The bombs of the set were usually set off by James Carter, whose broiling, ecstatic tenor sax reached into the deepest waters of the avant garde without ever losing the thread of the argument.
In “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Carter threw down the gauntlet to the arpeggiated alto sax of Charles McPherson and the eclectic tenor of Craig Handy and he even coaxed the conservative Turrentine into dabbling on the outside. Almost lost in the Carter commotion was Christian McBride, who turned in the single most astounding bass solo of the festival in “Moanin’.”
There were two piano trios on display and they demonstrated the difference between high-minded competence and near-genius. Despite the help of Ron Carter on bass and Lenny White on drums, Geri Allen’s two-fisted playing eventually drifted off into listlessness. Though Herbie Hancock has a new electric album to push, his first in seven years (“Dis Is Da Drum”), he defiantly went out with an acoustic trio, spinning beautifully constructed piano solos at length in ’60s Miles Davis and funk idioms. At 55, Hancock is still growing more daring, harmonically and dynamically.
Yet it was the Brecker Brothers, Randy and Michael, who delivered the most intriguing set of the night, building on ’70s electric jazz/rock roots and leapfrogging into the ’90s. They were not afraid to plug in and sprinkle colorful effects from their electronic arsenal into the music, and their first number brilliantly fused a smooth, hip-hop groove with their horns. There was even humor in Randy’s near-parody of early-’80s Miles and Michael’s burbling one-man wind synthesizer band.
For irresistible grooves, no one could top 77-year-old Cachao, whose Afro-Cuban band dished up elemental, hypnotic, no-frills salsa as actor Andy Garcia introduced the tunes and sat in on congas and vocals. Another spry septuagenarian, Gerald Wilson, flamboyantly led his solid, airtight, tuxedo-clad big band in some powerhouse charts, occasionally graced by the imposing presence and Joe Williams-like vocals of Kevin Mahagony.
The Dirty Dozen has completely overhauled their sound, leaning more toward a contemporary funk slant in the rhythm with the New Orleans brass band roots further in the background. Hiroshima, last heard here in 1990, still produces fascinating mood-swerving collages of Asian timbres mixed up with electric jazz/rock, but despite the standing ovation, there wasn’t much memorable music in all of this. To close, Playboy finally bowed to the obvious and programmed Grover Washington Jr. last, giving him the chance to mellow out the festival after the cerebral high of Hancock and the electronic fireworks of the Breckers. Which he did — with undeniable class and even some rousing verve at the end.