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Mark Hagan's Jazz Salon At The Old 76 House

David A. Orthmann By

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Mark Hagan's Jazz Salon
The Old 76 House
Mark Hagan's Jazz Salon
Tappan, NY
January 24, 2018

A couple of minutes into "How Deep Is The Ocean," the first selection of an opening set, without uttering a word, the ad hoc group assembled by bassist Mark Hagan offered assurances that it was going to be a memorable night. It's not that the band was on fire, hell bent on showing off individual skills, or intent on blowing the audience away. Rather, they personified the give-and-take, playfulness and sense of common purpose that are integral to any small jazz ensemble worth its salt. Rich in detail yet not particularly dense or busy, it's the kind of jazz that beckons everyone into its orbit, allowing listeners to catch telling nuances, conversations between instrumental voices, and creative frictions while thoroughly enjoying the whole ride. Hagan and drummer Steve Johns laid down a firm, flexible, middling tempo jazz pulse as if they owned it, making the music feel robust, centered, and infallible, as well as encouraging the contributions of trumpeter Duane Eubanks and guitarist Jay Azzolina.

At times it was interesting to consider the band's efforts on spatial terms. During the bulk of a brisk treatment of Hank Mobley's "This I Dig Of You" each instrument was in close proximity to the others, wrapped tight, immersed in the song's form and chord changes, as if breathing the same air. At the onset of Hagan's solo this kind of unity was suspended as they regrouped, spread out, and put some distance between one other. The dynamic level plummeted and the music began to sound collectively improvised, as they tread parallel paths but purposefully moved toward an unspecified destination.

The contrast between the improvisational styles of Eubanks and Azzolina was another one of the engaging aspects of the set. Eubanks is—in this context—a mature hard bop oriented stylist who tends to create a place of his own—dead center in the music—while the band supports, reacts to and provokes him. He often gives the impression that a part of him remains untouched by his surroundings. Fluid, speech-like patterns that include a decided lyrical emphasis are wrapped in a nice full tone. Eubanks favors the middle register of the horn yet likes to deliver the occasional high note flourish. A sense of cohesion is engendered by carefully constructed phrases devoid of any haste or excess. Throughout "This I Dig Of You," Eubanks firmly held his ground while Johns' snare drum chattered and Azzolina jumped in and shot one of the trumpeter's phrases right back at him.

Azzolina is something of an acrobat, restlessly making quick changes in tone, phrasing, rhythms and emphasis, yet somehow manages to sound whole and in stay touch with his bandmates. In a mere portion of a chorus during "How Deep Is The Ocean" the guitarist juggled biting, deliberately phrased lines, single notes and chords that antagonized one another, and offered a brief interlude of refreshingly relaxed chords which gently moved against the beat. On Lee Morgan's "Ceora," Azzolina unflinchingly seized upon Johns' provocations. He abandoned song-like phrases in favor of edgier fare when the bass drum repeatedly underscored his efforts, and became even more strident as Johns' ride cymbal beat swelled to twice it normal breadth and momentarily threatened to engulf the whole band.

In a set that achieved an admirable balance between group interplay and continuity, there was no shortage of startling moments. A couple of examples included Hagan's ferocious walking line, which briefly spurred a manic dimension to Azzolina's solo on "This I Dig Of You"; and the way the band deftly moved in and out of double time in the middle of a series of eight bar trades with Johns during "How Deep Is The Ocean." These kind of moments, as well as quality of the performance as a whole, are typical of the high standards of the Hagan curated jazz series at the Old 76 House.

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