January 2003


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Before getting started, a word about the news of tenor saxophonist Bob Berg’s death. Recently departed greats like Ray Brown, Mal Waldron, and Roland Hanna were blessed to lead long and productive lives. Berg’s end came early, and violently. It is a horrifying tragedy and a grievous loss for our community.

Fortunately, I have fond memories of hearing Berg live — most notably with a Joe Chambers quintet at Caramoor in 1997, and with a reassembled Steps Ahead at the Blue Note in 2000. When Steps had finished their set and the members of the Mike Stern band were taking the stage, Berg briefly crossed paths with bassist Lincoln Goines. “Lincolnian!” Berg exclaimed, in a tough-sounding New York accent. For some reason, that affectionate greeting has stuck in my mind ever since. Now that Berg is gone, oddly enough, it’s this one word that will keep him alive in my mind, perhaps as much as anything he played.

For the two weeks stretching from Christmas to New Year’s, Iridium belonged to McCoy Tyner. The first week featured the McCoy Tyner Big Band, back in New York for the first time in roughly 10 years. New Year’s Eve and the earliest nights of 2003 featured Tyner with his trio and special guest Michael Brecker. Judging from the line stretching up the stairs, out the door, and nearly around the block (on a Sunday night, no less), the Big Band enjoyed a successful run. The late set began with a full-tilt “Passion Dance” and continued with “Blues On the Corner,” Steve Turre’s ballad “Juanita,” bassist Avery Sharpe’s bright 5/4 vamp “January in Brazil,” and more. To hear Tyner’s modal vocabulary in an orchestrated context was often gripping; sometimes the least expected voices would leap out, particularly on the middle eight bars of “Passion Dance.” While the saxophones sounded over-miked and harsh, the band held the crowd in rapt attention, with John Stubblefield, Frank Lacy, Sharpe, and Tyner himself offering the strongest solo statements. Percussionist Richie Flores was hidden away in the back, but he came through clearly and added quite a lot.

Early in December, the Jazz Standard featured some of the best and brightest from the Palmetto Records roster in a week-long label showcase. Andrew Hill played two nights, first with a quartet and later in the week with a sextet. Trumpeter Ray Vega, the only non-pianist leader of the week, played on Saturday with his sextet.

David Berkman’s quartet set featured Steve Wilson on alto and soprano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and the ubiquitous Nasheet Waits on drums. The band was crisp, the music moving; Wilson covered for a few technical flubs with his inspired blowing (this was to have been Sam Newsome’s gig, after all). Berkman, always reliably intelligent, humorous, and swinging, reached back to his 1998 debut Handmade for “Slides” and “Not a Christmas Song.” But mainly he drew upon his latest, Leaving Home, offering the stirring “Knots,” the ballad “Forever Astor,” and a glowing solo rendition of “Embraceable You,” along with a new piece called “Penultimatum.” Look for a new Berkman offering on Palmetto in early 2003.

Orrin Evans’s turn came on the night of a snowstorm, unfortunately. But the newest member of the Palmetto family rose above the circumstances and played a strong show, backed by saxophonists Ralph Bowen and Rob Landham, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Gene Jackson. Evans is a hard-charging pianist; he takes plenty of rhythmic chances and tends toward long, adventurous takes on the bandstand. His second set began with “Sluice,” a new piece in a driving 6/8, and continued with the title track from Meant to Shine and a funky reading of the standard “I Will Wait for You.” Taking advantage of the super-informal atmosphere, Evans then invited a parade of friends to sit in on his early up-tempo blues “Dorm Life.” Trumpeter Duane Eubanks, altoist Kwame Hall, and vocalist Allison Crockett all came up to solo, spurred on by the ferocity of fellow Philadelphian Ari Hoenig behind the drum kit.

Bill Mays wound up the series, beginning his second set with an unaccompanied Bill Evans tribute (“Your Story”/”Very Early”). Then bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson joined in for eye-opening readings of “Summer Night,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square,” and “Once Upon a Summertime,” among others. Wind frequently showed off his exceptional arco playing, and his eye contact with Mays was nearly constant. Wilson bounced off Mays’s bluesy elegance with rhythmic and timbral variations that kept the music open-ended and cliché-free. Sitting up close, one could also soak in the trio’s extensive verbal communication and sense of spontaneous fun.

Jason Moran’s Bandwagon sounded especially fired up at the Vanguard, playing crisp trio adaptations of some of the solo-piano tunes from Modernistic as well as a number of experimental new works. About the latter: Moran received a grant to develop a series of compositions built around actual recorded conversations in several languages. Sunday’s first set included a piece titled “Hello, Mother,” which found Moran and the band (bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Nasheet Waits) following, with extraordinary precision, the cadences of a daughter talking to her mother on a cell phone, in Turkish. New material like this ought to make for an astonishing next album, if that is indeed what Moran is planning.

Chris Potter devoted several nights of his Vanguard run to live recording, which entailed an octopus of mics, cables, and other gear sharing the stage with pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Bill Stewart. Unveiling a batch of brand-new music, Potter and his working quartet enthralled listeners with their stunning improvisational command and impeccable time. One tune involved a series of accelerating swing tempos, peaking in a furious blowout. But when Potter chose to slow the pace back down, he didn’t wait for the band — he simply began playing at the new tempo, resulting in several captivating, polyrhythmic bars. Then Stewart changed over, effortlessly and precisely, landing just where Potter needed him. Among the audience one heard gasps. Colley, one of the few musicians to escape Branford’s blindfold-test wrath in the latest JazzTimes, was unstoppable as usual. Hays, who we don’t hear from nearly often enough, offered uplifting solos, a turn or two on his gritty Fender Rhodes, and occasionally an electro-tweak of the piano, creating a marvelous, tinkling-glass effect.

Guitarist Rez Abbasi has tended to lead two-horn bands in the past, but now he’s focusing on something more thrifty and compact: an organ trio. At Cornelia Street Café, Gary Versace, an expressive player with chops in abundance, steered free of clichés as he negotiated the broad dynamic range of Abbasi’s compositions. Drummer Dan Weiss swung like mad and threw head-spinning curves into the mix; he also played tablas on the exquisite “Pakistan,” with Versace whispering under Abbasi’s sitar-guitar and special guest Christian Howes’s violin. Abbasi has an uncanny way of balancing demon chops with a soft, legato touch. His South Asian influences are unforced but very present, and with this trio he seems to have found an ideal balance between the gritty and the mild, the in and the out.

Stefon Harris’s new electric ensemble, Blackout, played three nights at sweet rhythm, and got the public acquainted with the malletKat, an electronic vibes system that Harris has begun using. There was a strong R&B/fusion vibe to this new material. Harris’s solo patches sounded a bit bland; his comping patches were more varied and surprising (some had an almost dulcimer- or guitar-like quality). Marc Cary’s keyboards, Tarus Mateen’s acoustic bass guitar, and Casey Benjamin’s alto and EWI rounded out the mix, but it was the terrifyingly funky drummer Terreon Gully who owned every groove.

Yosvany Terry’s quartet also gathered at sweet rhythm for two nights to work through the leader’s burning, wondrously intricate compositions. Terry played both alto and soprano sax and never sounded better. Guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, a compelling leader in his own right, provided subtle harmonic flavors and just the right sonic flourishes, in addition to solos that were nothing short of frightening. The rhythm players, bassist Yunior Terry and drummer Eric MacPherson, were formidable yet light on their feet. Pianist Luis Perdomo and the ever-improving harmonica wizard Gregoire Maret came up for stirring guest performances. Terry’s immersion in Afro-Cuban, M-Base, and straight-ahead vernaculars has impelled him to create richly varied and complex music, and he’s found exactly the right band to interpret it. We sorely need a recording of Terry’s current work.

Playing only one set at the Knitting Factory Old Office, pianist/composer Angie Sanchez led a quartet with Tony Malaby on tenor and soprano, Drew Gress on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. A seemingly quiet person, Sanchez would calmly count off a tune, begin with a plaintive but edgy unison melody over a clear tempo, and then ascend the rungs toward free-blowing intensity — always with a cohesive purpose and a precise ending in mind. Her line playing was highly advanced and forceful, and her Wurlitzer gave the adventurous, outward-leaning music a kind of cool sheen, balancing the full-throttle attack of Malaby’s horn. Gress and Rainey grasped Sanchez’s intent with a proficiency that inspired awe.

Gerald Cleaver’s quartet gig at the Old Office featured Mat Maneri on viola and Michael Formanek on bass, with Craig Taborn playing laptop and keyboard controller. Eerie, minimalistic passages grew into growling, swelling crescendos, with Maneri at one point sounding quite like a guitar hero, squawking through a wah-wah with his volume cranked. As he did on his superb CD Adjust, Cleaver painted an alluring electro-acoustic landscape, with a subtle, grooving touch at its core.

Recommended Discs:
  • Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone (Telarc)
  • Jerry Bergonzi, Live Gonz! (Double-Time)
  • Bobby Sanabria, ¡Quarteto Ache! (Khaeon)
  • Dave Ballou, Rothko (SteepleChase)
  • Tom Christensen, Paths (Playscape)
  • Gregg Kallor, There’s a Rhythm (3G)

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