December 2004

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It was hard to find an empty seat on closing night of the fifth annual Django Reinhardt Festival at Birdland (Nov. 14th). The week had seen guest appearances by Harry Allen, Paquito D'Rivera, James Carter, Gil Goldstein and Joel Frahm. But on Sunday Dave Samuels (vibes) and Peter Beets (piano) of Holland joined the drummerless house band of the week, led by the stunning Django disciple Dorado Schmitt. The first set began with the pure, elevated swing of Schmitt, rhythm guitarist Mayo Hubert and bassist Brian Torff playing "Madonna", "Swing 42" and "Tears". Unlike his colleague Bireli Lagrene, Schmitt is decidedly pre-bop in his approach, but his chops are about as impressive. There was more to this music than fingerboard acrobatics however. The trio's time feel was unshakeable; the melodies sang. Beets' initial features, "Ornithology" and "I've Found a New Baby", had a loose but spirited jam-session feel, as did Samuels' "All of Me" and "There Will Never Be Another You". Despite a language barrier on stage (Torff, not Schmitt, addressed the audience in English), the tunes were quickly called, simpatico quickly achieved.

No doubt, the Django sound is a jazz subspecialty, a niche; but there's hardly a music more crowd- pleasing. Schmitt is one of its true masters.

Flutist/composer Jamie Baum rolled into Sweet Rhythm (Nov. 11th) to celebrate the release of her stellar OmniTone disc Moving Forward, Standing Still and she managed to keep the studio personnel largely intact: Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Tom Varner on French horn, Doug Yates on alto sax and bass clarinet and Jeff Hirshfield on drums, with bassist John Hebert and pianist Jacob Sacks filling in for Drew Gress and George Colligan, respectively. Baum's second set began with new material. First was "Pine Creek", a bright 5/4 chart with punishing ensemble passages and long stretches of modal improv; then "Tag", a slower, swing-based tune with two independent lines moving in beautifully conceived counterpoint. Later, the new ballad "In Passing" featured Baum on alto flute and launched Hebert on the best solo of the night—no easy feat, since every soloist (particularly Alessi) was in fiery form. The album pieces seemed a formidable challenge live, but the group pounced on them, seguing from Trilok Gurtu's playful "From Scratch" into the "Rite of Spring"-inspired "Primordial Prelude", which highlighted Baum's deep understanding of Stravinskian dissonance. "In the Journey", a fast workout in a two-plus-three meter, pushed the set over the top, then to a close.

~ David Adler

The powerful reedman Frode Gjerstad came to Tonic (Nov. 16) for a special engagement made extra special by the at-first unfortunate cancellation of previously scheduled cornetist/trumpeter Bobby Bradford. To complement his first-ever all Norwegian trio, he instead invited unheralded vibraphonist Kevin Norton, the first vibes player he has ever played and recorded with (they recently released a duo improv, No Definitive). Norton helped create an altogether different and musically successful group concept, enveloping Gjerstad's at times fierce playing as an ideal foil while complementing the reliable exploratory pulse of Oyvind Storsund (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) who helped lead the group through various tempo surges in brazen fashion without overpowering. The threesome played like a longtime working unit, exploring sonic subtleties as a single voice while interweaving with Gjerstad's clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone.

Sheet music in front of Norton's vibes evidently was only for show, "to make the music seem more impressive, as if it were composed," Gjerstad put it to me post-set with regard to Norton's sly intentions! Two extended off-the-cuff group improvisations, plus a short slow tempo encore for bass clarinet, structurally came off compositionally convincing. And for a quartet that only had a soundcheck before playing together for the first time, that's saying something.

~ Laurence Donohue-Greene


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