There is usually something nice about small concerts. They are big on intent. Salim Washington saw a somewhat linear drawing room, and made it an auditorium at Weaver’s Studio on February 9. He even surprised, choosing a piece that normally makes for a wise choice as a middling piece in a programme, and embarked with John Coltrane’s “Naima”, dolorous, elastic, but apt for a Sunday, somnolent and heavily-lunched crowd. He impressed with his virtuoso, more so with his artful lower registers on the saxophone, opting, perhaps impishly, for bebop as his second offering, dittying the traffic travails of New York — which he smilingly likened to those of Calcutta. His punctuative strains kindled quite clearly the hollers and horns of two hubs in a perennial hurry.
Langour marked, and rightly, his rendition of Billie Holiday’s “You’ve changed”, treating it with the twin requirement of melodic control, while capturing the infallible element essayed in all of the pained songstress’s oeuvre: passion. Adept at playing as many as 17 instruments, Washington’s choice of flute during “I’ll remember April” somewhat begged substantive percussive backing, more than he manfully afforded, more so as his accompanying — and stellar — pianist, revelling as she did in her skilled, contrapuntal role, failed to affect the gravitas associated with this seminal standard. Washington lectures, composes, arranges and leads an ensemble, and has been to Harvard. He, therefore, explores and is prone to stretch grammar. And, on this occasion he did it quite successfully: shelving tradition, he picked up an oboe to explore the blues, a choice of which he forewarned, but managed, again with season and school, to author the careening, beckoning tone which his accompanist impressively nuanced with ornate, warm energy.
He approached love songs next, bemoaning with beguiling cynicism how odes to kisses, caresses and expression of amour are increasingly featuring “a juvenile element”, thanks to a music industry that sees ready revenue in cashing in on the adolescent approach to genital gratification, a factor that has in the process deluded the intellectual and serious aspect that earlier involved matters relating to love. He proceeded to play, by his definition, an “adult love song” — “Charcoal clear beautiful all over”. His version of love was expectantly unhurried. He waited. He swooned. He deliberated — deep and dense — allowing for, attributable in all likelihood to his mastery of most wind instruments, an every-present lilt, which on hindsight bespoke his disenchantment with the ongoing preference for lust over love, in earnest.
Washington, as a now mainstreamed African-American, is sensitive about how things were during days pre-Lincoln — and, as a musician, he does his bit. “Freedom jazz dance”, not surprisingly, witnessed his sax throbbing with unfettered, sometimes intentionally atonal zest, all to tell of a people who at one time had to thank the man in the mansion for their right to breathe.