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Bob DeVos and Don Friedman: Nyack, NY, June 29, 2012

David A. Orthmann By

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Bob DeVos and Don Friedman
Nyack Library Carnegie Room
Nyack, NY
June 29, 2012

The spate of live performances that expressly pay tribute to various figures from bygone eras of jazz raises a number of complex questions about the music and the business which surrounds it. Do concerts and club dates in honor of musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to Louis Prima represent a marketing ploy to attract listeners who are reluctant to venture out to hear performers with unfamiliar names? Are these events exercises in recreating the music's storied past? Or, are they a tacit admission that jazz is dead? Conversely, if jazz is indeed alive and in a constant state of transformation, where does this leave artists who have tied themselves to the name recognition of the greats? It is possible for these occasions to serve as a point of departure for players who deliver something more than familiar, neatly packaged versions of classic material?

In the case of two sets by guitarist Bob DeVos and pianist Don Friedman (joined by bassist Mike McGuirk), who performed songs associated with guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Wynton Kelly, all but the last of these questions were rendered moot. From beginning to end the duo made it clear that paying tribute wasn't synonymous with imitating the honorees' sound, grammar and syntax. Moreover, in contrast to the original Montgomery and Kelly collaborations, captured on record by Full House (Riverside, 1962) and Smokin' At The Half Note (Verve, 1965), the drummer-less trio sacrificed precise, tightly knit, unrelenting swing for an ensemble sound that was more flexible, adventurous, and open-ended. In short, despite DeVos' and Friedman's obvious respect for the material, the differences outweighed the similarities.

Taking advantage of the room's excellent acoustics and a superb Yamaha grand piano, Friedman displayed a deeply-rooted, encyclopedic knowledge of the songs, an eagerness to bend their designs to his own purposes, as well as a near telepathic rapport with DeVos. Throughout the head of the standard "Come Rain or Come Shine," he refused to conform to any fixed role. At various points he adhered to DeVos' traditional rendering of the melody, jumped out and led the guitarist, and offered a number of provocative comments. During DeVos' take on Montgomery's "Full House," Friedman rummaged through the melody, picking and choosing parts of interest while executing chords and single notes. Although the pianist was capable of comping in a conventionally supportive manner, he often challenged DeVos in a way that at times suggested counterpoint, and in other instances something asymmetrical and idiosyncratic. His chords and single notes leaped away from or ignored the beat, rang out in odd places, and occasionally evoked laughter or other unconventional sounds. Some of the evening's most satisfying moments occurred during group improvisations following the out heads, such as on Montgomery's "Four on Six," and "Full House," where Friedman and DeVos engaged in sprightly, intelligent conversations, wrapping around one another's phrases like gleeful co-conspirators.

The wisdom of not including drums in the ensemble was particularly evident during Friedman's solos. Playing to the beat of his inner drummer, even as he remained loosely attached to DeVos and McGuirk, he restlessly zoomed in and out of the pocket. While maintaining a semblance of continuity, Friedman evinced nearly constant changes in touch, dynamics and velocity. He always paid homage to conventional swing, yet took frequent detours. There was always an element of risk in the ways in which Friedman impatiently searched for new directions. He often truncated a serviceable idea, and neat transitions were virtually nonexistent. During "Come Rain or Come Shine" a lone, sharply voiced chord yielded to wobbly single notes that moved in and out of time. A long triplet run led to another one that was choppy and uneven. One low, stabbing chord morphed into a brief interlude in which his right hand chased the left. Despite all of the permutations, Friedman consistently hinted at and alluded to the tune's melody.

Words that DeVos once used to describe Montgomery applied to his own efforts as well: "The right notes in the right places—nothing extraneous" (Liner notes to his 2007 Savant release, Playing For Keeps). In addition to a guitar and amp, his setup included a padded seat that doubled as a guitar stand. Between sets the instrument was safely strapped to the rear of the unit. It was an apt metaphor for DeVos' style, one in which order, craftsmanship, and balance were always present. In contrast to Friedman's busy, crowded, and mercurial musicianship, DeVos impressed by making every note count, evincing a subtle blues sensibility, and making deeply rooted swing sound effortless. An introduction to "Come Rain or Come Shine" was distinguished by closely knit groupings of chords and single notes, which carefully doled out pieces of the melody. When Friedman and McGuirk entered, DeVos' rendering of the piece was more direct, and made room for the pianist's effusive comments. A solo on Montgomery's "D Natural Blues" was quintessential DeVos. His lines found a zone somewhere between measured and persistent. There was a sense of a payoff ahead and, true to form, DeVos didn't reach for a climax or a catharsis; instead, the sting of his tone and tightened phrasing made a sustained and deeply satisfying impact.

For any jazz musician, regardless of his or her status in the music's pantheon, the course of study never ends and no performance is ever complete or perfect. Even in long, fruitful careers of musicians like DeVos' and Friedman's, the music is a perpetual work in progress. What they brought to the stage for a couple of hours was a lot more than a sum total of their knowledge of Montgomery and Kelly. A combination of a genuine sense of craft, individual proclivities, as well as the commingling of differences and commonalities forged something essential. Moreover, DeVos and Friedman threw their whole selves into the music. This is the stuff of which genuine tributes are made.

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