only make one grin in admiration.
I hope the latest incarnation of Stetch’s trio is an enduring one. Sunday was only the third time Stetch has been joined by bassist Phil Flanigan, an Upstate native who moved back to these parts ten years ago after a couple decades making music in New York and elsewhere with a host of jazz masters in styles ranging from early New Orleans to post-bop. On a bass that his website claims might have been heard by Napoleon, he can play a tune in any key—a skill that reflects the confluence of immense natural gifts and hard work. In his own gripping improvisations he can and does refer effortlessly and long after the fact to thematic materials of previous soloist.
Also from Syracuse is the young drummer Greg Evans, the perfect time-keeper and rhythmic commentator for the chamber space that is the Hayloft. He is incisive and imaginative muscian rather than a loud and blustery one, saving the big dynamic effects for the right moments, rather than bashing away non-stop. His elegant, yet intense, playing proves that musical energy is more often and effectively generated by precision and wit rather than decibel power.
The trio’s set moved smoothly and ingeniously through one long medley, encompassing tunes appropriated by jazz from Broadway—such as “Yesterdays” and “The Song Is You”—to the cherished esoterica of bop, as in Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” with Stetch gliding effortlessly over the turbulent chromatic surge and subsidence of that tune’s infamously hazardous bridge. Stetch’s segues were a delicious mélange of styles, moving artfully and wittily between tunes of disparate affects and attitudes. Flanigan smiled appreciatively at Stetch’s elegant feints, lingerings, and sleights-of-hand, and then followed him unerringly into the next adventure. One marvels not only at the technical proficiency of the combined musicianship—the fleetness of fingers on keys and strings, of drumstick on hide—but even more the unshakeable grasp of modulation and elaboration. These musicians’ unfailingly reliable ears are like bloodhounds that can never be thrown off the harmonic scent they pursue. Watching and listening to the trio discover its own often unexpected course, was like following the musicians through a labyrinth, with an improvised meals, by turn sumptuous and spicy, laid out around every turn. I couldn’t retrace their path if you asked me to, but the pleasures of the journey remain with me no less vividly.
Midway through the magnificent trio’s set, the dark-suited Jackson came into the Hayloft carrying his saxophone case and a determined look on his face. Jackson emerged as one of the great tenor players of his generations in his early twenties when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1987, staying with the group until the leader’s death in 1990. Touring with that ensemble and many others since, Jackson has logged more than few jazz miles, none more arduous then those of last weekend. A warm and exuberant personality, he seemed tired, but no-less ready to work. During the break between sets, Jackson huddled with Stetch in the corner of the Hayloft for a discussion of repertoire. There had been no rehearsal and presumably no Facebook exchanges, and no time for Skype. This was it.
Sitting nearby, I glanced over at the list scribbled on the back of a flyer, and caught sight of the title “Old Folks,” a tune from Miles Davis’ 1961 album, Someday My Prince Will Come, perhaps chosen in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of that timeless record on which can be heard Jimmy Cobb, with whom Jackson had played just 24 hours previous. The last title on the Hayloft list was “Freddie the Freeloader,” another classic Davis number, also with Cobb on the original 1959 recording. In the event, the Hayloft set unfolded without either tune, Jackson instead legislating a lateral move to the title track of that 1961 album, done more vigorously, and perhaps with more irony, than it had been by Davis’ quintet fifty years ago. On that recording the opening solo had been taken by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. I heard echoes of Mobley in Jackson’s treatment of this waltz (how can one not?)—the yearning eloquence of certain melodic upward-striving figures, the sudden bursts of sound that might be heard as musical representations of longing or regret.
The set’s opener was Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” a tune that pursues its chromatic figures with a jaunty optimism rare in bop’s sardonic attitude towards such favored melodic material. After an endless day of airports and waiting, one might have expected, or at least accepted, a lack of imagination from Jackson, but instead creativity burst from his horn. This music is the best cure for the rigors of the road, and perhaps that is way jazz musicians can survive such grueling, peripatetic careers. Jackson’s improvised lines confidently stride across the chord changes, sure-footed and smart, and occasionally bolting into a sprint of daunting dexterity and lightning quick imaginative utterances. These occasionally referred to the serpentine contours of the tune itself in clever ways that might suggest Dexter Gordon. That sense of humor combined with the fleetness of, say, Johnny Griffin are also lurking along with many other influences in the past of Jackson’s horn as it makes its exuberant contribution in the present. On “Good Bait” alone he played many choruses—ten perhaps—and no one wanted him to stop, new ideas spilling out of him and fresh vistas opening up for his listeners with each pass through the tune.
Stetch then took his solo, another mix of bop facility and excursions far afield of 52nd Street, with Jackson looking on at keyboard level just to the left of the bandstand little more than a two feet from piano. After Stetch closed out his contribution with a full-voiced churchy amen, Jackson allowed the trace of smile to flash across his face. Flanigan offered his own solo, which matched the melodic buoyancy of Dameron’s own composition, and then follwed a spirited trading of ideas in ever smaller units between Jackson and the sharply inventive Evans.
From here the group served up a brisk version of the little-known standard “My Shining Hour,” heard on the 2006 CD New York Time with Cedar Walton on piano and Christian McBride on bass, and, again, Jimmy Cobb on drums. Instead of buying that CD from Jackson at the Hayloft—sold out before I could get one—I was lucky enough to land the another bracing testament to the his talents, the 2008 disc, Once Upon a Melody . From here the Hayloft trio supported Jackson in a a languorous and occasionally urgent rendition of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” before indulging untroubled diatonic pleasures of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” None of these songs were on the list, which itself served as a fitting artifact of jazz: have a plan and then feed it the flames of an irreverent imagination.
“What do you want to play?” Jackson asked of his trio, by way of considering a closer. Stetch brandished the piece of paper with its scribbled titles. Jackson grabbed it and tossed it to the floor, laughing. “Forget about the list, man.” Quick negotiations agreed on “All the Things You Are,” allowing Jackson to settle into a welcoming armchair after a long journey, ready to tell you the story of his day, full of spirit, humor, and brilliant observation.
Will this same quartet—ad hoc yet, in my mind, immortal—ever be reunited? One can only hope.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com