Arts Desk

Kennedy Center’s 2014-2015 Jazz Season: Fresher Than It May Appear


When the Kennedy Center first released its jazz schedule for the 2014-2015 season yesterday, my eye, like WaPo's Chris Richards', was immediately caught by the appearance of Muhal Richard Abrams. Pianist and composer Abrams is one of the most important figures in the history of avant-garde jazz (a co-founder and the first president of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, among other things) and a mentor to KenCen artistic advisor Jason Moran, and his name on the program made for some real excitement. But it also made the other names on the program look tame in comparison. Moving from Abrams to Lou Donaldson—a great musician but a dyed-in-the-wool bebopper? Or Moran's own re-creation of Thelonious Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert? Quite a drastic difference.

This caused me to believe at first that this year's billings would be more conservative than Moran's first two seasons. On closer scrutiny, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Monk Town Hall performance, for example, is a multimedia presentation using new works by visual artists Glenn Ligon and David Dempewolf, along with archival footage of Monk. This is hardly a traditionalist's take on Monk—if anything, it's entirely in keeping with Moran's trademark juxtaposition of jazz history with the jazz zeitgeist. Not to mention, still a risky venture in an institution whose other musical programs for next season include warhorses like Tchaikovsky and La Boheme.

(Not to mention the fact that it's one of two such multimedia works slated for the new season. In February, KenCen will screen Bill Morrison's silent documentary The Great Flood, and innovative guitarist Bill Frisell and his quartet will perform his acclaimed score for the film as live accompaniment.)

Other sonic adventurers on the list include Brad Mehldau, unquestionably the most lauded pianist of his generation...who will not be playing piano. Instead, Mehldau trots out his collection of vintage electric keyboards in a freely improvised performance with versatile drummer Mark Giuliana on October 4. Then there's violinist Jenny Scheinman, like Frisell an equal devotee of rural Americana and jazz (Feb. 13), and the opera baritone Eric Owens performing a program of jazz standards (Feb. 28). They're not radicals, but not squeaky-clean safeties, either.

As for the traditionalists who are in the season's lineup...on examination, they're hard to argue with. This is the Kennedy Center, after all, not Union Arts. Virtuoso singer Dianne Reeves is here often, sure—but she both packs and brings the house down every time. Ditto Kurt Elling, another vocalist, and Cassandra Wilson, my own personal favorite. And Donaldson (November 14), mentioned above? He's not simply a bebopper, he's one of the last beboppers, a man who began his career recording with Thelonious Monk and Clifford Brown. He'll be celebrating his 88th birthday with his first Kennedy Center performance in nearly 15 years...and he's earned it.

What it all adds up to is Moran continuing to chart his own path as artistic advisor at a major American arts institution, celebrating the venerable and established jazz talents while making room for the innovators as well. Glad I took a second look.

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