Geri Allen Trio with Maurice Chestnut
Finney Chapel, Oberlin Conservatory of Music
February 12, 2009
On the evening of Feb. 12, a whiff of novelty hung over Tappan Square on the campus of Oberlin College, even though an unseasonably early thaw had already been driven from town by returning icy winds. But pianist Geri Allen was in Oberlin, set to perform at Finney Chapel with her quartet of piano, bass, drums and tap.
Tap? Yep. As in the fleet, percussive footwork of the young tap-dancing phenom Maurice Chestnut, travelling with Allen's group to add his complex web of sound to the mix. And after the dancer's initial flurry, after his first extended solo, his inspired vamping and competitive, humorous trades with drummer Kassa Overall, any scent of gimmickry was burned from the air. Entering the musical conversation on the group's second number (a tune appropriately inspired by the great hard bop drummer Philly Joe Jones), Chestnut commanded the eye for the rest of the evening. In fact, jazz purists might argue that his spins, leg twirls and shuffle distracted listeners from the music.
Indeed, closing your eyes for a spell during the performance did have the effect of leveling the playing field, of pushing Chestnut's work into a deeper, more unobtrusive mix with the musica sonic mesh that enveloped and netted the remaining players into a whole. But to deny that any live performance, even that of the most stoic solo musician, comprises some aspect of theater is absurd. Chestnut simply heightened that reality, while remaining not only musically meaningful, but downright explosive.
Allen began the evening with a somber but powerful solo piano intro to her composition "Angels." It featured the modern orchestral flare that is a fixture of her magic. And that brilliance climbed into the music all night long. Rapid, expertly touched forays into the keyboard's high-end bunched up and ran over one another, creating fuzzy, slightly atonal chordal forms that hung above the steady traffic of bass notes like a mid-summer haze. Oberlin alum Overall thundered in with mallets, spurred by the plucking of bassist Kenny Davis and propelling Allen into a blistering close.
It was the perfect set-up for Chestnut's entrance. However, the group rang changes of dynamics, tempo and mood throughout the evening. So, on the heels of that first number with Chestnut, Allen turned to the languid but feathery tones of "Lover Man," the swooping melody massaging the frenetic energy that had passed from Chestnut's legs into the now buzzing crowd. Allen's notes blended again, fashioning the blurry stream of a rain shower washing down a window pane. Chestnut added the chill and tap of skating movements, but then relegated his playing to the occasional accent of a right-footed flurry.
Geri Allen, Kenny Davis, Kassa Overall and Maurice Chestnut
After a crowd-pleasing boogie number and a brief intermission, Allen returned with her melancholic, McCoy Tyner-esque "Timeless Portraits and Dreams," before turning to tunes that would showcase the considerable chops of her sidemen. Davis dominated the first of these numbers with a fast-paced solo that led into delicious slides. Chestnut stepped up on Charlie Parker's "Another Hairdo," skipping off several minutes of fast, intricate tapping over Allen's melodic vamping, before strutting to a close with a barrelhouse stomp. The encore was saved for the Oberlin grad, and Overall didn't waste the spotlight wattage. He displayed the skill of a manic puppet master as he traded with Allen and Chestnut, matching all the complexity of the storms that were kicked his way, and returning them with the zip of a Rafael Nadal forehand.
It's unlikely that Geri Allen's latest experiment will set off a wildfire of tap-dancing quartets, or that the handful of Oberlin students who kicked it in the aisles will abandon their instruments for pairs of aluminum-plated shoes. But don't call such a group a gimmick. Allen, Davis, Overall and Chestnut put such nonsense resoundingly to rest.