Spoken-word pieces served as the opening and closing segments of a memorable concert headlined by a groundbreaking jazz artist Saturday at the Gem Theater. The second concert of the 2011-12 season of the American Jazz Museum's Jammin' at Gem series featured two poets in addition to jazz innovator Roy Ayers.
Recognizing that Ayers' music has served as an enormous inspiration to hip hop artists, the event's presenters included prominent poets Louis Reyes Rivera and Jessica Care Moore. Both poets employ musical cadences in their deliberately provocative work.
While he resembles Star Wars' Yoda, Rivera writes like a jazz-infused Walt Whitman. His bracing appearance at the concert's outset included an ecstatic piece extolling the legacy of Afro-Cuban musicians who "pushed the truth of the music forward." The 20-minute recital by Moore that preceded Ayers' second set was regularly punctuated by spontaneous applause from the audience of about 500. Moore's furious rapid-fire flow was imbued with a sense of desperate urgency. Dedicated to Whitney Houston, a poem written for the late Etta James was particularly moving. News of the vocalist's death cast a pall over the concert.
Suggesting that "it's a very sad night," Ayers also acknowledged Houston's passing. Yet part of the appeal of Ayers' music is its positivity and pervasive spirit of healing. The social commentary mingled with mysticism on Ayers' rap during "The Third Eye" concluded the concert on a hopeful note.
Ayers' music wasn't always so unorthodox. He began his career as a conventional jazz vibraphonist in the tradition of Lionel Hampton.
"My mother and father took me to see him when I was 5 years old," the 71-year-old Ayers explained. "I always thought I was going to be Lionel Hampton."
It didn't work out that way. In the late 1960s, Ayers began releasing increasingly accessible albums. Widely perceived as a trend-hopping opportunist during his commercial zenith, Ayers is now hailed as a visionary who erected the original bridge between jazz and hip hop. The ubiquitous "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" is Ayers' most beloved song.
"It's been sampled by more artists than anything," Ayers said. "I want to thank all those hip hop artists."
Moore and Kansas City trumpeter Ronny Reed joined Ayers and his fine four-pieced band for a celebratory version of the classic song. As with most of Ayer's eight selections, it featured a stunning vibraphone solo. Ayers' similarly strong vocals rendered the efforts of his backing vocalist superfluous.
Broken into two sets, Ayers' 90-minute performance neglected several important phases of his career. Most musicians can make a thorough artistic statement in less time. Ayers' scarcely scratched the surface of his extensive output Saturday. The passage of time has been kind to Ayers' legacy but the relative brevity of his otherwise satisfying outing Saturday was proportionately frustrating.