David Murray Rips the Roof Off Lincoln Center with His Nat “King” Cole Latin Jazz Project
On face value, the idea of David Murray tackling the latin side of the Nat Cole songbook is like Gogol Bordello covering Hector Lavoe. But Murray and his ten-piece, all-star Cuban-American band springboarding off this less-than-likely repertoire at Lincoln Center Thursday night turned out to be lightning in a bottle – and that lightning escaped the bottle seconds after the show began. On one hand, it was typical Murray at the top of his explosive game. But what a ride – and with some unexpected flavors. Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Phokompe sat and listened with eyes closed, blissed out – she knew she’d scored a coup staging this, and the sold-out crowd agreed.
Barely a minute into Murray’s opening epic, Black Nat, he was already up to his usual tricks, veering in a split-second between expressive lyricism and wildfire hard bop, a characteristically jaw-dropping display of speed, power and valve-wrenching extended technique. Conducting from behind his tenor sax, he drove the band to a coda with an intricately polyrhythmic. bracingly chattering interweave of voices, a popular trope with his big band, akin to a less nebulous Art Ensemble of Chicago, The group – call them Murray’s Orquesta Pequeña Cubana, maybe? – rose to similarly uneasy, majestic heights several times throughout the evening.
The storefront soul of El Bodeguero began with a rat-a-tat conga solo from Yusnier Sanchez followed by trombonist Darius Jones’ jaunty, punchy feature. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a trumpeter to take the song into twilit territory, but that’s exactly what Kali Rodriguez-Pena did before bringing the strut back
Quizas Quizas Quizas (it’s Spanglish – say it slowly and you’ll get it) slowly coalesced to a brightly blustery cha-cha, Murray working the dynamics back and forth, Pepe Rivero’s neoromantic piano glimmer underscoring bright trumpet, sax and trombone solos. The irrepressibly witty, Cuban-born, Spanish-based pianist was having a blast all night long, a nonstop festival of polyrhthms, playing against the beat for bar after bar until Jones looked at Murray, who just grinned back,: “That’s his steez!” This time around, left to his own devices, Rivero started out in 1880s Havana and took it all the way to Arverne Avenue in the Bronx a hundred years later.
A steady, bouncing solo from bassist Yunior Terry – who pushed the clave with his woody tone and sinewy purposeful melodicism – opened Cachito, which Murray approached as pretty staright-up salsa-jazz, spiced heavily with his own pyrotechnics and Rodriguez-Pena’s artfully spacious, yet most adrenalizing solo of the night. Then the group made a glittering, tropical river out of the allusively bolero-flavored Tres Palabras. The band – which also included the warmly soulful Roman Filieu on alto sax, Kazemde George on tenor and Keisel Jimenez on drums – closed with a lyrical take of the ballad Piel Canela.
The only thing missing was…well…Nat Cole. Tony Hewitt is a first class singer, and to his credit, without any prompting, copped to not having much command of Spanish, something he shares with Cole. But in a city with millions of native Spanish speakers and a similarly vast talent base, to not have someone up there who could really drive the lyrics home was a real head-scratcher. They couldn’t have put out a call to Austin to fly in Lincoln Center regular Pete Rodriguez – son of El Conde – for a cameo? Or imagine what Marianne Solivan – who really sparkles in front of a big band – could have done with this.
The next jazz show at the Lincoln Center atrium space is tomorrow, Dec 8 at 7:30 PM with Lakecia Benjamin, who’s earned a reputation as a formidable alto saxophonist but is also an impressively eclectic bandleader and composer who’s just as adept with oldschool JB’s style funk as she is at shapeshiftingly psychedelic 70s-style soul grooves. Early arrival is always a good idea here.