At Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, a Double Dose of the Blues
For seven years, Steve Miller has hosted blues-centric concerts under the aegis of JALC. This year’s special guest, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, makes the program especially exciting — and exceptionally long.
‘The Future of the Blues’
With Special Guest Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram
Through November 11
Livestreaming at jazzlive.com
“It’s hot up here”: So announced Steve Miller at the climax of what was certainly one of the most exciting evenings in the 20-year history of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. It was also the longest that I can remember — it hit the three hour mark just as Mr. Miller came back on stage and made his proclamation — but no one seemed to mind.
For seven years, the guitarist, songwriter, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has hosted blues-centric concerts under the aegis of JALC. As the evening opened, he recounted the history of the series as a prelude, leading to his motivation behind his latest and current JALC presentation, which he has titled “The Future of the Blues.”
As he and music director Shelly Berg had planned, the first half of the evening was laser-focused on the past — again no one seemed to mind. Mr. Miller only briefly contemplated his own past, reaching for a double-neck guitar and launching into a surprisingly slow, thoughtful, and completely solo rendition of his 1977 hit “Jet Airliner,” a song that most of us had never considered in the context of the blues before.
The rest of the first set had Mr. Miller playing blues classics with his own longtime collaborator, guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis, joined by a JALC-centric backing band assembled by Mr. Berg. In addition to Mr. Berg, who served as music director and switched between the grand piano and a Hammond B3 organ, the rhythm section was bassist Russell Hall and drummer Herlin Riley, plus four horns, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, and three saxophonists: Sherman Irby on alto, Craig Handy on tenor, and Courtney Wright on baritone.
For fully 90 minutes, Messrs. Miller and Berg led this formidable group through a program that excitingly explored the Mississippi Delta-to-Chicago aspect of the blues. This is the blues of Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Otis Rush, T-Bone Walker, Tampa Red, Howling Wolf, and others; it is mainly male-dominated, as opposed to what’s often called the classic blues of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, and guitar-centric, as opposed to the largely piano-based boogie-woogie style from Kansas City.
At the very least — and it was considerably more than that — the evening was a bargain for JALC customers in that it was essentially two concerts in one. The Miller-Berg group wound up its half with an extended piece called “Hat,” which Mr. Miller described as deriving from his interest in fusion, but also had much in common with the “prog-rock” of the 1970s. There also were overtones of Latin jazz and it built to a much-anticipated drum solo by the always-impressive Mr. Riley.
At 9:45, the first act ended — and I’ve experienced many a satisfying show that would have concluded there. However, throughout the first half, Mr. Miller had been building up expectations for his guest, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram; for most of us present, it was our first exposure to this 24-year-old blues prodigy from Clarksdale, Mississippi, who has already won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and was just nominated for a second.
Mr. Ingram had already joined Messrs. Miller and Berg for three impressive guitar solos in the first set. Then, after intermission at about 10 p.m., he returned with his own quartet, keyboardist Deshawn Alexander, bassist Paul Rogers, and drummer Christopher Black.
In the second half, he unveiled a powerful baritone voice, deep and resonant. He also displayed a gift for showmanship: about three numbers in, he exited the stage and walked up the house right aisle, until he was about 10 feet from where I was sitting in row J. He remained there for most of the number, and the sold-out crowd responded exactly as you’d expect.
In short, Mr. Ingram proved that Mr. Miller’s build-up was hardly hyperbole: he’s an outstanding guitarist and singer, fully worthy of so much Grammy attention, who also has a rare gift for bandleading: the quartet made the most of dynamics, not only blasting but treating us to more quiet, intimate moments, in which Mr. Ingram played unaccompanied. He switched from the fundamental Delta blues style to something more like soul jazz, and also to 1960s backbeat-driven funk and then back again to the basic blues.
At 11 p.m., after several standing ovations, it was Mr. Miller’s turn to make a guest appearance with Mr. Ingram’s group. They played together for another 10 minutes, but we would have gladly remained for another hour or more had they kept going. Like the man said, it was indeed hot up there.