Leave it to two middle-aged, slightly awkward white guys to steal the show at this year's Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. The 11 days of concerts have featured the old (Pharaoh Sanders, last Friday night at the Knitting Factory), the new (vibraphonist Bill Ware is all over the festival), the rock (Morphine and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy both had headlining gigs, presumably because each features horns) and the just plain weird (any night at the Alterknit Theatre). But of all the performances and all the musicians, the stars so far are Charlie Haden and John Scofield.
Haden began his career as the bassist with Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking free jazz quartet and has gone on to lead both the socially and musically progressive Liberation Music Orchestra and the relatively conservative Quartet West. He's an avant-garde jazzbo who doesn't gig frequently around New York, which makes him something of a rarity compared with Jazz Festival participants like John Zorn, Bill Frisell or James Blood Ulmer. His infrequency helped explain why, on a steamy, suffocatingly hot Tuesday night, hundreds of fans paid up to $50 to see Haden do two duet sets, one with pianist Geri Allen (who headlined her own anticlimactic set Saturday night at the Knitting Factory), and one with a "surprise guest."
That surprise guest was guitarist Scofield, a commanding improviser adept at post bop, soul, fusion and a half-dozen other genres. As the duo came onto the Knitting Factory's main stage just before midnight, they seemed, at first, determined to outdo each other in a dork competition. Haden gave an over-eager thumbs-up sign after every song, clutched a pocket heater to warm his hands and fiddled endlessly with his ear plugs. (Both accoutrements were confusing: The PA was hardly loud and the room was as chilly as a furnace.) For his part, Scofield amused the crowd with an endless array of what looked like combination grimace/yawns -- apparently he was just emoting.
The visuals were not nearly as rewarding as the music. Scofield was playing an acoustic guitar, which allowed him to explore a
softer, more delicate side than he does on his better-known electric
outings. Haden played standup bass. Both confident and mature enough to let each other shine, they traded lush, picked melodies built on understated rhythmic patterns. A fan in the audience said it best. After every song he'd look down and whisper under his breath, "So much soul; so much soul."
There's one weekend left in this year's festival, which has been organized for the past decade by the Knitting Factory's Michael Dorf. The remaining highlight is the New York Art Quartet's 35-year reunion show. Sonic Youth is opening. There are a few other great gigs coming up, some of which can be heard on the Internet. On Saturday, for instance, Frisell plays with his bluegrass outfit, the Willies, and BAM hosts an all-star tribute to the remarkable Betty Carter. Either show will have to go a long way to match the soul and showmanship of two pasty guys picking away late on a Tuesday night.