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Joshua White Quartet: San Diego, CA, June 14, 2011

Robert Bush By

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Joshua White Quartet
Saville Theatre
San Diego, CA
June 14, 2011

Up-and-coming pianist Joshua White opened up the summer season of Jazz88's concert series on June 14, 2011, leading his own quartet through an evening of music largely dedicated to the works of Thelonious Monk.

Still in his 20s, White has been setting the Southern California jazz scene aflame ever since being "discovered" as a teenager at the UCSD jazz workshop some years back. He began his piano studies at age seven, and was soon playing for his church at Encanto Southern Baptist. He didn't feel the tug of jazz, though until attending that summer band camp.

He was such a hit there that he began playing with his instructors, (which included flautist Holly Hoffman and virtuoso pianist Mike Wofford), almost immediately. The rest, as they say, has been history.

White has been a permanent member of bassist Mark Dresser's West Coast quintet, and has performed in a duet concert with former mentor Wofford. This performance offered the public a chance to hear the pianist as a leader of his own group, playing material of his choice.

White chose a rhythm section of two young musicians he discovered while making forays into the Los Angeles jam session scene : double-bassist J.P. Maramba, who studied with John Clayton at USC, and drummer Jens Kuross, who can keep impeccable time and start a fire when necessary. On saxophone, the venerable and vetted Tripp Sprague, who's been illuminating the San Diego jazz scene for over 30 years.

The concert began with a spirited take on a composition of controversial ownership, "Five Will Get You 10"; initially credited to Sonny Clark, this was apparently lifted almost verbatim from an unpublished Monk tune, "Two Timer." Whatever the origin, White rewrote the bass line to give the piece more of a McCoy Tyner feel.

There were only two originals that night, but both of them made an impression. "Scarlet Tanager" was a moody, modal ballad with very active drumming and a left-hand motif that sounded like bells from a clock tower. "Ansmyth," written for a fellow musician, featured a crawling bass line, a double-timed melody and a swirling tenor sax solo from Sprague.

Mostly, though, it was Monk originals or standards associated with the master. Drastically modified by the pianist, the idea wasn't so much to reproduce them, but re- imagine them. Thus, the standard "Sweet & Lovely" began evoking Hank Jones, before slipping into a quasi-stride feel. Cole Porter's "So In Love" opened with a marvelous low-toned soliloquy from Maramba, who played with a sparse yet huge sound that reflected the influence of Charlie Haden. White spun intricate webs of trilling scales and arpeggios in a very modern, suspended arrangement.

Whatever the tempo, drummer Kuross maintained a high, purposeful profile, channeling Roy Haynes one moment, then Paul Motian the next. Monk's, "Ugly Beauty" sounded like it could have come from an ECM recording, especially with Maramba's quavering hand slaps on his bass strings. There was a feel similar to Keith Jarrett's American Quartet throughout the expansive and probing adaptation, particularly with the drums sputtering, asymmetrical cymbal washes and White's polytonal repetitions.

The concert came to a dramatic finale with a medley of Monk compositions. "Crisscross" started with a joyous, Baroque introduction, and then ratcheted the tension, with White hammering a single note leading into "Thelonious." The quartet demonstrated a tight control of the dynamics ebbing and flowing from whisper to roar. Sprague took a solo steeped in blues-tinged vignettes, and occasional references to the melody. "Well You Needn't" practically burst at the seams, with Sprague's swinging, inside-outside solo mirroring White's crashing left hand chords and surging spirals of melodic energy. Suddenly the band dropped out to expose a long, episodic drum spot that ricocheted off the Saville Theatre walls, finally whipping back into time, for a brief reading of "Rhythm-A-Ning."

White plays with a maturity beyond his years and he only figures to get better. With all that he showed on this night, that's a tantalizing thought, indeed.

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