“A Great Night in Harlem,” the annual gala concert for the Jazz Foundation of America, pitches itself at the intersection of a joyful noise and a noble cause. This year’s edition — held on Friday at the Apollo Theater, with the usual abundance of tributes and accolades, notably a lifetime achievement honor for Herbie Hancock — was no exception, though the emphasis kept shifting over the course of the evening.
This was possibly inevitable, given the multiple agendas at play. The foundation, established 25 years ago, serves as a musicians’ aid organization, assisting jazz and blues artists with their emergency financial, medical and legal needs. The organization handles more than 6,000 cases a year, with a focus on elderly musicians; its annual budget is $3.1 million.
The gala, which had a fund-raising goal of $1.7 million, served all at once as a public relations effort, a reward for donors and a celebration of the organization’s mission. At one point, the first-time filmmaker Alan Hicks took the stage to promote his moving new documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which chronicles some of the health concerns faced by the irrepressible trumpeter Clark Terry, now 93; Mr. Hicks noted that the foundation had been crucial in arranging for Mr. Terry’s 24-hour home care.
What followed was a glancing salute to Mr. Terry, led from the piano by Mr. Hancock and featuring Jimmy Heath on tenor saxophone; his brother Albert Heath, known as Tootie, on drums; Wallace Roney on trumpet; and Buster Williams on bass. They played a loose version of “Gingerbread Boy,” a Jimmy Heath tune that Mr. Terry recorded in the 1960s.
Mr. Hancock’s turn in the honoree circle was preceded by a show of his influence. Joey Alexander, an 11-year-old piano prodigy from Indonesia, played his arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight,” technically fluent and harmonically astute.
It had been announced that Mr. Hancock was reuniting his band Mwandishi, for the first time since the 1970s. He’d reconvened its original lineup: Mr. Williams, the trumpeter Eddie Henderson, the trombonist Julian Priester, the multireedist Bennie Maupin and the drummer Billy Hart. For a discerning contingent in the house, this was the evening’s main event.
And yet Mwandishi isn’t really the ideal candidate for a fleeting reunion on a crowded bill. In his autobiography, “Possibilities,” just out from Viking, Mr. Hancock describes it as “an R&D band — research and development.” He goes on: “It was all about discovery, uncovery, exploration, the unknown, looking for the unseen, listening for the unheard.”
There wasn’t time for all of that here, but as the band stretched out on a signature tune, “Toys,” its smudged-charcoal tonalities and cooled-out rhythm packed in a lot of intrigue. More, please.
But Mr. Hancock moved on, inexorably, to the music of his Head Hunters period, with Mr. Maupin joining him on tenor saxophone for “Chameleon.” Each played a knockout solo, full of rolling eloquence, and the house rhythm section — anchored by the evening’s musical director, Steve Jordan, on drums — nailed its task.
That was no less true of the music on the rest of the program: a tribute to Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, featuring his brother Verdine White on bass and Chaka Khan on vocals; a brief number by the singer Angelique Kidjo, in tribute to Nelson Mandela; some roadhouse blues, courtesy of the guitarist and singer Susan Tedeschi, with Bruce Willis, one of the gala’s celebrity presenters, on harmonica; a showpiece by the young Cuban pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco.
What didn’t work so well was the pacing of the program, which started late and ran more than an hour behind schedule. The vigorous soul man Charles Bradley and his band were called offstage after one tune, only to be allowed back on after some audience clamor. Moments like this left the impression of an unfocused marshaling of resources — not the best look for an organization like this, but thankfully, not the last word.
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