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Live From Philadelphia

Caught in Philly: John Ellis, Dave Holland, Tomasz Stanko, McCoy Tyner

By Published: December 3, 2006
John Ellis at Chris' Jazz Café

Saxophonist John Ellis and his band came to Philadelphia's Chris' Jazz Café (October 6) in support of their CD By A Thread. Best known as a member of the Charlie Hunter Band, Ellis' place as a leader is now firmly established.

During the course of the evening, he played soprano and tenor saxophone, as well as the melodica, opening the set on soprano with "Dream and Mosh." With his eyes looking directly at the floor, the straight horn held vertically, he laid down lines that swirled inside and outside before creating a logical entry point for guitarist Mike Moreno.

Moreno engaged in a series of fiery choruses with Ellis before taking off on an outstanding solo of his own, his playing throughout the night displaying stunning technique and inventiveness. Moreno is a guitarist who warrants keeping an eye on in the future, as is bassist Alan Hampton who, through the evening, provided a layered bottom along with a multitude of varied bass lines.

A highlight of the second set was "Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma, on which Moreno opened with yet another dazzling solo. Ellis, now playing tenor, displayed keen melodic instincts on some mid-tempo, well-formed exchanges with Hampton and drummer Derek Phillips.

Dave Holland Quintet at The Painted Bride

Legendary bassist Dave Holland and his quintet displayed their brilliance during their first set of five tunes at the Painted Bride (October 7). With a stage presence that resides somewhere between a proud parent and a Cheshire cat, Holland presides over his outstanding ensemble like a master conductor.

Holland took only one solo during the course of the evening, and that came on the fourth tune. Yet throughout the entire evening, the bassist's guiding presence was felt.

On this night, four of the tunes were from the band's recent release, Critical Mass. On "Easy Did It," the newest member of the quintet, drummer Nate Smith, provided a straight-ahead hard-driving style from his kit, which he maintained throughout the course of the set. In fact, he was pushing so hard one could see his light blue shirt change to dark blue from perspiration as the night progressed.

On the same tune, trombonist Robin Eubanks delivered one of the most blistering attacks on the bone this side of J.J. Johnson. He was featured again on his own composition, "Full Circle, which he dedicated to his parents, who were in the audience.

Chris Potter's composition "Vissitudes, which closed out the night, was the high point of the set. Potter delivered a tour de force solo on tenor, starting with artfully spaced lines, then slowly accelerating his phrasings into a rhythmic frenzy. This final tune also gave vibraphonist Steve Nelson room to step to the forefront for a sterling single mallet solo.

Tomasz Stanko Quartet at Chris' Jazz Café

Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his quartet brought their distinctive sound to Chris' Jazz Café (October 20). Along with his outstanding young rhythm section of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz, Stanko stayed mainly with variations from their current release Lontano.

The trumpeter has moved from free jazz to more accessible sounds, but not quite mainstream. His raspy, gauzy tone commands the audience's full attention while he splashes notes and creates rich but delicate textures.

Pianist Wasilewski bounces and leans so far back you're certain he'll fall off the bench at any moment. Yet he never takes a header (or rear ender). Instead, his intensity was the propulsive engine that steered the course of the music. His playing creates and sustains a dynamic tension, which Stanko's minimalist counterpoint releases.

The first set allowed them to exhibit their signature use of space, with flowing and shifting meters. In the process they demonstrated the multitude of possibilities in devising variations on a single tune.

McCoy Tyner Septet at the Kimmel Center

The McCoy Tyner Septet visited the Kimmel Center (November 17), touring as "The Story of Impulse Records. Opening the evening with Curtis Fuller's "A La Mode," the band started off slightly out of sync, and Tyner's obvious displeasure could be seen as he repeatedly shook his head and stomped his left foot.

Trombonist Steve Turre started a solo, stopped, lowered his horn, started a solo that lasted for a few brief notes and then stopped again. With just the rhythm section of Tyner along with Eric Kamau Gravett on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass for "Will You Still Be Mine, everything seemed back on track. The only thing Tyner shook at this point was the piano with his trademark left-handed runs.

The horn section returned for "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit, featuring Eric Alexander on tenor and Donald Harrison on alto trading soaring solos. The exchange hinted at the possibilities available with this lineup, making me wish there were more of these moments throughout the performance.

It would have been intriguing to hear Harrison trading solos with his 22-year-old nephew, trumpet player Christian Scott, but that was not to be the case. Each of the horn players had only two solos, except Scott, who had three.

The night closed with a blistering rendition of Coltrane's "Impressions. The band was now hitting on all cylinders, and Philadelphia native Gravett provided the hometown audience with a stunning solo from behind the kit.

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