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Joe Hunt Group Smalls Jazz Club New York, NY May 12, 2012
"It's tough keeping up with these young bloods," Joe Hunt said to the audience with a smile. He was referring to three student musicians from the New England Conservatory (where Hunt directs an ensemble), all of whom are a half century younger than the veteran drummer and educator. The hour-long set by Hunt's group was an engrossing blend of jazz repertoire and practices from the mid-to-late twentieth century; resolute, individualistic performances by young men who didn't hide in the shadows of the music's storied past; and the strength and textural diversity of Hunt's drumming. By the set's end it was clear that jazz musicians of generations twice removed were capable of relating to and inspiring one another.
Hunt's remarks included a prediction that audiences at places like Smalls Jazz Club will hear more from his young charges in the future. It was apparent from the onset that each of them had something significant to say in the here and now. Neither tenor saxophonist Wyatt Palmer (who graduated from NEC just a few ways before the gig) nor pianist Evan Allen was interested in making a visceral impact or plumbing the depths of their respective vocabularies. The athleticism and dogged persistence that characterizes many youthful players was, thankfully, in short supply. Henry Frasier's stalwart bass line enabled Hunt's busy, layered provocation of the soloists.
Even during his most energetic moments on the standard, "The Song Is You," Palmer's playing evinced a cool, almost distant quality. Some song-like cries eventually turned rough and shrill. Taking up where the melody of John Coltrane's "Central Park West" left off, he stayed in control of the instrument, the material and his emotions, while executing cautious, melodic-minded lines. Palmer's compressed thoughts throughout Warne Marsh's "Background Music" were always mindful of Hunt and Fraser.
Not unlike Palmer, Allen balanced an aura of self-containment and an awareness of everything that was going on around him. His turn on Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor" included clusters of notes, short, incisive phrases, and lots of open space. Towards the end of Bill Evans' "Show-Type Tune" there was a constant juxtaposition of neat and spiky phrases. At the onset of Thelonious Monk's "Played Twice," Allen repeated a handful of notes a half dozen times. Later, he stayed on course, even as Hunt's aggressive snare drum fills spilled over into his lines.
Palmer's and Allen's thoughtful, self-assured performances were simultaneously supported and challenged by Hunt. Employing rhythms pioneered by bop-oriented stylists of over a half century ago, he orchestrated the music from the drums in ways that were provocative but not overbearing. Hunt's deep knowledge of the material was apparent on every selection. His bass drum tastefully accented the contours of the heads of "The Song Is You" and "Played Twice." He often goaded a soloist by briefly isolating one or two components of the drum kit, as when a hissing ride cymbal surrounded Palmer for a short time during "Off Minor." Sandwiched between interludes of straight time on the hi-hat, Hunt made the ride cymbal purr on Fraser's "Show- Type Tune" improvisation. A galloping fill to the top tom immediately followed by rudimental figures to the snare was one of the ways he goosed Allen's "Played Twice" solo.
In addressing the audience throughout the set, it was telling that Hunt made only one brief reference to the celebrated musicians he worked with many years ago. He could have used these associations to his advantage by following the example of some of his contemporaries, hiring name sidemen and billing the gig as a tribute to his former employers Bill Evans, Stan Getz and George Russell. Instead, Hunt chose to stand with Palmer, Allen, and Fraser and present the music on his own terms. It was gratifying to listen to and watch Hunt in the driver's seat, guiding young jazzmen as they surveyed the past and blazed their own trails into the future.