Roy Haynes didn't look or act like any 83-year-old man I've ever encountered last Saturday night at the Isthmus Jazz Festival's marquee concert. From the moment he ambled on stage at the Wisconsin Union Theater dressed in a wild op-art shirt and loose-fitting white satin pants, you got the feeling that this jazz legend just might live up to his advance billing as the "greatest living drummer in jazz."
And he didn't disappoint. Indeed, as he powered his aptly named Fountain of Youth Quartet through a well-paced set that touched on his associations with players as varied as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Pat Metheny, the beaming octogenarian displayed more verve and pure joie de vivre than a lot of players half his age.
Without question, the energetic improvisations of saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and pianist Martin Bejerano helped liberate familiar fare like Parker's bop chestnut "Scrapple From the Apple," "Darn That Dream," Chick Corea's breezy, modernist "Like This" and Metheny's buoyant fusion standard "James" from the bland, fake-book-fueled accretions that pass for jazz in many quarters.
But it was the dynamic, beaming, utterly captivating Haynes who made each tune sing. Often using no more than his snare, ride cymbal and bass drum to drive the music forward, the man fellow players nicknamed "Snap Crackle" gave an impromptu clinic on how to subtly shift rhythmic textures while still keeping unerring time.
A too-brief solo at the end of a long, bluesy feature for the cerebral Bejerano also gave the irrepressible Haynes an opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable facility with mallets. He explored every nuance of his kit during this remarkable display of battery work. A short passage that found him using the big, powder-puff-tipped sticks to tease a simple melody from his tuned tom-toms was the highlight of the quartet's 90-minute set.
Haynes also possesses a sly sense of humor, and on Saturday he employed it at regular intervals. Whenever he strolled over to the microphone to identify a tune or introduce another band member, he made a point of punctuating the break in the action by sharply thwapping his kick drum with a drumstick, then flashed an impish grin as the audience snapped to attention. Haynes also got a kick out of cajoling his young players - particularly Shaw, who didn't know quite how to react when his chuckling employer asked him what he'd like to do for the next part of the set, aside from "going back to New York."
It's a cliché to say that they don't make musicians like Haynes anymore. But they don't. Smart, affable, enthusiastic and extraordinarily generous to the young players who've moved through his group, he's a living, breathing advertisement for how vital jazz music can be. If he headlined the Isthmus Jazz Festival next year, you can bet I'd be there.