To a sold-out house at the 55 Bar (Jan. 7th), tenorist Chris Potter showcased his new band Underground, featuring Craig Taborn on Rhodes, Nate Smith on drums and, in a rare sideman role, Wayne Krantz on guitar. In this room, where Krantz is a weekly draw, Potter's music seemed decidedly Krantzian - raw and groove-oriented, harmonically unobvious, structured to a point but wide open for soloists. At times, Krantz and Taborn took turns covering the low end, but there was no pressure to mimic the bass function - in fact, the group seemed to argue for a new kind of spaciousness in edgy, groove-based improvisation. As Potter blew, Krantz and Taborn would engage in tag-team staccato riffing as taut as an archer's bow, creating staggering intensity at a fairly low volume. Other times they'd play nothing, allowing Potter and Smith to spar in another direction. (Cecil Taylor, at the end of the bar, seemed impressed by Taborn's solos.) With his stomp boxes, Krantz called forth a metallic, percussive sound that he's used in his own music, but that also recalled the semi-electronic tweaking Kevin Hays dished out on Potter's 2004 live release Lift. Underground may be a departure for Potter, but there are certain continuities with the past.
For the wheelchair-bound Shirley Horn, two weeks at Le Jazz Au Bar had to have been a Herculean effort (Verve recorded the second week for a May release). After losing a foot to diabetes she is back to playing piano, with a custom-enlarged sustain pedal. Despite being a bit scattered on January 8 (flubbing lyrics, needing a mid-set break), Horn was able to transcend her infirmity and show why her name is often preceded by the words "the legendary." Bassist Ed Howard and drummer Steve Williams stuck with her patiently, illuminating her trademark slow tempos on tunes like "Lush Life" and "For All We Know," swinging with her heartily on "A Foggy Day" and "End of a Beautiful Friendship." Horn can convey a world of emotion with an offhanded chuckle, hinting at lighthearted self-mockery on a love song or marveling at a serendipitous phrase during a piano solo. Although there were problems in execution, the intent behind her segue from "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" into "What a Wonderful World" was astounding. Au Bar can feel remarkably cramped (and they tack on 20 percent for service that's worth about 10), but seeing Horn in close quarters is actually the way to go.
~ David Adler
The second week of January was one of phenomenal piano trios. Within two-night's time were pianists Harold Mabern (Smith's) and Joe Sample (mid-residency at Blue Note), as well as Randy Weston (Jazz Standard) and Borah Bergman (Tonic) each performing in rare trio outings. However, Frank Kimbrough's (with bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson) - one of the most subtle and challenging while swinging and accessible working threesomes - stole the spotlight for their single-night at Sweet Rhythm (Jan. 12th). The three top-notch improvisers moved as one for two sets, from their off-beat yet rhythmic take on Herbie Nichols' "Wildflower" and the "Money Jungle"-like Kimbrough-penned Gil Evans tribute "Svengali", to the title track of their most recent recording, Lullabluebye (Palmetto). Their triangular interplay was telepathic throughout the second set, from each tune's thematic development to their explorations, especially within the nicely selected standard material. Jerome Kern's "Long Ago and Far Way" and Thelonious Monk's "Coming on the Hudson" ceaselessly morphed and grew to new melodic, harmonic and rhythmic heights. Never a monotonous moment, they embellished without hesitation, thrusting momentum forward with occasional collective pauses allowing for single notes or beats to breathe just long enough to add an ever-elastic tension upon release. Creativity: noticeably at the heart of this ever-musical, dynamic, and underrated trio.