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February 2006

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Another quartet that had its premier last month was that of bassist Ben Allison at 55Bar (Jan. 16th). For the ensemble, he brought together the not-often used front line of guitar (Steve Cardenas) and trumpet (the under-noticed Ron Horton), drummer Mike Sarin joining him in the 'rhythm section'. Though the format might have been uncommon, it fit Allison's compositional ideas perfectly, the textures and tones of the guitar and trumpet able to vary widely and adapt themselves readily to the wide stylistic range inherent in Allison's writing. The material was some older tunes mixed with newer pieces, most likely to appear on the this quartet's upcoming album for Palmetto. "Tricky Dick was redolent of reggae while "Weazy was a cheerfully hokey modern rag. "Emergency , perhaps inspired by the album by Tony Williams' Lifetime, was a bruising '70s arena rock workout with clunking rhythms. This was followed up by the sole cover of the evening - the theme to Midnight Cowboy by John Barry, a loping Western ballad that included a lovely trumpet/guitar duet interlude. "Hey Man was inspired not only by Charlie Haden's West Coast greeting but also his signature motif of lilting melody over minimal quiet groove. The final selection was a new arrangement of "Blabbermouth (from Allison's 1998 album with his Medicine Wheel Band with Horton), which found the band moving from the cinematic intro to a funk segment into spacy dissonance.

~ Andrey Henkin

The E.J. Strickland Project arrived at BAM Café (Jan. 7th) for an excellent set that balanced energy with control, intelligence with soul. Along with E.J. on drums, the Project featured his twin brother Marcus (tenor and soprano saxophones), Myron Walden (alto sax), Lage Lund (guitar) and Ugonna Okegwo (bass), while joining them on vocals was the young singer Charenee Wade. E.J.'s contemporary-flavored "Praise Song for Marcus inspired a soulful soprano solo from Marcus over the piece's ever-upward chord progression. On the group's cover of the Ellington-Strayhorn tune "Daydream , Wade introduced the packed audience to her powerful and beautiful voice, which was strong when plunging deep and smooth when reaching high. E.J. prefaced his composition "Lydian Fantasies by proposing that one's "compositional flaws - the tendency to depend on something too much - was a sign that the flaw was actually integral to one's voice. The piece's angular and quirky melody was fitting given its title, with E.J. at his most animated as he propelled Marcus' searching tenor solo. The night's second cover was Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky , where E.J. showed great sensitivity on the drums, picking up on the emotional crescendo of Walden's alto solo, spurring him on while anticipating (but not announcing) the solo's denouement, which gave way to a flirtatious exchange between Wade's vocals and Walden's alto.

Later in the month, in front of a cramped audience at 55Bar, guitarist Lage Lund moved from background to foreground to front his own quartet, featuring Geoffrey Keezer on Fender Rhodes, Matt Clohesy on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums (Jan. 17th). Contrary to the ponderousness (albeit tongue-in-cheek) announced by a tune titled "Incredibly Profound Song , each member of the quartet seemed to be having fun with Lund's composition and its constantly changing chords and heavily accented off-beats. Lund's good dose of reverb and Keezer's quavering keyboard tones created a spacey feel at times, but the group always returned at a moment's notice to hit the accented kicks and Lund's solo progressed from hesitant, short phrases to long cascading lines. Thelonious Monk's "Eronel swung well but didn't take off until Hoenig's extended drum solo elicited laughs of astonishment from audience and band members alike.

Lund seemed most at home during an original ballad in 4/4, with a three-note theme sequenced upward and shimmering harmonies taken at measured pace. His solo relaxed into a series of assured and assertive statements, while also finding the most flowing groove of the set, too. The guitarist's original "Vonnegut closed the set, a two-part composition moving from anxious to serene and featuring a heated solo by Will Vinson sitting in on soprano sax.

~ Brian Lonergan

Ravi Coltrane got this year's IAJE Conference off to a strong start with a rousing concert (Jan. 11th). The saxophonist came out blowing hard on Ralph Alessi's "One Wheeler Will , wielding his tenor with characteristic uncompromising strength, driven by E. J. Strickland's powerful drumming. Luis Perdomo followed with a thoughtful piano solo that first contrasted and then reignited the group's energy level. The band segued seamlessly into the leader's "For Zoë , a modal piece reminiscent of John Coltrane's "Wise One , featuring the impeccable intonation of Drew Gress' arco bass and Strickland's malleted toms laying down a soft bottom, on top of which Coltrane and Perdomo played masterful solos.

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