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Gigging: Lew Tabackin at Smalls

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Nothing in Ken Burns's much-maligned, decade-old Official History of Jazz caused as much umbrage as Branford Marsalis's remark that in the 70s “jazz just kind of died; it just kind of went away for a while." As Nate Chinen chronicled several years ago in the Times, the 70s have been lovingly, exhaustively chronicled in the jazz blogosphere, with the indispensable Destination: OUT leading the way. This historical revisionism has been sorely needed—jazz didn't die during the '70s, but a whole lot of it was ignored and forgotten.

Many jazz musicians who came of age during the 70s did enter the annals, but usually outside of the mainstream. Chick Corea earned a lasting following not from extraordinary acoustic albums like Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, but from his fusion band, Return to Forever (which appealed to Deadheads and future Phish “phans"). Avant-garde innovators like Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor played to a sophisticated niche in the 70s, which more or less followed them, impervious to trends. But mainstream players found a more hostile climate in the decade and were largely swept from the history books when Wynton and the Young Lions stormed the gates in the 80s.

The 69-year-old saxophonist and flautist Lew Tabackin, who played two riveting sets last Friday at Smalls, is an emblematic player of this lost generation—he came of age in the 70s and has waged his very successful career largely outside the jazz spotlight. I've known of Tabackin for a while—he was the longtime star soloist in his wife Toshiko Akiyoshi's big band—but I don't recall ever reading a review of one of his albums, seeing an article about him, or hearing another musician utter his name. In my ten years as a club-going jazz fan, last Friday was the first time I remember even entertaining the idea of seeing him.

And, boy, could he play! Out in front of a pick-up trio of Phil Palombi and Bill Goodwin, Tabackin absolutely killed, channeling Sonny Rollins on tenor and an angry Japanese forest sprite on flute. Lately the sax trio has been re-imagined as a collective of equals, which can be thrilling (as in the work of Fly) or frustratingly diffuse. Playing that kind of jazz, though, demands a close working relationship with one's fellow musicians, and Tabackin only hired Palombi and Goodwin for a two-night gig. He needed to dominate; and he displayed the chops and dexterity of thought to make it a success. Ethan Iverson recently cited Smalls as the New York establishment most nourishing of the “serious tradition of jazz as casual club music" and Tabackin's gig exemplified it: a bold improviser conquering standards and a few originals as capable accompanists backed him up. It's not the kind of music that starts revolutions; but it's what pumps the blood of jazz's everyday brilliance.

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This story appears courtesy of Inverted Garden by Eric Benson.
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