When the Jazz Bakery announced that Elvin Jones was “back by popular demand” about eight months after his last gig, one thought, oh, OK, another well-worn cliche at work. Yet it sure looked as if popular demand was the case Wednesday night. The small hall was crowded with young, highly enthusiastic listeners, many of whom may have been students eager to get a look at a real, living jazz giant.
Which indeed Jones — youngest of the famous trio of Jones jazz brothers, once the galvanic drummer of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, and still leading and dominating his Jazz Machine — certainly is. Better yet, he can be experienced at the top of his form on any given night, even if his days of innovation are now for the history books.
In his first set, Jones, a trim 75, gave four demonstrations of his art, all commonly encountered standards, yet each showing a distinctly different facet of his methods of driving a band. In “Caravan,” he spent most of his time setting the pace on a pair of floor tom-toms. “What a Wonderful World,” prefaced with a tribute to the song’s co-composer (and Coltrane Quartet record producer) Bob Thiele, was a study in quiet brushes.
Not until “A Night in Tunisia” did we hear the Jones of the Coltrane Quartet, with those asymmetrical cymbal patterns clashing with the toms yet somehow managing to swing. The encore, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” took off with a driving high-hat pattern like that on Jones’ famous recording of “La Nevada” with Gil Evans, building with a structured momentum to an explosive statement of the tune.
The current Jazz Machine is not to be underestimated, pitting Pat La Barbera’s airy, voluble tenor and soprano saxes against Mark Shim’s earthier, more volatile tenor on the front line. Jones still has a yen for powerful bassists, and he has one in Gerald Cannon, whose playing always punches through the texture — and Anthony Wonsey plays capable, Herbie Hancock-tinged piano.