Joel Harrison is a skilled guitarist and bandleader, but also an affecting singer and songwriter. His appearance at the 55 Bar yielded hard-nosed quintet improvisation but also “a troika of road songs,” beginning with Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” and continuing with two strong vocal originals, “Passing Train” and “Travel On.” Harrison has performed the Haggard tune and others like it with his Free Country group. But this outing with Christian Howes on violin, Adam Klipple on keyboards, Stephan Crump on double bass and Todd Isler on drums – brought groove, songcraft and blowing into a new and novel conversation. The set began with Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” taken at a faster clip than Cassandra Wilson’s version from Belly of the Sun. Harrison, who can be a tentative soloist, left ample space for Howes’ searing lines and Klipple’s bold harmonic escalations. The vaguely tango-ish “Café Lex,” marked by liquid textures and sound effects, was another highlight.
~ David Adler
Though the “super group” of reedman Michael Moore (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), trumpeter Herb Robertson, pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Gerry Hemingway was billed as a leaderless ensemble, in actuality it was a focused group guided by the compositions of Moore. During the ex-pat’s rare visit for a packed Monday night Tonic set (March 15th), Moore’s 16-year old Home Game (Ramboy) recording of his eleven originals was performed in its entirety. A highlight, “Redman’s” (a dedication to Dewey Redman), featured a reggae-like pulse by Hemingway, who hesitated behind the beat of the tune, exquisitely building tension between Moore’s alto and Robertson, whose trumpet is appropriately - especially here with the Ornette connection - reminiscent of Don Cherry. One of the better non New Orleans-style plunger players, a style to which most others inevitably resort, he flaunted his unique sound particularly on the encore (and only non-Home Game affiliated piece), “Manuel’s Party”. Accompanying the fivesome’s tendency to split up into various trios, from clarinet-bass-drums to alto-trumpet-drums and an occasional hornless sampling of piano trio, Hemingway frequently played brushes to avoid overplaying his colleagues. The tunes, based around simple themes and presented as very digestible 5-minute miniatures, revealed a succinct-ness with not a note wasted on drawn-out solos or extraneous dialogue.
Since the 11th anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie’s passing in January, former Diz pianist and musical director Mike Longo has been presenting jazz concerts every Tuesday at the newly christened John Birks Gillespie Auditorium at the Baha’i Center. Though still developing an audience - and reputation - the music has been without question first rate (as such was the case on March 23rd). Hal McKusick, one of jazz’ warhorse legends at near 80-years old, has been busy teaching in the far eastern stretches of Long Island but made the special trip to New York to perform, a first in over 20 years! His reed-heavy nonet incorporated a unique instrumentation of tenor (McKusick), two altos (Jerry Dodgion and Jay Brandford), baritone (Scott Robinson), trombone (Mark Patterson), trumpet (Vitoly Golovnev), and piano (Longo), bass (Martin Wind) and drums (Tim Horner).