like Ike: (l-r): Hayes and Chestnut at Proctors.
Photo by Martin Benjamin
Stole the Soul?
By J. Eric Smith
Isaac Hayes and the Cyrus Chestnut Quartet
Theatre, May 4
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 Memphis
soul would be built. Hayes also recorded some of the first
raps ever to 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 OK, 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.
Gyuto Tantric Choir
Theater, Northampton, Mass., May 3
The Gyuto Tantric Choir are a troupe of Tibetan Buddhist monks
from the Gyuto Tantric Monastery, which currently exists in
exile in India. The monastery, which was founded in the 16th
century, had more than 900 members in Tibet in the mid-1950’s.
Fewer than 90 made it to India following the murderous Chinese
crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists in the late ’50s. (There are
some 350 Gyuto monks today.) Friday’s concert at the Calvin
Theater in Northampton was part of the Monks’ 2002 tour to
raise operating money for the monastery, and the conclusion
of a weeklong residency at Smith College, where they reportedly
constructed and deconstructed something called a “butter sculpture.”
I decided not to inquire further about this.
The “show” was a series of prayers and deities, “performed”
by 13 monks. What these prayers and deities represented is
way beyond me—and, most likely, you—so we’ll move on.
GTC rock, man! The monks spent most of the evening all seated
in the lotus position in a V formation pointing to a large
illuminated photograph of the Dalai Lama that was placed back-center
on the stage. They were dressed in various robes and scarves
of brilliant reds and golds, and resplendent headdresses,
including some outrageous canary yellow numbers that looked
like oversized poofy Roman helmets. It takes a certain kind
of holy man to pull off a hat like this. The colorful ensembles
were finished off with headset microphones. Cordless.
The Gyuotos excel at throat singing, an extremely guttural
form of vocalization in which the singer, remarkably, emanates
a chord of three distinct tones. To hear one person do this
is exciting; to hear 13 do it, amplified big-time through
a crystalline state-of-the-art sound system, is just plain
The pieces were highly repetitive, bouncing between ensemble
unison (if 13 guys each singing a three-note chord can be
called “unison”) and solo chanting. The monks accompanied
themselves with large drums, held aloft on poles and struck
languidly with curved beaters, and also with small brass bells,
ratty-sounding cymbals, and single-note horns, 8 feet long.
There also was occasional ensemble hand movement, evocative
of the mudra hand gestures of the Buddha, as well as
standing up and sitting down, and the passing to and fro of
leafy plants and small vessels of water. Everything was at
once formless and precise, exotic and comforting, regal and
The two-hour performance floated by and seemed over in moments.
The experience was like a Phillip Glass (with whom GTC have
collaborated) performance, without the monotony and pretension.