Concert Review: Isaac Hayes and the Cyrus Chestnut Quartet (Proctor’s Theater, Schenectady, New York, May 4, 2002)

It isn’t too hard to make a case for Isaac Hayes as the most influential and accomplished entertainer of the 20th Century’s second half. The versatile musical icon wrote, arranged and played on many of the great Stax Records’ hits of the ’60s and early ’70s, and his breakthrough solo disc, 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul, provided the very template upon which the Memphis soul would be built. Hayes also recorded some of the first raps to ever penetrate American radio listeners’ consciousness, becoming the first African-American performer to earn platinum record sales in the process.

With 1971’s Shaft: Music from the Soundtrack, Hayes also became the first African-American artist to win an Academy Award for an original soundtrack, while creating a gorgeously rich style of arrangement that would deeply influence film scoring — and pop music — for decades. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized and honored his influence by inducting him into its ranks last year, even as Hayes’ seemingly-unassailable popularity reached new heights through his voice work on Comedy Central’s “South Park” and his highly-rated morning radio show on New York City’s KISS-FM mega-station.

So I was certainly stoked as I made my way into Proctor’s Theatre Friday night to catch Isaac Hayes in concert for the very first time, nearly 30 years after having had my earth moved by an older relative who dropped Ike’s Black Moses on my very impressionable little white-bread Carolina cracker skull. But first: the Cyrus Chestnut Quartet, who came out and delivered half-an-hour of truly inspiring jazz, peaking with a passionate rendition of William Howard Doane’s “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” Then, a couple of songs later, Chestnut leaned over to the microphone and asked if Brother Moses was in the house–and, lo and behold, there he was, Isaac Hayes, in the house, with me!

I was grinnin’ ear to ear and forehead to chin as Ike started singing along with Chestnut and company, so happy to see him there, in the flesh, that I wasn’t really even much paying attention to what he was singing. And then Hayes lit into one of his trademark long introductory raps, and it was cool, and I was still grinnin’ big as the rap segued into a jazz spin through “My Funny Valentine,” which was kinda wan, but that was okay, because it was Ike, man, Ike. But then he sang another old jazz standard, and then another, and then he did “Look of Love,” which at least was an old cover I’d heard him do before, and then some more old jazz numbers, for about an hour, and then he waved and left, and I sat, sorta stunned, not grinning much anymore at all, no sir.

I mean, I’d just seen Isaac Hayes live, and I hadn’t heard “Theme from Shaft,” or “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” or “Walk on By.” There’d been no “Never Can Say Goodbye,” no “Joy,” no “I Stand Accused,” none of the old Stax tunes, no “Soul Man,” not even a “Chocolate Salty Balls” or “Volcano” from Chef Aid: The South Park Album. In fact, other than “Look of Love,” there wasn’t a single song that I’d ever heard him sing before. And there was not a single over-the-top arrangement to be heard all night, just straight background jazz, leaving Ike’s voice just sorta hangin’ out there, and while he’s nothing if not distinctive, he’s not got the best range or intonation in the world, and that’s always been cool when it was like he was whispering in your ear, yeah baby, c’mon baby, yeah, and then a gush of strings and organ, but, y’know, Ike just ain’t the kinda singer that’s gonna carry a jazz show as a vocalist, truth be told, painful as it is to me to tell it.

While I respect Hayes for doing what he wants to do, and nothing else, at this stage in his career, not letting the calls from the audience (who dwindled, dramatically, as the evening went on) dictate his agenda, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe he’s going pointedly highbrow with this jazz thing to offset any damage to his reputation caused by his less-than-motivational work on South Park over the past few years. But I have to tell you: I’d rather hear him singing “Chocolate Salty Balls” with passion than “Night and Day” without it.

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