The annual Great Night in Harlem is a fundraising event for the Jazz Foundation of America, dedicated to the support of ageing jazz and blues musicians who are not adequately supported in their retirement, and often not even during their twilight playing years. The JFOA is an outfit much respected during its 26-year history, invariably attracting a large roster of major artists to be involved with the Apollo spectacular, along with a dynamic selection of special guests who always turn up unexpectedly.
As might be predicted for such a gala event, there were a lot of speeches, but also a good deal of music, the stage constantly populated by many of America’s jazz greats. As an entertainment, it’s the equivalent of a prodigious buffet.
The first of the three parts of the evening paid tribute to the recently deceased civil rights activist Julian Bond, with New Orleans keyboardist Davell Crawford opening the proceedings with a small gospel choir, followed by bluesman Keb’ Mo’ delivering one of his least bluesy songs, A Brand New America, penned right after Obama took hold of the reins. Pianist Randy Weston is theoretically part of this same sequence, but presaged the honouring of jazz great Sonny Rollins by improvising around the tenorman’s St Thomas, with uppity percussion, strafed bass and a Thelonious Monk-ish fragmentation, full of rotating rapid-fire solos.
Opening the Rollins Lifetime Achievement award section, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen played in mainline jazz piano mode, joined by trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, playing Paul’s Path. Then came Tenor Madness, with saxophonists Ravi Coltrane, James Carter and Billy Harper jousting together, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Carter won the battle for manic expression, but Harper was not far behind, fired up by the limber extremity, eager for competition, escalating solos with criss-crosses and simultaneous blowing.
Grandmaster Benny Golson soloed for as long as Alfie’s Theme lasts, backed by the Cecil Bridgewater Big Band, and then it was time for Rollins to come out and receive his award. Looking a lot more fragile than when last seen performing four or five years ago, his verbal power is still intact.
Garbed in a striking blue suit, red hat and shirt, he was filled with energy, telling the audience that “the Apollo theater was my school”. He used to come here two or three times a week. “This is my university,” he said. Fats Waller was his favourite as a boy, and he proceeded to list a whole host of jazz forebears, rabidly enthused. “This is the spiritual music that’s keeping the world together,” he said, ending his charged speech with “I’ve said enough, goodnight.”
Then eight tenor saxophonists attempted to fill the retired Rollins’ void, rolling through St Thomas, with old Sonny band cohorts Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Clifton Anderson (trombone) joining in the celebratory bounce.
The third dedicated part of the show was a tribute to the courage of New Orleans soul singer Merry Clayton, in the aftermath of her injuries following a serious car crash in 2014. Her most significant performance was on Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richards was on hand to lead his X-Pensive Winos in a climactic salute by playing that very song.
He makes ragged ruggedness into a fine art, engagingly ramshackle as his riffs didn’t quite mesh with those of fellow axeman Waddy Wachtel, tunings slipping, his vocals an earthy contrast to the pristine soul cutting of Lisa Fischer. Yet Richards is so magnetic that he can shrug off any problems, including the disintegrating drumkit behind him, clanging riffs with his guitar held up in cello position. His vocals on Happy were roughshod, but supported by one of the best grinding soul-rock songs ever penned. His struck poses remain supremely casual, skeletal and perfectly judged. “I’m all for improvisation, you know me,” he drawled, in support of the jazz way, closing the show with its genuine high point, projecting right up to both levels of the Apollo’s steep balconies.