Chicago quartet gives Lahore a taste of traditional jazz
By Mehreen Malik
LAHORE: It isn’t every day that Lahore gets to hear jazz live, up-close and personal. So predictably, the garden at the residence of the US Consulate’s principle officer was near-packed on the evening of September 5 and both the connoisseurs and the less initiated were draped in anticipation of the performance of the Chicago Jazz Quartet (CJQ).
The CJQ, which consisted of vocalist and trumpeter Matt Lewis, pianist Benjamin Lewis, bassist Lorin Cohen and drummer Michael Raynor, was visiting Pakistan under the Jazz Ambassadors Programme, sponsored by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
CJQ was jazz in the most traditional, most New Orleans sense, meaning that it relied on group improvisation, got better with greater audience participation, and was impression and mood-centred rather than tightly melody-centred. The quartet relied on sudden tempo changes and non-traditional chord sequences; nothing to make the ear cringe but enough to recognise brilliance and innovation. The solos sometimes ventured into the discordant and there was a dominating sense of polyrhythmic and syncopated drumming. The band played with several bent notes, odd intervals, and endangered chords, creating an eerie, beautiful tapestry of sound, at times very akin to John Coltrane’s sheets of sound and at other times more subdued and heart-felt like a David Gilmore guitar solo.
The most magnetic stage presence was Raynor with his driving, rhythmically varied drumming. Like most good drummers, Raynor made his instrument musical, as well as rhythmic, using fills to compliment and sometimes initiate radical changes of direction in the band’s music.
The four musicians, soloists who have come together only for the Jazz Ambassadors tour, worked extremely well together. “All players on stage took turns swinging, soloing, and having a grand old time,” said 26-year old jazz fan Faisal Rehman. “Instead of each star taking turns battling each other, they were spurring each other on and supporting one another. They were gliding through their musical adventure with such sensitivity and grace that they became one concrete sound.”
As if the foursome wasn’t enough to keep the audience glued to their seats, the musicians brought in special guest tabla player Shabbir Hussain Khan to join them for the last two songs. The first was pure improvisation; a combination of the abandoning of traditional musical structures and the blending of musical styles and elements in search of true, honest expression. The last song was Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’, in which the band launched into a meditative eight-minute run of call and response between Raynor and Khan, Khan and Cohen, Cohen and Ben and Ben and Matt, with the show ending with Matt’s striking jazz voice rising high, then dropping unexpectedly into a rich and throaty tenor and then soaring upward again.
“Jamming with eastern classical musicians was tremendous, especially working with new instruments like the sitar and the tabla and learning the ragas,” said Cohen. “Jazz and eastern classical are similar in that they both rely on a great amount of improvisation, but the latter is definitely more technical and complicated. Shabbir was trying to teach us a few things today and it was fantastic and so much of a challenge. I’m looking forward to using some of Shabbir’s techniques in my own playing.”
Having endured 50 years of growing pains and hard fought success, jazz music was reduced to nothing more than old hat and circumspect by the end of the sixties. “When people listen to music today, they like it or hate it according to the amount of immediate gratification it provides. Jazz demands a lot of patience from its listeners and that is something that people lack nowadays,” explained Ben, the youngest member of the quartet. “Come the seventies, Hard Bop and West Coast had all but been exhausted and funk-inflected buggaloo and Latin-tinged jazz had started hammering the airwaves.” Surely, the new kids were hip to the Beatles and Rock and Roll and Jazz was lost somewhere in the din, he said.
However, Micheal, who has been playing with legendary saxophonist Von Freeman for the last 14 years, made it clear that Jazz music was much more popular in other parts of the world than it was in Pakistan. “As a part of this tour of South Asia, we have been to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines and Pakistan so far,” he said. “The best thing about our South Asian audiences was that they were really involved in the performances and seemed able to understand jazz quite well.”
If the quartet loved Lahore, Lahore completely adored them. They provided living, breathing portraits of an art form that is unsurpassed and continues to grow. In a night’s work that lasted just two hours, the material was presented without a hint of wrinkles, sagging or sentimentality. The Chicago Jazz Quartet clearly proved that jazz is timeless, priceless and precious.