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Chris Oatts Quintet at Chris’ Jazz Cafe

Victor L. Schermer By

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Chris Oatts Quintet
Chris's Jazz Cafe
Philadelphia, PA
June 23, 2017

Philadelphia keeps churning out great musicians, and one of those who is beginning to generate considerable interest is Chris Oatts. A graduate of Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance, he is the nephew of legendary saxophonist Dick Oatts, but make no mistake about it: Chris Oatts is a force to be reckoned with in his own right, forging his own style and approach that makes listeners take notice. In this set at Chris' Jazz Café, Oatts worked out on soprano and alto saxophones with his superb group of Jacob Kelberman on guitar, Tim Bray, piano; Justin Sekelewski, bass, and Matt Scarano, drums. They delivered music that was consistently listenable and built gradually to an intense peak of self-expression.

The proceedings began with three Oatts originals. "Namesake," "Gidon Up," and "Freyda," all of which are artistically creative tunes with arrangements and improvising that made them glow. The band was tightly coordinated, with Oatts' bright sound over the whole range of soprano and alto saxophones commanding attention. Guitarist Kelberman's improvisations were rich and thoughtful, and his sound firm but gentle, with a striking resemblance to electric guitar pioneer Les Paul. Bray's piano stylings were inspired by bebop player Kenny Drew and the legendary Bud Powell, comping with clusters in the left hand, and single lines in the right. Sekelewski's and Scarano's rhythmic backup was precise and set the pace for the "middle way" bebop/ hard bop lines of Oatts' carefully articulated phrases

A smart arrangement of Eddie Harris' "Cryin' Blues" captured the walkin' feeling and added a stretch across saxophone registers. A highlight of the evening was Oatts' terrific arrangement of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," with two motifs alternating in fascinating sequence: the suggestive first few bars of the jitterbug and a descending impressionist, sometimes harmonized, line that echoed Hoagy Carmichael's introduction to "Stardust."

The set concluded with Oatts' "Rod and Staff," from a suite called "Healing Wisdom," which began with a flourish like the introduction to "Acknowledgement" from John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," then took on the flavor of New Age serenity, and finally building in intensity capped by Scarano's drum solo that sounded like Gene Krupa on steroids. Be careful what you pray for.

Oatts told me that the group is going into the studio soon to record its debut album. These are among our finest up and coming musicians who are beginning to make their indelible mark. Oatts seems to be following the wise course of Coltrane and Miles Davis when they started out. They stayed within the parameters of their mentors and peers until each broke out into his own musical innovations. Oatts has enough artistry to be just another great saxophonist, but if gets smitten with a new idea, he could become a creative force to be reckoned with. There was something in his playing that said he has the resources to do this.

As a postscript, this reviewer appreciated the atmosphere of this set at Chris.' The musicians conducted themselves with humility, forgoing the demonstrative gestures and ego displays that you sometimes get, and the patrons listened respectfully but enthusiastically with less of the typical chatter and clinking glasses you often hear at a club. It made for a sense of civility and "healing wisdom" that is so often disrupted in our increasingly noisy and conflict-ridden world.

Set List: (Originals by Chris Oatts except where noted) Namesake; Gidon Up; Freyda; Cryin' Blues (Charles Mingus); Jitterbug Waltz (Fats Waller); Rod and Staff from the suite "Healing Wisdom."

Personnel: Christ Oatts: Leader; soprano and alto saxophones; Jacob Kelberman: guitar; Tim Bray: piano; Justin Sekelewski: bass; Matt Scarano: drums.

Photo Credit: Victor L. Schermer

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