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Alan Broadbent Trio at the Deer Head Inn

Victor L. Schermer By

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Alan Broadbent Trio
Deer Head Inn
Delaware Water Gap, PA
August 11, 2018

Believe you me, it wasn't by choice that I hadn't been to the Dear Head Inn in a few years to take in some great jazz in its secluded setting on a wooded hill near the river at the edge of town in the Pocono Mountains. Despite its rural location, it has a musical history to rival New York's best venues. Circumstances hindered my getting there for a long time, but I seized a midsummer opportunity to go from Philadelphia to hear pianist Alan Broadbent in a Saturday evening slot accompanied by the ubiquitous and deeply artful Harvie S on bass and the masterful Billy Mintz on drums.

The Deer Head's tradition of jazz piano is unrivalled, beginning with the days when Keith Jarrett hung out and performed there, and the house pianist, the late John Coates, Jr. inspired Jarrett and everyone who heard him. Just ask Jarrett or Poconos resident David Liebman if you want a considered opinion about Coates. I was eager to hear what Broadbent and his cohorts could provide in that special setting.

I first heard New Zealand born Broadbent on the iconic recording of singer Irene Kral's 1977 sets at the Half Moon Bay club on the Monterey Peninsula (Irene Kral Live, Just Jazz, 2000) , in which Kral's delivery of "Here's That Rainy Day" is one of the most stunning renditions of a ballad ever captured for posterity. I was taken by the sensitivity and depth of Broadbent's piano accompaniment on that album, and his name often ran through my head as someone whose playing I wished I heard more. Somehow, I lost track of him, only to recently find that over time, he raced right past me to become one of the pantheon of great jazz pianists, with a multitude of recordings as a leader, a couple of Grammy's, and on top of that, composing, arranging, and conducting with stellar artists like Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, the NDR Big Band, Charlie Haden, Shirley Horn, and so many other instantly recognizable names. Who knew? Like a blind man learning that he could have his vision restored, I was eager to see and hear someone whose pianistic "voice" had become strangely familiar through one singular experience.

Watching Broadbent hanging out before the show, and later speaking with him briefly, I thought I understood why he escaped me for so long. His demeanor, in a comfortable suit, gentle speech, and diffident facial expression, was that of a modest but distinguished gentleman, not at all a hipster jazz musician. Seeing him reminded me of a story told by the poet W.H. Auden. At a point in his career when he was the talk of the New York literary scene, he was going somewhere in the subway, and overheard a man saying, "Wow! Is that the great poet, W.H. Auden?" Auden leaned over to him and said quietly, "Yes, dear, it is!" Broadbent carries himself and plays like someone who has set aside his ego for the sole purpose of making music. As he said among his other highly intelligent remarks to the audience, "The purpose of my performing is to communicate something that touches others emotionally, and sometimes it might become a work of art." He and his cohorts delivered on both in this show.

The two sets consisted of an assortment of standards, ballads punctuated by bebop and other up tempo tunes, and only at the end did Broadbent modestly include two of his originals. His playing was straight ahead, but he gave each song something different from the norm in the way of interpretation. He was endlessly inventive, and he incorporated diverse styles within a carefully guided structure. Harvey S's bass and Mintz's drums coordinated well with the pianist, but their solos were uniquely their own and at times magical in their effects.

After an enchanting beginning with a version of "How Deep is the Ocean" which had a feeling of a film score, the group went into high gear with "Crazeology," a bebop tune which allowed for some rapid fire improvising. Instead of the usual "fours," Broadbent traded "eights" with Mintz, giving more room for improvising, a great idea that could be employed more frequently by other groups. Broadbent introduced the ballad "What is There to Say" with the interesting fact that the name of its composer, Vernon Duke, was the pseudonym of Vladimir Dukelsky, who was a fellow student with Igor Stravinsky at the Moscow Conservatory. He then showed that Louis Armstrong's first wife Lil Hardin's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" could be taken out of the 1920s archives and given a contemporary flavor. A good example of bait and switch on a tune was "My Funny Valentine," which was taken up tempo with an emphasis on the chord structure rather than the melody and lyrics as typically done. Harvie S redeemed the lyrics by throwing his heart into a deeply felt bass solo, followed again by Mintz trading eights with Broadbent. The bassist came through once more in "Stairway to the Stars" with another heartfelt solo, putting his whole body and facial expression to work and gripping the bass with passion. By contrast, when accompanying his cohorts, drummer Mintz worked wonders by playing so softly that you didn't so much hear as feel him comping. This approach brought out the power of Broadbent's piano work, giving lots of room for expression.

The set closed with two bop standards, Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes" and Gigi Gryce's "Minority," the latter done in a way that made for a worthy comparison with my favorite version by Kenny Barron.

After a short break, the second set proceeded with a more elaborate but nonetheless expressive version of "Poinciana" than Ahmad Jamal's iconic renditions. Then Mintz delivered a superb drum solo on Bud Powell's "Visa," emphasizing the spaces between percussive hits on the snare drums and tom toms, coming close to inventing a new way of using the drums to achieve a sense of subjective expression of "time present and time past... both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past" (T.S. Eliot).

Broadbent did romantic versions of "You Don't Know What Love Is" and the less frequently performed "I Never Knew." He closed the evening with two originals. The first was "The Long Goodbye," inspired by the film with that title, but not to be confused with the movie's theme song composed by Johnny Mercer and John Williams. The set concluded with Broadbent's "Clifford Notes," which invoked the feeling and motifs of Clifford Brown's legacy.

Broadbent stayed around after his cohorts packed up and left, and then did something I have rarely experienced, but must have happened often before small club jazz became highly monetized. He sat down at the piano and freely improvised. It was just another way for a true gentleman of jazz to make an affectionate gesture to the piano played by so many greats and to the audience which was already awestruck by the depth and resilience of his interpretations throughout the evening.

Personnel: Alan Broadbent: piano and leader; Harvie S: bass; Billy Mintz: drums.

Set Lists: I. How Deep is the Ocean; Crazeology; What is There to Say?; Struttin' with Some Barbeque; My Funny Valentine; Stairway to the Stars; My Little Suede Shoes; Minority. II. Poinciana; Visa (Bud Powell); You Don't Know What Love Is; I Never Knew; The Long Goodbye (Broadbent); Clifford Notes (Broadbent).

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