My jazz loving friends and I often play the “whatever happened to?” game, where we trade information about musicians whom we haven’t heard from in some time. Where is Anthony Cox, for instance? (Marty Ehrlich informs me that the great bassist moved back to Detroit, has his real estate license and still plays locally.) Until he resurfaced in 2003 after a 35-year hiatus, Henry Grimes was a popular “whatever happened to?” subject. Does anyone know the whereabouts of the outstanding cellist, Abdul Wadud?
Matt Merewitz, the well-respected jazz publicist, asked me what happened to Jorge Sylvester. I’m here to report the alto saxophonist and composer is alive, well and playing at a very high level. His ACE (Afro-Caribbean Experimental) Collective performed a two-hour concert at a sold out Parlor Room in Northampton on December 11 as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.
Since moving to the States from Panama in 1980, the 61-year old Sylvester has released four recordings under his own name, been a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt Big Band, Frank Lacy’s Vibe Tribe and worked with poet Sekou Sundiata, Karl Berger, and David Murray, among others. But the creative music business being what it is, those high profile gigs are often not enough to keep one in the public eye. There is very little room on the head of the jazz pin. So highly skilled musicians like Sylvester keep plugging away, keeping faith that the music will provide.
That positivity was on full display on Friday, December 11, as the Collective played many of the selections found on the band’s most recent release, Spirit Driven. The lyrics, written and sung by the evocative, highly musical vocalist Nora McCarthy, spoke often about truth, justice and beauty. Her dynamics, stage presence and varied vocal techniques (including some very inventive scatting), kept our attention despite the program’s length.
The electric bassist Gene Torres, a regular sub for Donald Nicks, was wonderful, easily negotiating the tricky contours of Sylvester’s shifting originals and soloing with a relaxed virtuosity. Torres, a long-time colleague of the Valley’s Terry Jenoure, appeared with Craig Harris’ 10-piece ensemble in the 2013 Magic Triangle Series at UMASS Amherst. Much of the music Torres makes these days tends towards funk, soul and other commercial music. He was thrilled to be able to stretch his skills playing music that demanded a different kind of attention.
Drummer Kenny Grohowski, a full generation younger than his bandmates, can be found making music with John Zorn, Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, Haitian singer Emeline Michel, the black metal band Imperial Triumphant and the avant rock band, Secret Chiefs 3. That one instrumentalist can be effective in such varied settings shows that the industry’s tendency to box, label and compartmentalize, is irrelevant to creative musicians. His riveting drum solo closed the show and made me wish for more.
Sylvester was masterful throughout, judiciously using extended techniques to ratchet up the intensity, while wowing with fluid runs and stop-on-a-dime precision. His gorgeous tone at all registers was remarkable given that during sound check he had to replace the cork seal on one of his saxophone keys with rolled paper.
Here’s to indomitable, spirit driven musicians who uplift and provoke, even when the material rewards are meager and uncertain.