The Evan Moore Quartet: Little Rock, March 5, 2011
Little Rock, Arkansas
March 5, 2011
Few will mistake Little Rock, Arkansas for a jazz mecca. The city was not the jazz hotbed that Kansas City and Memphis were. but that does not mean that there is no jazz in the city. In the 1920s and '30s, during the heyday of Jim Crow in the 20th Century, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Earl Hines, Ray Charles and B.B. King appeared regularly at the Dreamland Ball Room, atop Taborian Hall, as part of their respective Southern "Chittlin Circuit" tours.
But pickings have been slim in the intervening years. Jazz has chronically suffered at the hands of rock and roll, and its popularity fell off. Only the Afterthoughtlocated at 2721 Kavanaugh. in the historic Hillchrest District of the capital cityhas retained a steady offering of jazz and other musics. There have been brief but transient sightings of other jazz venues, but they have largely come and gone.
But recently, bars and grills and upscale eating establishments have begun providing jazz as part of their entertainment choices. Add to this a durable and fearless minority of players who manage to scratch out appearances wherever possible, and the beginnings of a jazz community is had. Outside of name bands performing in college tours regionally, it is these local musicians who are responsible for the majority of live jazz performances. The problem is getting traction for the genre, when competing with better-promoted pop music.
Enter the Evan Moore Quartet. These are local musicians who play music as an avocation, coming together to share their like language of music. The band is composed of saxophonist Tom ("Evan") Moore, pianist Michael Murphy, bassist Michael Williams and drummer Tom Webb. All are living in the greater Little Rock metropolitan area. All of the band members are of "a certain age" (meaning classic Baby Boomers), save for bassist Williams, who is the youth of the band.
Originally invited by the band to witness rehearsal in anticipation of their weekend show, it was at those rehearsals that a parallel was drawn between former House Speaker, Tip O'Neill's quip that all politics is local, and music being the same. The treat at rehearsal was to witness men at work on the business of creation. Jazz, particularly in the small confines of an acoustic quartet, is wholly organic in every sense of that misused word:multi-sensual. where the scratching of the brushes on an engaged snare is as tactile as auditory, and the buzz of the bass, climbing out of a solo back to the real time, is as exciting as the recognition of an old friend.
Live witness of performance versus passive listening to recorded music makes it possible to visually see how the pieces to the jazz performance puzzle are put together...or not. There is much more wiggle room in live performance, where each instrument, in its unique role, slides against the other, providing a creative elasticity perfectly conducive to extemporization. It is a naturally fecund environment for the invention and improvisation that define jazz. In rehearsal mode, the act of arrangement can be realized, as well as hearing what works and what doesn't, along the way to performance before an audience.
This quartet is made up of seasoned musicians, possessing the empathy and broad experience necessary to come together and make musica completely cooperative endeavor. This relationship is necessary considering the often noisy venues where the band performs. Jerry B's on Saturday night, March 5, 2011, was no exception. The bar and restaurant were bustling and loud. The venue was gratefully non-smoking and the clientele and wait-staff were an eclectic mix of youthful exuberance, young-adult hipness and middle age grace. The band slated to come on at 9:00 PM wisely waited about 40 minutes, before kicking things off.
And kick things off they did. Following alto saxophonist Art Pepper's sage advice To ..."never start a show with a ballad," the band started things off with a blues, always a good choice. The blues provides both the band audience with a familiar starting point. At medium tempo, the band integrated immediately. and went about its collective chore of making music. Moore played with a plush and conservative tone that broadly revealed more Lester Young than John Coltrane, and specifically, more Stan Getz than Wayne Shorter. His solos were equally conservative, exploring the middle register fully before handing the solo space off.
Murphy immediately betrayed broad and well-read influences, all refined into an intelligent and informed style uniquely his. His soloing and comping were lyrical and well-placed. Murphy had just enough funk in his performance to bring things off, but is actually a better ballads player as he would reveal throughout the show. Williams and Webb proved a tight nuclear rhythm section in all ways.
The instrumental band book included expected standardsKenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema"and some surprised, in Miles Davis' "Milestones" and Benny Golson's "Killer Joe.." Each song featured solos by Moore, Murphy and Williams. Webb's light shined every time he picked up the mallets for a bossa nova or island-tinged tune. From a learning perspective, this book would give any novice a grand introduction to the music that makes jazz, jazz.
The quartet featured a new singer in one Brittany Campbell, a youthful brunette brimming with talent and enthusiasm. Campbell is a student at a local university by day and a multifaceted performer by night, her résumé including stints with the Arkansas Twisters Arena Football Team and the Double AA minor-league baseball team Arkansas Travelers' cheer staffs. Campbell's jazz singing is well-versed by her more complete pop singing abilities. Her opening piece was a sturdy cover of the Young/Heyman standard, "When I Fall in Love," which she followed with "What a Wonderful World." Campbell's approach was one of youthful excitement, expressed through a solid set of pipes. Her high alto voice is well-balanced and rounded about the edges when necessary, and rough and ready when not.
Band and singer achieve critical mass on the ballad pairing of the Gershwin Brothers' "Summertime" (from 1935's Porgy and Bess) and Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," from Babes in Arms (1937). Everything clicked here, with Campbell's voice confident and in control, and Moore's tenor perfectly at home with the music. Williams and Webb combined efforts to move the pieces at a proper pace, making these performances the highlights of an excellent evening.