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Published: 2003/05/26
by Jesse Markowitz

The Quintet at Massey Hall [Garrett, Hancock, Hargrove, Haynes], Toronto- 5/15

On May 15, 1953, an all-star bebop band consisting of Charlie "Bird" Parker (alto saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass), and Max Roach (drums), walked onto the stage of Massey Hall in Toronto and played a short set to an audience one third the capacity of the venue. It seemed pretty routine at the time: the band didn't rehearse, Charlie Parker barely made the concert (he had cashed in his train ticket in favor of more illicit activities), and the musicians didn't get paid. It seems like a textbook example of jazz mythology. Little did they know that bebop history was made that night, as a record of the concert (The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall on Debut Records), has become one of the quintessential records of bebop and even jazz in general.

Fifty years to the day after that concert, a one-time-only band of jazz’ current all-stars (Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn, Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums), convened on the very same stage, to pay tribute to the historic event. To have simply replicated the 1953 concert certainly would have pleased many in the crowd, but it would not have done justice to the spirit of jazz. Plus, Herbie Hancock, the appointed leader of the group, is not the type of musician who would play in a cover band. His last major concert tour and album, was with a band that paid tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and in that band, he gave a contemporary, acoustic jazz twist to the music of Miles and Trane. That is why very few people went into the show expecting to hear straight-ahead versions of bebop classics.

The show opened with what seemed like a straight-ahead version of Parker’s "Diverse". However, once the solos started, there was nothing straight-ahead about it. The band ignored the chord changes as well as the form, and each soloist blew over open changes, in what seemed like a tribute to the mid-60’s, Miles Davis "Live At The Plugged Nickel" sessions that Hancock was an integral part of.

Up next was Dizzy Gillespie’s most famous composition, "A Night In Tunisia". Again, at first it seemed pretty straightforward, but a trained ear would have noticed that they were playing in 6/4 time, as opposed to the regular 4/4 time the tune is normally associated with. Roy Hargrove played an exhilarating solo that was hot at times, and very cool at others.

Parker’s "Ah Leu Cha" was next, in an arrangement from Roy Haynes’ 2001 Bird tribute record ("Birds Of A Feather" on Dreyfus Records). The tune was taken much slower than Parker used to play it, and, in a nod to the Miles Davis arrangement, used the chord changes of Parker’s "Scrapple From The Apple". While each musician played in his own voice throughout the show, Kenny Garrett was his most Bird-like on this tune, while still keeping up with the modern nature of the arrangement.

Both Hargrove and Haynes left the stage, and Garrett was featured on a beautiful version of the old standard "April In Paris", that was done in free rhythm. During his solo, Garrett used the free rhythm to his full advantage by having tension-building periods of silence immediately resolved with beautiful, melodic phrases.

"April In Paris" segued into a lovely piano/bass interlude played by Hancock and Holland. Meanwhile, Garrett left the stage, and both Hargrove and Haynes returned. The interlude then segued into a very straight-ahead version of the old ballad "In The Still Of The Night", that featured Hargrove on flugelhorn (both "April In Paris" and "In The Still Of The Night" are associated with Parker, as they were featured on his Bird With Strings album on Verve Records). This tune showed that while Hargrove may not have the most chops of all the trumpet players on the jazz scene, he is still on the of finest ballad players to ever play the instrument.

The biggest stretch for the band came next in the form of the Charlie Parker blues, "Now’s The Time". It may just be a coincidence that the original 1945 recording of this tune featured a young Miles Davis, but this tune was given an almost voodoo-funk-like groove, reminiscent of the late 60’s Miles records that Hancock and Holland were such an integral part of. Also, instead of the straight 12-bar blues harmony this tune is associated with, they changed it to a one-chord vamp, which is so prominent in jam band music. Hancock played a blisteringly hot solo that dipped in and out of tonality, meanwhile building to a rhythmic frenzy before slowly cooling off. The genius of Herbie Hancock’s playing is that even though everyone knows he will blow them away, he always exceeds expectations and leaves entire audiences breathless.

The last tune of the set was the bebop standard "Hot House". Continuing in the late 60’s Miles mode, this had a similar groove, but unlike "Now’s The Time", the original harmony was kept intact. While all of the solos were great as expected, Roy Haynes shined on this tune, as he proved that even at the ripe old age of 77, he is still yet to slow down his development as a drummer.

After just 65 minutes, everyone except Herbie Hancock left the stage. Herbie read a short tribute to Max Roach, who, at 79, is the lone survivor from the 1953 quintet. Max came out and while seeming confused (he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease), spoke with wisdom and class. Being one of the most influential percussionists of all time, it would have been a big tease if he hadn’t played anything, so using just a hi-hat symbol, Max played what seemed like an improvised piece that had the crowd cheering him on. While it was very awkward to see him in his weak mental state, the audience was very respectful of the man who has really seen it all, musically (some of his achievements include playing in the Charlie Parker Quintet, leading groundbreaking groups in the mid 50’s that included such legends as Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, and being one of the most vocal supporters of the civil rights movement, with his 1960 record We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite acting as a musical document of black history).

With Max sitting in the middle of the stage, the quintet came back on for a swinging, uptempo version of the Dizzy Gillespie classic, "Salt Peanuts". Hancock surely studied the 1953 Massey Hall concert recording, as he did a perfect Gillespie vocal imitation on the two-word lyric. While this tune was played very straight-ahead, it was still a real treat, as it is extremely rare that Hancock plays swinging standards that stay inside the harmony. Also, it’s quite possible that this version topped the 1953 version, as everyone took incredible solos, and it was a fitting end to an exceptional concert.

There were many differences between the 1953 and 2003 concerts. The 2003 concert was sold out long in advance, while the 1953 concert failed to break the 4-figure mark in ticket sales. Also, the 2003 concert was hyped up to the extreme, where they even had panel discussions the night before at Massey Hall, whereas the 1953 concert stood in the shadow of a boxing title fight that was just up the street at Maple Leaf Gardens. However, both concerts featured all-star musicians, all at the top of their game, and at the peak of their ability, playing innovative music.

Chances are, in 50 years, people will be celebrating the 2003 quintet, as the word from Verve Records is that this concert will most likely be released by the end of the year.

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