Ralph Ellison, best known for the classic novel “Invisible Man,” had a deep interest in jazz, and wrote profoundly on the subject. So it made sense that the “Jazz in the Key of Ellison” event presented Nov. 1 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark included both readings and musical performances.
It was the first event of this year’s fifth annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival, which continues through Nov. 20 (with most of the events taking place from Nov. 12 to Nov. 20). And an impressive lineup was assembled. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singers Patti Austin, Angélique Kidjo and Catherine Russell all performed with Andy Farber and His Orchestra. Actor Joe Morton, rapper Talib Kweli and writer/professor Robert O’Meally handled the readings. Vintage photos and videos of Ellison were projected on screens, behind the performers, throughout the evening.
Donald Katz, founder and CEO of the Newark-based audiobooks company Audible (which co-sponsored the concert), gave an introductory speech in which he spoke about getting to know Ellison personally in the ’70s — while studying at NYU, where Ellison was a faculty member — and being deeply influenced by him. Later, Marsalis also offered some personal memories of his friendship with Ellison, who died in 1994.
Ironically, though, for an event honoring a man who is best known as a novelist, “Jazz in the Key of Ellison” suffered from a lack of narrative flow. The music — including memorably forceful takes on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” and “Ain’t But the One” by Kidjo and a deeply sensitive team-up on “Stardust” by Austin and Marsalis — was great. The readings were mesmerizing. But there was virtually no connection between the alternating parts of the show. It was just reading, song, reading, song, reading, song, and so on.
Sometimes, it was possible to immediately see how the song related to the reading before or after it, as when Russell sang “Black and Blue” before Morton read a passage in which Ellison wrote about it. Often, though, it was not: Russell sang “I Cover the Waterfront,” for instance, right after an Ellison passage about Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem— I guess because some people who performed at Minton’s, like Billie Holiday, sang it. But why was that song, out of the hundreds of equally relevant songs, chosen for this particular spot in the show? No reason was given.
With very few exceptions, in fact, song titles and the sources of the readings were not mentioned, and connections were virtually never discussed. Most of the participants were not even identified until everyone took a bow at the end of the evening (after Austin, Kidjo and Russell teamed up for a high-spirited version of Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly”).
It was a very good show. But with a little more cohesiveness, it could have been great.
In the second event of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, the late Dave Brubeck’s sons Chris (a bassist and trombonist) and Dan (a drummer), singer-pianist Hilary Kole and others will perform material from “The Brubeck Songbook,” Nov. 6 at 3 p.m. at NJPAC’s Chase Room. Visit NJPAC.org.