Relaxin' at the Mellon at the Kimmel
“ The music making was energetic and full of wonder ”
Mellon Jazz Fridays
The Kimmel Center
March 5, 2003
Well, All Right, OK, You Win. I attended the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel Center not quite sure what it would be like. Frankly, I’m a sentimentalist who misses the grand Academy of Music atmospherics, at least for classical music. What would it be like to hear some of my favorite musicians- Pat Martino, Jim Ridl, Joey DeFrancesco, James Moody in this large three-tiered corporate-named and paid for space with over a thousand people present? Would the music makers be able to relax and perform well? Would I be able to relax and enjoy it? Or would it be something of a circus atmosphere- or, conversely, too formal and stilted? Would I be reminded of Charlie Parker’s tune, “Relaxin’ at the Camarillo,” which I initially thought referred to a music festival until I learned that Camarillo was a state mental hospital where he detoxed from drugs!!!!!
The short answer to these questions is: “Yeah, I had a great time!” This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the concert. The music making was energetic and full of wonder. Martino and Ridl came through as the consummate artists they truly are. DeFrancesco and his souped up trio- Joey on organ, Paul Bollenback on guitar, Byron Landham on drums, with the additions of John Blake, violin, and James Moody, saxophone and (madcap) vocals and ad lib humor- really swung, tore down the house, and had tons of fun to boot! The crowd was delighted, and so was I.
Frankly, and perhaps iconoclastically, I like Verizon Hall better for jazz than classical music. Its democratic, publican atmosphere (no reference to political parties intended), its comfortable seating, and its tight acoustics allows the listener to let go of the “concert hall” formalities and enjoy the music without the “night club” distractions of clinking glasses and conversation. I was reminded of the delight of attending jazz festivals at Newport and Randalls Island in New York. The crowd livened up the evening and seemed to establish a great rapport with the musicians and vice versa.
Martino, the jazz guitar legend, and Ridl, an up and coming pianist, composer, and arranger, began the evening with artistic sensitivity and virtuosity. They performed an easygoing mixture of “straight ahead” up-tunes like “Mac Tough” (P. Martino), “Phineas Trane” (H. Mabern); and “Outrider” (P. Martino), and the ballads “Sunny” (B. Hebb), “Send in the Clowns” (Sondheim), and “Sun on My Hands” (J. Ridl). I was especially taken by their renditions of the ballads. “Sunny” was given a hauntingly beautiful evocation with exquisite phrasing by Martino, whose lyrical playing deserves as much attention as his rapid-fire virtuosity. Uniquely, he can make the guitar sing like a fine soprano’s or mezzo-soprano’s voice to suit the occasion. Both musicians made poetry of “Send in the Clowns,” which I thought was an excellent choice for an audience of eclectic tastes. Ridl outdid himself on his own composition (“Sun on My Hands”) from his latest CD, A Door in a Field), based on memories of his father. With the help of a Steinway grand piano, Ridl was able to turn “Sun” into an improvised “concertstuck” (concert piece). This tune is likely to become a jazz standard, hauntingly reminiscent of J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” I overheard people later remarking how well Martino and Ridl complement one another. Their rapport as a duet is unique, and one hopes they will produce a “Duets” album together.
After an intermission, DeFrancesco started out with a daunting remark that the trio had just driven in from Arizona (!) but, fortunately, they seemed to catch a second wind from Moody and Blake, and they did a swingin’ version of Parker’s “Ornithology”. Moody seemed to want to take a modest role musically, perhaps in order to not overwhelm the group, but his impeccable musicianship was unmistakable. Moody has a rare mastery of chord structures and what can be done within and between them, and he was able to give the tunes colors and shapes that would rarely occur to other musicians. His opening cadenza on “Body and Soul” was a small masterpiece. Guitarist Paul Bollenback, expanding upon the honored tradition of Kenny Burell, Herb Ellis, and Jim Hall, did some beautiful work throughout, and Byron Landam provided a taut, high energy rhythmic backup reminiscent of Art Blakey, with a few remarkable solos of his own. DeFrancesco was all over the Hammond organ, with a virtuosity and variety of expression and sound that makes him the world-class not-to-be-outdone jazz organist that I thought he might become when I heard him at a Mellon Festival in Chadds Ford twenty years ago.