“One Atmosphere” — for Oppens with the Quartet — offered those harmonies and lines with less rhythmic grounding. Piano and strings sparred, then a brief call-and-response pattern would emerge, a jazz chord, or a satisfying eight-beat figure in 4/4. The solo piano piece “Parchment” leaned even farther in the direction of serialism — more discontinuous, spiky rhythms and splashes of color, skittering lines and then chordal rests. A couple of times in the three-minute piece, an R&B bass figure emerged — a recurring memory.
“Mingus Gold,” an arrangement of Mingus themes for the Quartet, showed Hemphill’s strengths and weaknesses with the instrumentation — “Nostalgia in Times Square” had the appropriate humorous, slurring swagger in the phrasing but needed rhythm-section swing. “Alice’s Wonderland,” though, connected Hemphill and Mingus to ancient American folk — Africa seemed to disappear. “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” allowed Hemphill to write a Mingus bass solo for Clancy Newman’s pizzicato cello. Cool.
The closing “The Hard Blues” was one of the real rockers, Harding holding down the riff as the Sextet left the stage and marched around the room, then convened in front of the stage for ecstatic collective-improv blowing. Before the concert, Ehrlich had announced that Oppens was still finding Hemphill pieces that had not been recorded, or even performed. “Like most composers, he wasn’t interested in documentation, he was writing for tomorrow.” Good for us.
Aside from original pieces like Hemphill’s as a source for jazz players, the quest for modern standards continues — the pop tunes that will take us past the Great American Songbook of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, et al. Steps have been taken: Radiohead and Nick Drake are part of Brad Mehldau’s book, Jason Moran does Afrika Bambaataa, the Bad Plus do Nirvana, and lots of people, including most recently Herbie Hancock, have taken up Joni Mitchell. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut (who plays the massive Dimock Community Health Center “Steppin’ Out” gala benefit on November 3) is no stranger to what Don Byron has called “the weird cover” as the “great act of jazz.” A couple of years ago, he and the saxophonist James Carter were part of a band who took on — of all things — the Pavement songbook, at the bequest of the Brown Brothers label. Under the rubric of Gold Sounds, they put out a CD and even played Newport.
Chestnut’s latest project surprises even him: Cyrus Plays Elvis (Koch). Chestnut probably never would have thought about a recording based on the songs Presley sang (he wasn’t a writer) except that a jazz singer asked him to accompany her on “Love Me Tender.” Something clicked. Chestnut found himself digging into Elvis songbooks, Elvis biographies, and the recordings. One of the raps on contemporary pop is that — with its harmonic simplicity — it doesn’t offer much for improvisers. The challenge of the Elvis material, Chestnut says over the phone from New York, was not to get so abstract and “vague” that the music was unrecognizable, but also “not so specific that it becomes corny.”
It’s an engaging, uneven piano trio album. “Hound Dog” strolls like Mose Allison. “Don’t Be Cruel” conjures countrypolitan pianist Floyd Cramer on the first chorus, but after Dezron Douglas’s bass solo, Chestnut takes off into funny Monk-like minor intervals and off-kilter runs. He makes “Love Me Tender” downright Ellingtonian. One thing Chestnut shares with Elvis is theatrical flamboyance — he likes bold, legible figures and rhythms you can hang onto. “It’s Now or Never” is an up-tempo jazz romp, and “Suspicious Minds” goes Latin.