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Review: 'Grammy Salute to Jazz' at Club Nokia

February 4, 2009 |  3:57 pm

PHOTOS: Grammy Salute to Jazz

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At this year's "Grammy Salute to Jazz," there was a lot of talk about the future. Inside the crisp, modern Club Nokia at the L.A. Live complex downtown Tuesday night, performers and presenters such as Herbie Hancock, Natalie Cole and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow all gestured at the fresh faces of the high-school-aged Grammy Jazz Ensembles program filling the bandstand and assured an audience of elegantly dressed fans that jazz's future is indeed in good hands.

And though one of the still-anonymous prodigies backing luminaries such as Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson and Hancock might rise to carry jazz into its next era of greatness, the unquestioned star of this night was the past.

Honoring the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, this ramp-up to the Grammys' big show Sunday was split between live performances and musical "memoirists" from the label's history. In rich, mostly off-the-cuff stories, the latter shared what a few called their "Blue Note moments" from the label's unparalleled past including stories about current Blue Note chief Bruce Lundvall, who received the evening's lone standing ovation when he was introduced.

Yet in many ways the event fell prey to the same chronological myopia that plagued the Blue Note 7 tribute concert at UCLA's Royce Hall in January. For all the quality music performed Tuesday alongside engaging anecdotes from the likes of Billy Vera, Garnett Brown and Charlie Haden, it was difficult at times to escape the feeling that the label -- if not jazz itself -- is in danger of being held hostage by its incredible legacy, especially with regards to its post-bop peak.

On a stage framed by the classically hip, Reid Miles-designed album covers from Blue Note's glory days, including those for Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young and Sam Rivers, it was difficult to shake the feeling that the label always will be shadowed by its own greatness.

Though certainly not a spokesperson for the genre, host Cole offered a telling admission when she admiringly referred to Blue Note's 1960s heyday and said, "Those moments and that era will probably never happen again." It's a sentiment that sadly might prove to be true, but how many other genres or labels on the Grammys' radar would so readily admit their most fertile years were most likely behind them?

Blue Note's modern era was served in performances by velvet-toned saxophonist Lovano as well as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who fell into a heavy groove with his young backing band on the head-bobbing funk of 2003's "Footprints." But it was easy to wonder why there wasn't more room in the program for the label's current favorites, such as adventurous keyboardist Aaron Parks.

Similarly, it was somewhat of a surprise that past Grammy darling Norah Jones received only a passing mention. Though Jones is undeniably more aligned with the pop world, it was easy to hear hints of her dusky style in Wilson's bluesy vocal performance.

Less surprising was the source of the evening's highlight: last year's Grammy winner for album of the year, Herbie Hancock.

After pushing his young charges through a spirited, shape-shifting interpretation of his 1965 classic "Maiden Voyage," the keyboard virtuoso sounded a little sheepish as he introduced his next song as "another very old thing."

"But we'll see if we can breathe new life into 'Dolphin Dance,' " he added with a Cheshire Cat grin. Hancock then settled back to his piano to lead the ensemble members through what they might later remember as their own "Blue Note moment."

For the rest of us, hope hung in the air that the years ahead will offer many more.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Herbie Hancock breaks into a smile after performing with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble Tuesday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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