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Ben Haugland Quintet at The Falcon

David A. Orthmann By

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Ben Haugland Quintet
The Falcon
Marlboro, NY
August 13, 2015

In any given jazz performance, nothing exists in isolation, everything is subject to multiple influences, and each act or gesture has a genuine purpose. The weight of the music's tradition, the rapport and mutual respect of the players, the aura of a venue on a particular night, as well as the relationship between the performers and audience, are all part of every note executed in the here and now. An ongoing dialogue between the past and the present unfolds, with glimpses of the music's future often entering into the mix as well. On an exceptional night, there's a lot more at stake than casual entertainment, as the musicians offer essential parts of themselves while they untangle and build on the Gordian knot of the sounds of generations past.

An hour plus set by pianist Ben Haugland's Quintet blended musical and extra-musical factors in a fine fashion. The evening's performance, which reunited the personnel from Haugland's recent release, A Million Dreams, on the Dazzle Recordings label, felt like a gathering of friends and family. Prior to the first selection, Haugland and his crew established a positive, fraternal tone by enthusiastically greeting and conversing with members of the JVC Sextet, the opening act. The pianist was overheard admiring the chord voicings of his counterpart in JVC and, once on stage, he offered sincere thanks for the Sextet's "wonderful set." And throughout the performance, a sense of the continuity and the bond between jazz generations was evoked by Haugland's mention of performers, living and dead, who developed their own styles without severing ties to the music's history.

Haugland's decision to play the eight tracks from A Million Dreams in the order on the recording, was the basis of a tight, highly focused set. The Quintet's smart renderings of four Haugland originals, three Great American Songbook favorites, and Charlie Parkers "Big Foot" wasn't subjected to and dulled by the typical string of overlong improvisations. A genuine balance between the heads and solos of short-to-moderate length made for engrossing and enjoyable listening. The rhythm section, comprised of the leader, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Chris Smith, listened carefully and responded in the moment, all the while swinging briskly and driving the music forward, minus the excessive weight and clamor that is common to groups working too hard to make an impact.

Haugland offered shrewd, canny support behind the solos of tenor saxophonist Stephen Jones and trumpeter Scott Wendholt, and interjected the occasional witty comment without disrupting their momentum. Smith's deployment of accents and fills had a similar effect on the music. The drummer's ability to goose a soloist by filling a gap with a multi stroke fill to the snare—in and out, like a flash —was a gambit used just enough to surprise each time it occurred. In one instance his accents took the initiative when Jones heard them and briefly incorporated an approximation of the rhythm into his solo.

Each of the group's primary soloists displayed a flair for establishing an identity without overshadowing the rest of the band or capsizing the music as a whole. Haugland, Jones, and Wendholt weren't particularly concerned with reaching emotionally charged peaks or whipping the audience into a frenzy; rather, they sustained interest from start to finish in ways that were more refined. During "Big Foot," Haugland comfortably worked his way through the brisk tempo. The pianist's left hand poked out a few notes that were answered by his right; a brief phrase was clearly stated and then expanded. Jones evinced an earnest, straightforward approach that wasn't fussy or verbose; and he never began a solo in high gear. His "Dreamscape" turn started with a handful of curt notes, waxed somewhat ethereal for a time, before he broadened his medium weight tone and became harder and more direct. Not unlike his colleagues, Wendholt never telegraphed his thoughts in obvious ways. The snap, crackle and pop of his lines during "Big Foot" gave way to a brief horse race fanfare, a high note flourish at the onset of a chorus, and a snippet of Charlie Parker's "Au Privave."

Until the gig was announced it was unimaginable that Haugland and Jones would make the trip from Texas (they're both on the faculty of Texas Tech University) to the East Coast for a live date with Wendholt, Anderson, and Smith. Better still was the opportunity to catch them at The Falcon, a relaxed, nicely run venue, seventy-five miles from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Hearing this outstanding group of musicians playing together in peak form was a memorable experience.

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