By Chris Jisi, photo by Ingrid Hertfelder
Grooving for a good cause. I got to check out two great benefit concerts on May 15 and 17. Marcus Miller and Will Lee have been to Japan over 50 times between them, so it was no surprise—but a coincidence—that they happened to hold their benefits for the land of the rising sun some two days and twenty blocks apart on the west side of Manhattan. Miller’s well-paced Concert for Japanese Tsunami Relief at the Highline Ballroom featured his current band—keyboardist (and SMV vet) Federico Pena, alto saxophonist Alex Hahn (who always captivates crowds with his cutting-edge solos while doing the “running man”!), trumpeter Sean Jones, drummer Louis Cato, plus former member, harmonica heavy Gregoire Maret—backing a string of intriguing guests. After an introduction by music journalist Nelson George and a ceremonial opening by Kaoru Watanabe and Damion Reid on wood flute and traditional Japanese drums, respectively, Marcus and company launched into “Blast!” and “Splatch.” Miller played his “new” ’75 Jazz Bass, which is a dead ringer for his famed ’77 J-Bass. Equipped with an old Bartolini circuit, it also sounds the closest to the road-retired ’77 of his replacement basses. Keyboardist (and Maxwell MD) Robert Glasper joined the band next, with Billy “Spaceman” Patterson taking a permanent seat on guitar, for an inside-out version of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.” Shifting gears, Angelique Kidjo— backed by Marcus, Maret, and drummer Lenny White—sang Sidney Bechet’s “Petit Fleur” with flair, while trumpeter Wallace Roney and drummer (and Miles Davis nephew) Vince Wilburn emerged for an inspired cover of Miles Davis’s take on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
Following a full-band, full-on funky version of Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 gem “Mr. Clean,” singer/guitarist Raul Midon took the mike for his “Was It Ever Really Love?” and sure-shot showstopper “State Of Mind.” The latter boasted Marcus’s bubbling 16th-groove and Midon’s trademark vocal “trumpet” solo. With the crowd buzzing, the best was yet to come. Rapper Q-Tip rolled out to a roar of approval as the band launched into “Manwomanboogie.” Miller strapped on his black ’66 J-Bass (with matching black headstock) to better capture the tone of Josh David’s percolating ostinato on the original. It was the ultimate meeting of jazz and hip hop, Jamaica, Queens-style. A Tribe Called Quest classics “Bonita Applebaum” and “Electric Relaxation” (with Glasper returning) came next, reviving yet another historic jazz/hip hop link: The original “Relaxation” sampled the angular, ambiguous chord progression and bass line of keyboardist Ronnie Foster’s 1973 crossover instrumental hit, “Mystic Brew,” cut in New York with session legend/Stuff bassist Gordon Edwards. Marcus pounced on this pulse with his barking ’66, making the feel seem fatter than ever.
Brooklyn’s big-voiced and limber-limbed Maya Azucena was the final guest, serving up a pair of Island delights with “My Back’s Not Up Against the Wall” and Marcus’s tropical version of the Stylistic’s “People Make the World Go ’Round.” With time for one more song, and the set list exhausted, Angelique Kidjo rallied many of the night’s guests for an all-star edition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Moving On Up.” The after party featured spins by five DJs, including Roots drummer Questlove, who arrived too late to perform. Those interested in making a charitable contribution in support of the event can go here.
I arrived a little late to Will Lee’s Let’s Help Rebuild Japan! Concert at the newly-opened S.I.R.37, which was set up a little differently than a concert venue. V.I.P. guests on the upper level were treated to a gourmet meal by master chef Jun Ichikawa from Yamanashi, Japan, while the east side of the giant room featured auction items ranging from Letterman tickets and an autographed Charley Drayton snare drum to spa treatments and framed/signed photos by Will’s wife, photographer Sandrine Lee (who recently shot Owen Biddle’s new Ampeg ad and the cover of Pat Metheny’s upcoming CD). In the main area, a stage riser with over 200 chairs out front was the focal point for two or three-song performances by guitarist Leni Stern and master Kora player Yacouba Sissoka; famed Japanese pianist/vocalist Akiko Yano; folk songstress supreme Jonatha Brooke; and singer-songwriter/jingle musician Kenny White. I made the scene in time to see singer-songwriter Tabitha Fair and Lee (in his first performance of the evening, on his black signature Sadowsky 4-string) do their vocal and chordal bass duet, “Mercy.” Will’s rich chord inversions and two-handed moves are a sonic and visual treat (check out a Bitter End version of the song on youtube). Keyboardist/MD-to-the-stars Bette Sussman replaced Lee for Fair’s next two songs. Guitar god Eric Johnson then played several stirring solo originals, followed by a tune from soulful singer-songwriter Morley.
A silent auction served as intermission, with some interesting items going for big-ticket prices. This included guitars autographed by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Fourplay picker Chuck Loeb, two large Miles Davis lithographs, and two much-lusted-after instruments for bassists: One of Lee’s Hofner Beatle Basses autographed by the Fab Faux, and a Fender Custom Shop Sting Signature Re-Issue ’51 P-Bass signed by the Policeman himself.
Act two featured the Faux: Lee, drummer Rich Pagano, guitarist Frank Agnello, keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli, and—subbing for Jimmy Vivino, who was in L.A. leading Conan O’Brien’s Basic Cable Band—guitarist Jim Boggia. The well-fed and entertained crowd was more than ready to leap from their seats and boogie to the best Beatles cover band’s eight-song set. The quintet counted off “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the hard-edged rocker from Revolver, as Lee leaned into McCartney’s melodic bass line with pocket perfection on his white Rickenbacker. He then switched to his Hofner and sang lead on “I Saw Her Standing There.” Next, back to Revolver for John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” (complete with its Rickenbacker-played bass breaks). Harmony filled the hall on “Nowhere Man,” followed by a jangly “I’m Looking Through You,” from Rubber Soul, and a set-ending “Let It Be.” The mike (and Hofner) came back to Lee for a lung-bursting encore of “I’m Down.” A crowd-demanded second encore went even several notches higher, when Will shared lead vocals on a rockin’ rarity: the Beatles’ 1964 single cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down.” As if giving thanks to all in a most musical way, Will bolted from the mic with Hofner in hand and ran through the audience before bringing the song and the evening to a rousing conclusion. To make a donation in support of the event go to the following link set up by concert co-organizer Jennifer Armstrong (the late Hiram Bullock’s partner of 16 years): Let's Help Rebuild Japan.