A noteworthy showdown can be heard between jazz kings Coleman Hawkins and James Carter in four upcoming albums

By David Hajdu
Updated June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Conversin' With the Elders

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Upcoming ”Kansas City” inspires jazz compilations

So, Shane ambled into Rio Bravo, and — actually, it wasn’t Rio Bravo, it was Kansas City, Mo. (Same thing: cattle town.) And Shane — well, I don’t mean Shane per se. I mean Lester Young, the sharpest young tenor saxophonist there was in those parts or anywhere else, gol’ durn it. He moseyed into Kansas City in 1934 to confront his celebrated elder Coleman Hawkins. If this scenario and what followed is easily confused with a hundred movie Westerns, that’s because it parallels a classic screen myth: the big showdown between the old legend and the hotshot who’s gunnin’ for his turf.

Jazz, indigenously American and male dominated, is steeped in competition and hero worship, the ”cutting contest” between rival musicians being a long-revered (though now virtually extinct) rite of passage. Of all the musical confrontations in jazz history, the big one, the jam session as archetype, occurred that day when Hawkins first faced off against Lester Young, who was braced to replace him as the hottest sax man in Kansas City. To heighten the drama of the story, as it’s told, there was a young boy watching at the Cherry Blossom club that night named Charlie Parker, who would eventually assume Young’s mantle and become the third colossus of jazz saxophone. Those old Westerns are fine, but somebody really should make a movie about that legendary meeting.

Director Robert Altman has come close with his forthcoming film Kansas City, a period piece with a seriocomic plot about political high jinks, interspersed with scenes of the Hawkins/Young jam. A lifelong jazz fan, Altman cast 21 contemporary jazz artists, including some of today’s premier young players, to stand in for original Kansas City greats. They all get ample (and just about equal) attention on the film’s ambitious soundtrack album, Kansas City. Tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and James Carter trade verses to Count Basie’s ”Blues in the Dark” with playful abandon. Singer Kevin Mahogany (as a Jimmy Rushing type) conveys impassioned grace on Basie’s ”I Left My Baby,” and dueting bassists Christian McBride and Ron Carter elicit all the poignancy of Duke Ellington’s ”Solitude.”

Though loving, smart, and thoroughly successful on its own terms, the music on Kansas City lacks the competitive fire of the historic duels that, in a kind of artistic Darwinism, helped advance the evolution of jazz. For a peek at that process, pick up The Real Kansas City, a newly compiled collection of original recordings from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In 25 choice studio tracks featuring Walter Page’s Blue Devils, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, Jay McShann, Basie, Hawkins, Young, and others, the album shows how the Kansas City sound began as an offshoot of Dixieland and took shape as swing of the gutsiest kind. (Sadly, the Hawkins/Young showdown wasn’t recorded.)

Competition no longer contributes significantly to the creative evolution of jazz because, for the most part, jazz isn’t about creative evolution these days. Until the ’80s, when, in the name of classicism, Wynton Marsalis turned jazz in on itself, every new upstart had overtaken the last jazz great by force of originality. Today, young jazz artists are no longer expected to be instigators of generational change, but rather virtuoso regurgitators, players whose styles are hybrids of past forms, sampling machines in really nice suits.

”And what’s wrong with that?” twentysomethings everywhere may ask. Among the under-30 turks on Kansas City, James Carter surely makes the best case for virtuoso regurgitation as fine art. (His solo on that album’s ”I Surrender Dear” is a gem of dizzying beauty.) It may be premature to declare him today’s link in the chain of saxophone greats that began with Hawkins, but Carter is one jazz musician with a profoundly ’90s sensibility; he wears his sex appeal with casual certainty, and he plays with an agility and command that border on arrogance.

Nonetheless, it’s an arrogance that’s well deserved, as a couple of new Carter showcases — and last year’s masterful Real Quietstorm — prove. On the lesser of the two, Carter serves as one of six saxophonists who, together with drummer Cindy Blackman, make up SaxEmble. Their music is a cream soup of reeds, but Carter’s sound always surfaces — too strong an ingredient to dissolve. Most impressively, Carter shows off versatility, lucidity, and wit on his third solo album, Conversin’ With the Elders, an album of collaborations with veteran artists ranging from the quiet old lion of swing understatement, Harry ”Sweets” Edison, to the insurgent trumpeter Lester Bowie. The setting is no cutting contest; it’s closer to an Internet chat room. Still, the exchanges get lively, particularly on the Kansas City standard ”Moten Swing,” a duet with tenor saxist Buddy Tate. If only somebody would take Carter and any one of his elders, square them off with something at stake, and holler, ”Draw!”
Kansas City: B+
The Real Kansas City: A
SaxEmble: B
Conversin’ With the Elders: B+

Conversin' With the Elders

  • Music