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Ernie Krivda and Theron Brown at Free Concerts in Cleveland

Ernie Krivda and Theron Brown at Free Concerts in Cleveland

Courtesy John Chacona

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As a blistering July melted into a sweltering August, free-jazz—the kind you don't have to pay to hear—was plentiful and rewarding in Cleveland and its environs.
Ernie Krivda and friends
Ernie's front porch
Lakewood, Ohio
July 31, 2022

Cleveland, Ohio is the birthplace of Albert Ayler and the late Abdul Wadud. It's where the Black Unity Trio recorded what was probably the first free jazz record to be independently released. The city's free jazz bona fides are unquestioned, even if that style of music isn't widely played there anymore.

But as a blistering July melted into a sweltering August, free-jazz—the kind you don't have to pay to hear—was plentiful and rewarding in Cleveland and its environs.

Ernie Krivda is one of those saxophonists who, like Fred Hess in Denver or Odean Pope in Philadelphia, could have had a big international career but chose to stay and play at home. On the last day of July Krivda did exactly that, convening a quartet on his front porch in the leafy-inner-ring suburb of Lakewood for an hour of genial blowing.

About 30 people arrayed themselves on Krivda's lawn, sitting in camp chairs or spreading a blanket. Seeking relief from the sun, this writer and his wife found a corner of shade on a neighbor's driveway (the neighbors were fine with it; they were sitting in front of us).

Now in his late-70s, the saxophonist is a contemporary of players such as David Sanborn and Ari Brown (a Chicago hometown hero), but his playing hearkens back to an earlier era. His tone on tenor is large, warm and rough-grained, like the stadium blankets that were standard issue for winter football games at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium.

He kicked off with "Irv's at Midnight," dedicated to one of the many clubs that once lined Euclid Avenue, another vanished local landmark. It seemed to be a contrafact on "Softly As A Morning Sunrise," changes Krivda has navigated hundreds of times, and though his playing was relaxed, his command was supreme. "Stella By Starlight," even more familiar, was equally assured, a bit of midnight pillow talk on a sizzling afternoon while "Be My Love" bounced the band into full tropical sunlight on a Latin beat.

Next came a rarity, which Krivda introduced as "a song Frank Sinatra recorded." It turned out to be "[How Little It Matters] How Little We Know," a deep cut by Philip Springer and Carolyn Leigh recorded by the Chairman at the dawn of his Capitol Records career and issued only as a 78-rpm single. It's hard to bring off material like this without being grounded in the tradition from which it emerged, so it was no surprise that Krivda's performance swung with breezy authority.

At every turn, the rhythm section of guitarist Brent Hamker, Tim Lekan on bass and drummer Ricky Exton, supported the saxophonist ably while taking care to keep the star squarely in the spotlight. "Diddlin,'" a blues on the Bo Diddley beat, was announced as the last tune, and Krivda ended it at 6 p.m., almost exactly one hour after the concert began. The dinner bell was ringing in Lakewood.

Theron Brown Trio
Cleveland Public Library
Cleveland, Ohio
August 6, 2022

Six days later, the third-floor Renaissance-style lobby of the 1925 Cleveland Public Library provided a setting that was both cooler and more formal for pianist Theron Brown and his longstanding trio of bassist Jordan McBride and drummer Zaire Darden.

Brown, who was just assumed a professorship at the University of Akron, is a born educator and a beguiling host. On piano, he's squarely in the post-bop mainstream, but brings a sparkling lightness of touch and uncommon clarity to his dancing lines. His pianism looks backward and forward simultaneously. That was appropriate since the Library's Baldwin baby grand piano was placed under a mural promoting an upcoming exhibition devoted to Langston Hughes that had the great poet's giant visage looking over the pianist's shoulder.

Ellis Marsalis' "Swinging At The Haven," first up, was proof of concept, bouncing effortlessly along in the reverberant, marble-clad space.

Brown played Herbie Hancock in the 2016 Don Cheadle biopic, Miles Ahead, and the resemblance to the master is more than physical. His reading of "Cantaloupe Island" touched all the right Herbian bases: rippling right-hand lines punctuated by lush chord voicings, a funky bottom and blues colorations.

"I'll Take Romance" is a great old tune that nobody plays anymore and that's a shame. Brown clearly loves it and gave it the old-school treatment with a florid, rubato unaccompanied intro before shifting to a mid-waltz tempo that culminated in an extended tag on two-chord vamp. That seemed to awaken the inner Elvin Jones in Darden, who had heretofore modulated his playing in the very ringy space.

The intensity level wouldn't last, though, as Brown called his own "Brown's Blues," a tiptoe blues in the Count Basie style, thick with chord substitutions over brushes that also featured a confident solo from McBride.

Brown gave his Philadelphian rhythm section a break for an unaccompanied reading of "You Go To My Head" that called on the Duke Ellington-to-Thelonious Monk lineage for its harmonies before easing back into a sighing, rubato final 16 bars.

Cedar Walton's "Bolivia" is one of the great indestructible post-bop lines and here Brown, McBride and Darden cast it over a highly syncopated straight-eight beat with a baiao flavor at times. Darden finally got his drum solo, again, over a vamp, and their work completed, the trio packed up for an evening gig in Akron, leaving 30 well-entertained and grateful listeners.

In one of the question-and-answer sessions that followed most numbers. Brown, a charming and generous moderator, offered a bit of advocacy that summed up the two weekends of free music: "The world would be really bland without the arts."

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