While the perception most non-jazz savvy people have of Dizzy Gillespie exists primarily in the realm of caricature, those who are aware of his work and enormous evolutionary contribution to the development of the style cannot dispel this notion without stripping away a lot of what made Dizzy, well, Dizzy. With his balloon-like cheeks, bent bell trumpet and onstage antics, Gillespie was the original jazz cat.
Along with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Gillespie helped to push jazz improvisation beyond its well-worn and comfortable harmonic confines into a whole new direction with bebop. Later, Gillespie began to incorporate and combine Latin, Cuban, African and Caribbean flavors into his music, a revolution in jazz rhythm that was just as vital as its harmonic counterpart.
And forget about trying to compile a comprehensive list of Gillespie’s former band mates and proteges; it’s a useless and exhausting exercise that would name nearly every single notable jazz musician from the last four decades. Though less of an innovator in his later years, Gillespie still thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of musical ambassador, constantly making strides to keep jazz at the forefront of public consciousness while spreading goodwill in his own interminable and engaging manner until his death in 1993.
Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London is a prime example of Gillespie in his element. Formed in 1988, his United Nations Orchestra was an eclectic multi-cultural collection of some of the best and brightest jazz musicians the world had to offer. Many, if not all, of the personnel were already recognized masters in the genre while some of the younger players have used the ensemble as a springboard to successful solo careers.
Recorded at the end of a whirlwind European tour — 18 concerts over the course of 21 days in 11 countries — this show captures the essence of Gillespie’s charm and abilities. Opening with “Tin Tin Deo”, a Gillespie original, the concert’s international flavor is apparent. Percussionist Airto Moreira, Conga player Giovanni Hidalgo and drummer Ignacio Berroa set a relentless pace for the group as Gillespie, trombonists Steve Turre and Slide Hampton and saxophonist Paquito D’ Rivera offer blistering turns over the changes. Meanwhile, the ensemble remains boisterously active with the help of Hampton’s fiery arrangement.
Switching to clarinet for “Seresta/Carmen”, D’ Rivera and pianist Denilo Perez offer a gorgeously sublime take on the South American waltz before the rest of the band enters and segues in to the second half of the tune with a flurry of percussion. Here, Hampton, trumpeter Claudio Roditi and Rivera (back on alto) trade short four bar bursts, then move to two bar phrases as each tries to outdo the others in terms of sheer improvisational pyrotechnics. Following with less flash, famed Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and Gillespie combine talents for a delightful take on the mid-tempo samba “And Then She Stopped”. The dialogue between the two is relaxed and playful, with Perez contributing a short solo before the two trumpeters go head to head. In the end, however, it’s Sandoval’s upper octave antics that steal the show.
With “Tanga”, vocalist Flora Purim joins the band on the Latin/swing barnburner. Purim’s nimble scatting is incredibly clean and remarkable, prompting Gillespie to offer some of his most technically impressive solo work on the entire disc. A trio of saxophonists that includes D’ Rivera, Mario Rivera and longtime Gillespie sideman James Moody furiously battle before giving way to an extended drum and percussion break. Clocking in at just over 14 minutes, “Tanga” demands and displays the best the orchestra has to offer.
“Kush”, a moody and esoteric work, is perhaps the most unusual selection on the disc. Featuring Moody on both flute and alto as well as a muted Gillespie (a la Miles), the exotic flavor of the tune is rich. The arrangement moves in layers, from delicately floating sections of diaphanous sound to heavy blocks of rich, multi-instrumental resonance. Continuing in this vein, “Dizzy Shells” features the unique work of Steve Turre on conch shells. Turre’s mastery of these curious instruments is highlighted with the simultaneous performance of two conchs as once. Joining him halfway through the tune, the rhythm section renders the groove immediately infectious, immediately winning over the crowd in just a few short minutes.
Introducing the final track of the album, “A Night in Tunisia”, Gillespie carefully states “it has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world and moved in an odyssey into the realm of the metaphysical.” Know as Gillespie’s hallmark of composition, “Tunisia” features Moody on sax and Sandoval and Roditi on trumpet before giving way to a short bass solo by John Lee and a final round of extended cadenzas by the full trio of trumpeters. Once again, Hampton’s prowess as an arranger is on display here, taking the classic cut and turning it on its ear. The end result is electric, playful, and pure Gillespie in nature.
Overall, Live at the Royal Festival Hall is indicative of Gillespie’s legacy, a collection of unusual and exotic tracks that feature not only the bandleader, but his incredible collective of compatriots. Gillespie is gracious and generous, quicker to draw attention to his fellow musicians than he is to himself but even at the age of 72, Gillespie was still playing at a level that young lions even a third of his age could only dream of reaching.