Beaming rootsy jazzer Cassandra Wilson looked like she really meant it when she told the audience it was “great to be at the Beacon Theater” opening for Al Green December 6. And why not? Her whole career has been constructed to avoid some other small career that haunts her: talented young standards singer with a little slice of the diminishing jazz audience pie. Love For Sale/ Black Coffee/How High The Moon? Not for Cassandra, who mixes in some Monkees or Glen Campbell with her Miles and Muddy Waters, a combo yearning for a larger audience out there somewhere beyond the jazz clubs and festivals. Perhaps at the Beacon with new Blue Note label mate Al Green.
Al also has a career he’s been avoiding, since he left twenty-five years ago to pastor and sing Gospel but it’s his own past of early 70s soul music classics. Until now. I Can’t Stop is the well publicized CD reunion with old Memphis soul collaborator Willie Mitchell and the Beacon his first non-Gospel New York City show since way back when..
Secular or sacred, both of Green’s careers contain suggestions of the other. In fact, much of Green’s persona and most of his singing is built around suggesting, avoiding, and implying. Classics such as “Let’s Stay Together” find Green above, below, in front of, and behind the melody, but it’s not the kind of improvising that is meant to create a hip distance from the material. Like blues guitar great Buddy Guy, he describes the perfect note by playing around it, because it’s so perfect it can’t exist in this fallen world, and both can reach a peak where they quote a phrase by just remaining silent. That isn’t less is more minimalism, it’s nothing is everything, well, spirituality. You got so close to something so big you’ll miss it if you get any closer, like Jews not spelling out the name of G-d, or Greeks not representing past the two dimensions of the icon.
I Can’t Stop works as return to form, proving that groove, voice and riffs are largely intact. But Green gets tied down when production’s slathered on a bit too thick, as if every Hi Music seventies soul lick must be utilized to prove the comeback. So there aren’t as many openings for our man to expand into as in the past.
No such problems at the Beacon. The old hits, two new cuts and Amazing Grace/Nearer My God To Thee, were not just presented, but utilized by a still supple voiced Al backed by a full strength soul band. Al was back, but he wasn’t just embracing his old material and those who love it (us), he was working with it and with us. Gone was the flaky but fascinating young live Al of days of yore, and in his place was a guy who’s spent a good part of the last twenty-five years leading a congregation on Sunday mornings. Songs were vamped on, compressed, anticipated, shouted, whispered, and falsettod and we were revved up and quieted down, chatted up, preached to, sung with, sung at and slung roses. That the largely white audience easily followed these changing cues shows just how much of African-American Christianity has seeped into secular culture.
Sure, some of the pacing was the judicious parceling out of limited resources by a professional on tour. But like Cassandra, Al looked genuinely happy to see us. What’s great about his old songs is that they always sounded formal but improvised. So playing around with them only makes them sound more like they used to, and playing around with us and the idea of his thirty year old fame only made us feel better about ourselves. The night was such a wonderful combination of sacred and secular, eros and agape, it made you wonder. Maybe Al walked away from his fame, not because there was something wrong with it, but because it was perfect. “Throw it away,” sang Cassandra, quoting Abbey Lincoln, “‘cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.” And maybe should have added, “Just come back and check on it sometime in the next millennium.”