It was a whirlwind 24 hours in New York City on the eve of the blizzard that brought the Big Apple to a screeching halt the day after Christmas: Decamping from the mountain retreat to a friend's walk-up in Chelsea, a long stroll around the Lower East Side in the pre-snowpocalypse wind and cold, a dinner to die for at a French bistro in the West Village, and a cab ride up Broadway through the canyon of brilliantly lit neon and huge-screen advertising to 51st street and the Iridium, the venerable jazz club made famous by the late great electric guitar innovator Les Paul, who played there weekly practically forever.
Before I get to the main event, a few words about the Big Apple at Christmastime: It just keeps getting better and better.
As the 1990s dawned, the city was adrift in a sea of trash and crime, but in the next few years the trash was exorcised and crime dramatically reduced. All the world began flocking to Manhattan and its nonpareil attractions, and on our Christmas visit and a two-day return engagement after the city had begun to dig out, sidewalks everywhere were thronged with visitors from England, France, Russia, Japan, China and a myriad of other lands. The locals were welcoming, seldom was heard a discouraging word, and everyone seemed to be having a really good time.* * * * *There are tribute bands and there are tribute bands. Then there is Mike Stern's Four Generations of Miles quartet with Sonny Fortune on alto sax, Buster Williams on double bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Stern played with Miles Davis in the 1980s, while Fortune, Williams and Cobb were sidemen with the jazz trumpet legend in the 1950s. This included Cobbs' appearance on Kind of Blue, considered by many to be the quintessential jazz record. The four have an extraordinary 200 years of playing experience between them, and at 57 Stern is the baby and 81 Cobb is the father figure of the group.
The Iridium was packed to the rafters, a jazz-loving couple from the former Soviet republic of Georgia on one side of us and a group of Japanese more interested in text messaging on the other.
The quartet kicked things off with an up-tempo "There Is No Greater Love," then slowed things down with "I Love You." Next came the evening's high spot (for me), a worshipful "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" with Stern, Williams and Cobb trading interpretive riffs on the melody of the Davis-covered Charles Mingus classic, followed by "Blue in Green," "Freddie Freeloader," "Oleo" and concluding with "Straight, No Chaser."
Stern, who is the half brother of actress Kyra Sedgwick, made his nut playing hard bop and fusion in Davis's mid-1980s comeback band, but his demeanor this evening was more relaxed in keeping with the music and his blues-based solos had an organ-like sound. He kept it simple, and his rhythm playing when Fortune soloed was incredibly tasty.
At age 70, Fortune still has chops and then some. While it would be easy to say that he dominated the band with blowing reminiscent of John Coltrane, his raw power just made it seem that way. Williams, whom I had never heard live, was a revelation with his warm sound, while Cobb was rock steady. His solos, if anything, were much too short.
This is the third year that the quartet or versions of it has played at the Iridium during Christmas week. You can be sure that we'll be there next year. If you love jazz, then you should be too.