The Jazz.com Blog
December 16, 2007 · 0 comments
This story begins many years ago. I was driving late at night on Highway 101, north of San Francisco and heading into Sonoma County. I had hit that section of the highway where the roadway narrows, and the fog is often treacherous. I turned on the radio to help keep alert, and found a live jazz broadcast. I assumed that the broadcast was coming from someplace nearby, but that was merely a guess – I never learned where it originated. Nor did I ever discover the name of the band. Frankly the musicianship of the performers did not make much of an impact on me – at least, not at first -- and I was about to resume hunting for other, more entertaining fare. But then the anonymous bandleader began talking, and I thought I would stay with the station a little longer, if only to learn the names of the players.
“I would like to invite up one of my students to join us on this number,” the man announced. A momentary pause while a saxophonist came up to the bandstand. The leader turned to the newcomer and asked: “What song would you like to play?” The saxophonist replied: “Cherokee” – a daring choice for a student sitting in with a professional band, a song notorious for its complicated harmonies, especially the modulations in the bridge. “Okay,” replied the leader, “but you set the beat.”
The young student saxophonist proceeded to count in a ridiculously fast tempo for “Cherokee,” somewhere north of 350 beats per minute. The band sounded very ragged in the opening bars. For a moment I thought the performance might grind to halt right then and there, but the altoist zipped through the melody undaunted, and then took the first solo. I was now listening with great fascination – because I sensed a disaster about to unfold on live radio. This sax student would inevitably falter taking such a tough song at such a rapid pace. Indeed, he had only demonstrated his naiveté and inexperience by his choice of song and tempo.
But then something amazing happened. The young alto saxophonist took a formidable solo, full of bebop prowess and executed with remarkable technical command. Could this really be a student? This sounded like a top-notch pro, or even more, like a pro among pros. The rest of the band, which had struggled at first, now rose to the occasion, fired up by the youngster and locking into the beat. By the second alto chorus, I was transfixed. This was nothing less than a textbook demonstration of bop sax pyrotechnics. The youngster’s tone was full and rounded, his ideas smartly conceived and deftly executed, and his drive unrelenting. By now my curiosity was intense. Who was this alto ‘student’?
At the conclusion of the song, the bandleader finally obliged me. He returned to the microphone, and announced: “That was my student, Vince Herring.”
The name meant nothing to me, and I would not hear it again for several years. But I remembered it, and was constantly on the lookout for the mysterious Mr. Herring, an unheralded youngster who could step out of a crowd, and fire up an anonymous band with a burning version of “Cherokee.” When I finally saw the debut leader dates of Vince Herring hit the market – probably four years after my late night drive -- and heard this artist praised as the “next Cannonball Adderley” or the “the next Sonny Stitt,” I was far from surprised. I had been waiting for his arrival on the scene since that first taste of his playing.
Fast forward to this weekend, where I heard Vince Herring and his band in performance at Smoke, at 106th and Broadway. Herring has now released more than one dozen CDs under his own name, and tours widely. His quartet had just returned from Europe, where they had completed 23 performances in 22 days. The band – featuring Anthony Wonsey on piano and keyboards, Richie Goods on bass and Joris Dudli on drums – played impressively at Smoke, demonstrating a camaraderie and comfortable congruence that reflected both their familiarity with each other as musicians and their personal rapport as colleagues.
If I recalled Herring upstaging the “Cherokee” ensemble years ago, today he is the model of democratic bandleading. Everybody in the group got a chance to feature an original composition, and solo time was parceled out in fairly equal doses. But don’t kid yourself, Vincent Herring is the star of this show. He is a player who cannot blend into the background, unless he leaves his horns at home. His work on alto and soprano was exceptional, marked by a sweet, strong sound, polished technique, and a bountiful supply of ideas. He is less bop-oriented than I have heard him in other settings, but he retains the core ethos of bop improvisation, which Charlie Parker once described as finding the phrases that allow a musician to play any note against any chord. Herring’s lines are full of interesting chromatic twists and turns, rich in the phrases within the phrases, and coy little cadences.
The amplification was too loud for the space, but in all other respects Smoke is a fun place to experience jazz. If my seat had been any closer to the bandstand, I could have turned the pages and adjusted the microphones. Herring’s schedule finds him playing later this month at the Village Vanguard with Cedar Walton and at Sweet Rhythm with Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Legacy.
And if you manage to see Herring in performance, make sure you ask him to play “Cherokee.”
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia