The MC at Wednesday’s Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement performance for Kidd Jordan introduced the guest of honor by means of analogy: “Basketball’s got MJ. But we’ve got KJ!” Judging from what followed, it’s fair to say that His Airness would be humbled by the comparison. If pro hoops were more like Mr. Jordan’s tone, I might actually give a shit about the NBA Finals.
But let’s put a few things in perspective: Mr. Jordan, who is 73 and plays tenor like a baby trying to be born, headlined four of the evening’s five sets, screamed to heaven half-a-dozen times, at one point MacGyver-ed a sax valve out of a rubber band, and did it all in a t-shirt and jeans. “This guy looks like my grandfather,” my buddy said about twelve seconds before going whoa for the next two hours.
Forgive the hyperbole. Every set was the best. First up, Kidd teamed with bari-saxophone guru Hamlet Blulett, keys-man Dave Burrell and some dude who exclusively tortured the strings on a prepared piano. Blulett mounted his ax on some sort of stand, and aimed the bell at the crowd like a machine gun. The improvisation veered from caterwauling reed walls to fractured, first line marches on hairline transitions, no percussion required. Burrell’s rhythmic shards nailed the piece to the floor while Jordan’s lines danced lightning-like overhead. When it was all over, I needed a beer to think in English again.
After a break, Jordan returned with descriptively-dubbed violinist Billy Bang, a humongous bass player named William Parker, and Hamid Drake, a man whose drumming makes sex seem boring. Billy dueled the Kidd at center stage, trading, interrupting, hijacking each other’s melodies under the guiding push of the rhythm godhead. This time, I got a really hot bowl of lentil soup to reorient, which was delicious even though I managed to spill half of it onto my pants.
Part three consisted of a Jordan-led quintet: trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Joel Futterman on piano, and percussionist Alvin Fielder in addition to a role-reprisal by Parker and Kidd. The visual dynamic was a riot. Kerr looks like latter-day Marlon Brando, Futterman like a maybe more unhinged Nick Nolte. The pianist kept peering out from under his soundboard and grimacing hellaciously. The music, surprise, surprise, was tremendous. Futterman runs the ivories like Schoenberg wind-sprints, and Fielder, although a more recalcitrant sticker than Drake, grooves so effortlessly as to almost magnetize the exchanges of the other players towards one another. If Kidd and Co. are the current, Fielder is the voltage. It’s always a shock to hear the completed circuit.
It’s a bit unfair to call the next band, a New Orleans-based quintet led by Jordan’s two sons, Marlon and Kent on trumpet and flute respectively, an intermission act, but any 5-song gig of bop standards, no matter how well-played, would sound somewhat tame when bookended by the bouts of anarcho-genius improv that characterized the rest of the engagement. No doubt, the musicianship on display here was masterful: Marlon is a firebrand soloist and marathon drummer Fielder cooked hotter than the buffet crockpot. Still, it’s something of a comedown listening to music you feel you’ve heard before in an evening rife with sounds you’re likely never to hear again.
To close out the performance, Kidd invited longtime associate and fellow tenor Fred Anderson to join him onstage alongside the marathon rhythm section of Drake and Parker. Anderson, six years older than Jordan, wears pants that seem to cover his entire torso and is about as tall as his instrument. He’s also one of the greatest saxophone players in the world, with a tone that sounds like a canyon being carved live in granite. Kidd and Anderson play like conjoined twins in an argument, throwing out a constant stream of sonic point-counterpoint, always anticipating the other’s ducking and weaving. The portrait of the pair is something to behold: Mr. Anderson bends his entire body at a right angle to the floor, beaming riffs directly into the crust. Mr. Jordan, conversely, uses his tenor to stare down the crowd, the cyclops eye of his bell refining the fossil fuel laid down by his partner out of the soil and spitting it back into the air as an electric mist.
The collective age of the performers for this ultimate reunion probably approached the millennial, but their final set made everyone on hand feel as young as they ever wanted to be.