"Jazz is about being in the moment."
"Music happens to be an art form that transcends language."
"It is people’s hearts that move the age."
In a week that has seen both the progenitor of the bluegrass five-string banjo and one of the foremost practitioners of electric bottleneck-blues guitar onstage in northern Utah, the fact that one of the most influential modern jazz pianists since Thelonious Monk is on his way seems somehow fitting.
Satchmo once observed that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. And in this day and age, most certainly, qualifying music by genre is quite "old hat," pure "passé," as it were. And as Earl Scruggs and Johnny Winter demonstrated earlier and as Herbie Hancock most assuredly will this upcoming Sunday, virtuosity and sophistication in the musical arts are non-category dependent.
Scruggs, the man whose instrumental innovations almost single-handedly brought bluegrass into mainstream of American culture, hit the Galivan Center Twilight Concert Series stage last Thursday evening — and to say the gathering was reverential in tone would be an understatement.
Utah accorded Earl Scruggs, now in his 80s, a welcoming that would have made Andrés Segovia proud. Aficionados showed up early with tools of the trade and songs to boot. And, for the half-dozen hours leading up to showtime, banjo and guitar strings rang throughout the concrete canyons of downtown Salt Lake City.
The opening act created quite a stir of its own. Chris Hillman, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as "The Byrds," "Flying Burrito Brothers," "Manassas," and "The Desert Rose Band," joined his longtime partner Herb Pedersen for some of the best acoustic rock, folk, blues, and country you can hear anywhere.
Up-canyon, the music over the weekend lent itself more toward electric amplification as Snowbird’s annual late July dance and libation festival — once "jazz and blues" but this year for the first time "rock and blues — more or less outgunned the wildflower festival up in the Albion Basin.
That is not to say the hike up over Catherine’s Pass to Sunset Peak wasn’t once again knee-high in brilliant flora. It’s just that, this year, Timpanogos ruled the wildflower roost while Little Cottonwood busied itself with rockin’ blues.
And even though Los Lobos — easily one of this country’s all-time great bands — once again did that-thing-they-do-oh-so-well-every-time-out as the Friday night headliner, the story of the weekend was all about the frail and shaking and courageously brilliant musicianship of Johnny Winter.
Winter, who had to be helped on and off stage due to failing health, was outwardly a shadow of his former brash and daring self. The Texas guitar-slinger, long known for the scorching fury and passion of his lead slide-guitar breaks spent his first couple of minutes in his chair gulping air and wheezing.
By the end of his set, one during which he seemingly gained strength with each tune, the Johnny Winter of old, the man who produced some of Muddy Waters best-selling records and the man Muddy called "my son," began, ever so slowly, to come into focus.
By the time the blazing Elmore James riff announcing the encores had finished echoing up and down canyon, ecstasy ruled. And by the time Winter’s slide-guitar assault upon Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited" had run its course, the man could have walked on water — although he might have needed a cane.
Music has a way of inviting spiritual analogies. So much of what it is about resonates with hungry hearts and refined sensibilities. It is about life and history and healing as art. It can take you away.
This is very much in evidence in the music of Herbie Hancock, who will play Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah Sunday evening. Within his swirling compositions you get the bebop of Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly, the classics of Ravel and Debussy, some definitive R&B and "funk," and, along the way, some very interesting forays into electronic and computer-generated music.
He also brings to the table the rather cultivated sense of ensemble spontaneity he acquired from being a member of Miles Davis’ famed mid-’60s quintet that also featured Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Those were heady times for Herbie and the work he performed with the quintet influences small-combo jazz to this day.
His current group, the one with whom he wrapped up a six-week 26-date European tour at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France just last evening and the one with whom he’ll perform at Red Butte this Sunday, is quite instrumentally intriguing. Featuring drummer Richie Barshay, bassist Matt Garrison, violinist Lili Haydn and guitarist Lionel Loueke, the potential for sensual and spiritual aural tapestry should be very much in place.
Hancock attempts to transfigure with his music — an art grounded both in old school jazz as well as the cutting edge. And he is an educator both in and out of the classroom. "My hope is to inspire the students, to support their inherent openness, and to give them the sense of spirituality in the music," says Hancock. "Jazz is such a great example of that creative spirit."
As opposed to some in the demographic interpretation business, he sees a bright future for the idiom as a cultural treasure. "Jazz is both a fresh and mature music. It is not confined to the young or old," says Hancock. "In fact, its popularity is increasing, with jazz clubs physically expanding, providing larger venues for larger audiences."
Although his creations are synonymous with the current state-of-the-art, Herbie himself finds more joy when performing. "I love composition, but to me, the best aspect of jazz is playing it. It’s immediate, spontaneous, fresh off the pot." Park City locals who caught Hancock and Shorter’s improvisational triumph at the Eccles Center back in June of 1999 would readily agree.
Midsummer night music brings-on dreamscapes and night-sky glories that serve to exhilarate and ennoble. And, here in Utah, it’s seemingly everywhere all the time. It can be both therapeutic and enlightening — not too mention the over-the-top fun component that comes with such inclusive rituals and celebrations.
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