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Jazz Gallery All-Stars at Tri-C

Jazz Gallery All-Stars at Tri-C

Courtesy Jeff Forman

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Jazz Gallery All-Stars
Tri-C Auditorium
Cleveland, OH
March 6, 2022

What a difference a month makes.

The Jazz Gallery All-Stars concert scheduled for February 3 at Cleveland's Tri-C Auditorium was swept away when a winter storm driven by howling winds dumped 15 inches of snow on the city. A new date, March 6, was chosen, fingers were crossed and prayers muttered—and answered with sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s. Welcome to March on the Great Lakes.

Yet the weather wasn't the only thing that changed in the intervening 31 days. Guitarist Charles Altura, bassist Matt Brewer, drummer Kendrick Scott and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon made the gig as originally billed, but pianist Gerald Clayton, vocalist Renée Neufville and tenor player Melissa Aldana gave way to Aaron Parks, Sachal Vasandani and vibraphonist Joel Ross. The Gallery is fortunate to have a bench this deep; if there were a jazz fantasy league, you'd want to draft a band like this.

The All-Stars might be an ad-hoc band, but many of them have played and recorded together for years. On nine compositions, including one each by Parks, Ross, Scott and Zenon, they spoke a common language that emphasized sophisticated but legible harmonies, daring solos and rhythmic fluidity within a deep groove—the summit of mainstream New York post-bop.

Following a half-hour of performances by a tag team of accomplished high school-age students at Tri-C's Creative Arts Academy led by Dominick Farinacci, it was finally time for the All-Stars who rode the hopefully ascending chords of "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder," jolted to life by a characteristically athletic Zenón alto solo.

The composition was by Ross, who emerged at the evening's most valuable player. As a soloist, his note choices were consistently imaginative and piquant. The Chicago vibraphonist largely eschewed the pedal, foreground dazzling runs, hammered notes and a grasp of structure that everywhere, but especially on Scott's roiling "Psalm," warped space and time. You couldn't take your eyes off him, even when he wasn't playing. On Parks' "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" Ross played air piano with the long fingers of his right hand, miming the composer's statement of the melody, and he danced in place when he laid out. He was a revelation.

If vocalist Sachal Vasandani's two-song interlude in the center of the program interrupted the prevailing compositional flow, it also elicited some of the evening's most thoughtful and entertaining playing, especially from Parks. His locked-hands solo on a trio version of Thelonious Monk's "Reflections" (lyrics by Jon Hendricks and deliciously bluesy, behind-the-beat playing on "I Thought About You" were delightful. So was Vasandani who has added more rhythmic bite to the velvet of his ingratiating high baritone since this writer's last encounter with him a dozen or so years ago.

The band returned with an Altura original featuring his soaring, clean-toned guitar before the climactic "Psalm," capped by an extended solo that came as a reward for an evening's worth of consistently probing work by this most musical of drummers.

The skipping, syncopated melody of "Strasbourg St. Denis" ended the program, one of the evening's two compositions by Gallery co-founder Roy Hargrove. It's joyous, light-footed line, an earworm that, like this concert of high-level music, brought the freshness and hope of spring.

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