Harrell was in peak form just over a year ago, as a quick listen to Live at the Village Vanguard (RCA/Bluebird) will attest. Hearing him struggle in vain this time out was wrenching. Still, his fire and ingenuity peeked through, if only for a few bars per solo — until the final tune, that is, when he switched to flugelhorn and caught the wind, playing fierce and flawless lines, tapping into a well of strength buried deep within. Perhaps it was the change of instrument that helped him to clear the slate. The final sound of the set, thank goodness, was Harrell and Greene in effortless unison, vigorously nailing a tough shout chorus to the wall.
Ted Nash — An unusual split week at the Vanguard for the versatile saxophonist: first, three nights at the helm of his swinging Still Evolved quintet, then three more with his unorthodox Odeon ensemble. Still Evolved marks Nash’s debut on Palmetto Records, long the creative home of his colleagues Ben Allison (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums), both also members of this quintet. Frank Kimbrough took to the Vanguard’s new Steinway like a fish to water, playing marvelously compact and insightful solos and comping behind Nash with a passionate resolve. Trumpeter Marcus Printup told riveting, climactic stories in open, muted, and plunger contexts; like the leader, he brought a big, voracious sound to the bandstand. Nash performed much of the music from the album, beginning Wednesday’s first set with a “Stella By Starlight” variant called “Ida’s Spoons” and ending with the brooding vamp structure of “Rubber Soul.” (No Beatles tie-in here, nor were there any Aerosmith references in Nash’s “Walk This Way,” heard during the second set — although Matt Wilson did make sport of the title just before the countoff.)
The quintet also spent quality time interpreting music from other bands’ books: Kimbrough’s free-diatonic theme “Quickening,” a staple of the pianist’s trio repertoire; Nash’s “La Espada de la Noche,” an expansive piece composed for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recent “Flamenco Jazz” program; “Sebago,” a poignant work composed specifically for Odeon; and “Rhyme,” one of Nash’s Double Quartet charts, heard on 1999’s Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque). Printup, in particular, did a miraculous job with the rubato tone poetry of this last one.
George Colligan — The tremendously gifted pianist appeared at the Gallery, premiering an inspired set of new works under the title “Post-9/11.” Little was offered in the way of explication, but that left more time for Colligan and his monster quartet — Gary Thomas on tenor and flute, Lonnie Plaxico on electric upright bass, Ralph Peterson on drums — to floor everyone in attendance. Colligan spent the entire set on a little, red, rich-sounding digital keyboard called the Nord Electro, which spoke with clarity and punch and gave Colligan an amplified advantage in his face-offs with the volcanic Peterson. Thomas, a near-genius in every respect but quite introverted in performance, was less commanding; the fact that he was under-miked didn’t help. Plaxico, in a role usually filled by Drew Gress, lent a booming but nuanced low end that was integral to the superheated proceedings.
Kindred Spirits — Debuting at the Gallery, this young, all-woman quartet featured Tia Fuller on alto, Rachel Eckroth on piano, Miriam Sullivan on bass, and the hell-raising Kim Thompson on drums. Each band member contributed a tune, leading off with Eckroth’s “What Is Art?”, a hard-swinging number with a quintessentially New York vibe. Next was Sullivan’s mellower, straight-eighth-based “Summer and Winter,” followed by two family-themed pieces: first Thompson’s “Mom,” with clever and well-paced modulations between six and five; then a hard-edged, swing-to-funk vehicle by Fuller called “Little Big Sis.” Still some kinks to be worked out, but burning nonetheless. Watch for them.