Barbara Dennerlein Quartet
June 6, 2009
The sold-out space in Ronnie Scott's Club was illuminated by candle light when Barbara Dennerlein and her band took the stage. The Ronnie Scott All-Stars had already finished the opening set with some familiar tunes featuring piano and flugelhorn as the lead voices, backed by bass and drums. This short program established an appropriate contrast to what was to come.
The traditional, wooden Hammond B3 dominated stage, immediately commanding the spectator's attention. Marcel Gustke, Dennerlein's steady drummer from Germany, slipped behind the drum kit in the back; Dave Lewis found standing room next to the Hammond with enough room to accommodate himself and his tenor sax; and Mark Ridout picked up his hollow-body guitar while sitting down on an upholstered chair with a black backrest and a leopard-patterned seat.
They started with "Easy Going," a 4/4 bar rhythmically accentuated piece with a groove somewhere between swing and march and featuring Dennerlein's bass pedal work with both feet on an impressive solo. "It's amazing how good she plays," a club employee whispered. Lucky guy, he already had heard her the evening before.
The second title "Fly Away" took the audience on a complete journey through Barbara's Hammond jazz world. The up-tempo Latin groove of the piece regularly seduces not only the listener but the performer to dive deep into her solo improvisation, her fingertips initially coaxing forth feathery notes, before going to urgent chordal textures and increasingly loud dynamics until the Hammond virtually moans and screams, its sermon fervently delivered with syncopated block chords. At this moment a listener is apt to wonder how this daring, adventurous musical traveler will ever find her way back home.
"Change Of Pace," the title track of the organist's CD production featuring Hammond with symphony orchestra, is less about definitive closure than experimentation: stopping, thinking things over, trying a different approach, taking a different point of view. This approach is represented by changes of meter and, as if that wouldn't be enough, clusters of triplets. But in the middle the song yields to a flowing 4/4 bar and a swinging section offering Dave Lewis an ample solo part. Later in the tune, drummer Marcel Gustke started solo fireworks over the fanfare-like repeated intro theme (which is definitely not 4/4more likely 13/8 or a similar exotic meter).
During "Last Call," from Dennerlein's intimate solo CD, In A Silent Mood (Bebab, 2004), it was Mark Ridout's turn on this contemplative piece to add a soulful solo. A marked contrast followed: "Black And White," named after the colors of the keys but expressive of the unmistakable contrast in mood from the previous number. Again, this fast tune features Barbara as soloist on keys and pedals in an incredible tempo. Enthusiastic applause erupted after Barbara had indicated the band members to rejoin her, but of course she went on in full speed.
The first concert ended with "Going Home" and the recently composed "Bebabaloo" which, though it hasn't come out on CD as yet, had the crowd movin' and groovin' in their seats. The featured performer then surprised the audience with her encore, "Organ Boogie." Only someone who has ever tried to play a boogie bass line on the piano might have a clue about the difficulty and impact of Dennerlein's singular performance on the bass pedals.
The second set was again opened by the Ronnie Scott All Stars. It was almost half past midnight when Dennerlein began her last set with "Jimmy's Walk," her dedication to seminal organ great Jimmy Smith. For the first four bars she played her left hand bass in his style, then continued with the left foot on the pedals. Added licks and riffs on the keyboards, she clearly had no need of a bassist, especially given the independence of her left foot. The band joined in, and Barbara let every musician introduce himself to the audience with a short solo before she took her right foot from the swell pedal for another bass solo with both feet. People craned their necks to see what was going on with her feet. To make it shortDennerlein took the audience by storm.
Again the Munich-based organist explained the stories and ideas behind the performed songs that had been written by her without exception. "Samba And The Drum Stick," as we learned, is dedicated to Barbara's first dog Samba, a female German Dachshund with the unusual gait resembling a samba dancer's and a proclivity for filching drum sticks from the drummer's stick bag.
"I-797" is a form number and a reminder of the organist's struggle with State Department bureaucracy while preparing a U.S. tour some years ago. After this piece, with changes between unsettling and elated moods, it was time to relax with a slow blues. "Farewell To Old Friends" is dedicated to two departed friends who supported young jazz musicians in Germany when Dennerlein's star was about to rise. The number was embellished with a memorable guitar solo by Mark Ridout.
"Cleo" is Barbara's second dog, for which the organist composed an appropriately frisky tune. Dave Lewis contributed a rollicking solo on tenor and entered into the coltish bar changes with impressive certitude. After extended applause, Barbara apologized for not having a third dog. "Do you have a cat?" someone in the audience offered helpfully. "The next song is dedicated to a cat," Barbara replied glibly; "I dedicated it to myself and it's entitled 'That's Me'!".
This fast tune provided solo sections for all quartet members and thus indicated the impending end of the festive evening. The musicians electrified the audience once again with fast-changing melodic solo parts linked by Marcel Gustke's interjected drum solos. The audience expressed its appreciation with long-running, hearty applause until Barbara announced the "assumed" final number, a funky number called "Funkish." But of course the audience did not let the band go without another encore.
"This Old Fairy-Tale," a swinging composition, brought the long Barbara Dennerlein night at Ronnie Scott's in Soho, London to a close. But one could clearly hear the last tune being hummed and whistled on Frith Street when the audience strolled away at about 3 A.M.