I don't know much about jazz. My first foray into the genre came as a freshman in college studying tuba performance. Fancying myself sophisticated and edgy, I solicited a recommendation for "something totally weird" from a lanky jazz bassist; he told me to check out John Coltrane's Interstellar Space. I snapped it up enthusiastically, tried and failed to listen to it for more than five minutes at once, and got rid of it. I attributed my inability to get into jazz to an innate squareness that my otherwise eclectic and adventurous tastes simply couldn't overcome. I've since eased into the genre (can't get enough Ornette Coleman), but I'm still bewildered by jazz's stylistic breadth and historical scope.
Coming to a rare live performance of Charlie Haden (bassist for Coleman's original quartet, among other impressive credits) and Hank Jones (living piano legend whose resume reads like a Who's Who of jazz), I thought I'd feel like an outsider. The evening's program, music from Haden and Jones' 1995 Steal Away, doesn't slip easily into a subgenre. The album presents traditional songs and spirituals; history-rich tunes like "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Abide with Me" performed as piano-bass duets.
In the context of Duke University's Following Monk festival, this performance is meant to shed light on Rocky Mount native Thelonius Monk's musical roots — his southern heritage and the time he spent as a teenager playing piano with a traveling female evangelist, about which very little is known. A connection is only implied; the festival brochure obliquely states that Steal Away "could be said to meditate on the countryside foundations of Monk's own music." No complaints — any excuse to get two jazz greats together to perform a live set so rare as this, right?
After a brief, contextualizing introduction by Georgetown University professor Maurice Jackson, who penned the Grammy-nominated liner notes to Steal Away, Haden and Jones commenced their set. Jazzing up traditional numbers could end up in Muzak territory, but Haden and Jones' simple, slightly swinging approach improved on these culturally pervasive songs. During the first half, the duo appeared to choose lesser-known cuts from Steal Away — although I picked out a buoyant "Danny Boy" and, later, a brief but reverent treatment of "Amazing Grace."
Simplicity of instrumentation might relate these songs more closely to their traditional origins, but Haden and Jones came at this music with harmonic and stylistic ideas they've developed over more than a century combined. Haden's bass lines created a restless energy simmering beneath those well-loved melodies, with even more adventurous transitions falling in place with an uncommon but relatable logic. Jones supplied most of the melodic activity during this portion of the performance (although both artists traded solos throughout). Jones' harmonies unfurl with a dizzying metric dexterity as he effortlessly seems to fit the most beautifully complex combinations of notes into finite moments; right-hand rolls blossom into blues-tinged harmonies syncopated against an uncompromising but quick left hand.
About halfway through the show, the duo dispensed with written music and began a series of jazzier selections. Although their cool, comfortable style didn't change, the tunes tended towards the up-tempo, and Haden took on greater melodic responsibility during some introspective extended bass solos. They closed the set proper with an upbeat and frankly joyful version of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" before returning to the stage for three loudly demanded encores.
The implied connection between the evening's program of traditional folk music and spirituals and Monk's music served the Following Monk series well by tying into the artist's heritage in North Carolina. But Haden and Jones' exclusive performance provides far-reaching insight into the unwieldy breadth of jazz's influence, power, and development since the still-vibrant songs of Steal Away first found their way into American culture. In revisiting these songs with the hindsight of the musical, social, and cultural changes they had a hand in inspiring, Haden and Jones created otherworldly but relatable sound that reveres its roots while indicating its potential to inspire in the future.