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Matthew Parrish's Philly Express Band: Jazz at Cherry Street Pier

Matthew Parrish's Philly Express Band: Jazz at Cherry Street Pier

Courtesy Victor L Schermer


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Matthew Parrish Philly Express Band
Cherry Street Pier
Philadelphia, PA
April 16, 2022

This "Jazz Appreciation Month" concert, sponsored by Jazz Philadelphia and the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, unveiled a jazz quintet of highest caliber. The group was assembled by bassist Matthew Parrish with the idea of bringing together two distinguished Philadelphia-based veterans and, relatively speaking, three younger players. This was their first gig together, but they clicked in beautifully. There is a particular excitement when you hear musicians without a track record together getting in a tight groove.

The more seasoned musicians were Parrish on bass and Byron Landham on drums. Both with a history in Philadelphia, they have a lot of experience together, and each of course is a seasoned master of his respective instrument. The younger ones (not that they aren't experienced and lauded on their own) were specifically chosen for this gig on a first time basis. Camille Thurman on tneor saxophone is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and fronts her own groups for Chesky Records. Vibraphonist Behn Gillece was early on mentored by Tony Miceli and recently chosen as "Rising Star" in the Downbeat Poll. Pianist Joseph Block has composed and performed around the circuit and as a guest artist at Monterey and other festivals and sompetitions. They all compose, and Block is gaining a reputation as a true innovator. Michelle Lordi, by now a household name among vocalists in Philadelphia and New York, served on a few tunes as a guest artist, adding a panache that can only come from a sophisticated singer.

The music was either from the sixties or recent compositions by Block and Gillece. The show took off with Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie," Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile," and Bobby Hutcherson's "Till Then." These tunes, which helped forge the transition from bebop to hard bop, are vital to this day and continue to inspire imaginative playing. Thurman enriched "Black Nile" with earthy tenor saxophone playing, coming from a profound Dexter Gordon influence. She was very disciplined, with clear articulation, a rich and focused sound, and carving out improvisations where every note had a clear purpose. Gillece, using two mallets in each hand, combined the gentle swing of Milt Jackson with the verve and virtuosity of Hutcherson and Gary Burton. He seemed more interested in "singing" as opposed to being percussive with the vibes.

Lordi sang "The Very Thought of You" in her often appreciated minimalist style, laid back, "lento," and finding the expressive aspect of each note. This made for a good contrast with the band, which swung lightly, the way Nelson Riddle wrote big band arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald. Lordi later sang one of her originals, "Poor Bird," in a compassionate way. She and the group hit the mark by rendering Mick Jagger's "No Expectations" from a straight ahead jazz perspective. Lordi is also gaining a reputation as a composer these days, unique in the way she paints pictures of sounds with meaning rather than write "show tunes."

The real thrill of this group came from the way they interacted with one another, creating a musical whole greater than the sum of its parts. Gillece, in particular, created beautiful filigrees around the others. You could sense the pleasure that Landham felt as he responded lithely to Gillece and the others with a freedom that is liberating for a drummer who can daydream a little rather than just beat time. Landham combines the rhythmic precision of Kenny Clarke with the expressive freedom of Elvin Jones in a way that puts him in the top echelon of modern percussionists.

The finale was an original composition of pianist Block entitled "Shining Spirit." The group co-created an expressionist "arc" of evolving forms of a higher being rather than improvising around a melody. In the midst of this collective development, Block took a keyboard solo that was jaw-dropping. He fingered at such breakneck speed that it sounded like a fabric or tapestry of sound. It was Bach on steroids. It had the feeling of something entirely new to jazz, a sort of multi-dimensional equivalent to Coltrane's "sheets of sound." Block is finishing up a challenging dual degree program at Columbia and Juilliard. He is definitely reaching for something new.

Parrish deserves gratitude and praise for the way he facilitated the coming together of this group and their cohesion as a collective. Anthony Branker, former chairperson of the Princeton jazz department, placed great emphasis on the interactions between the musicians in his groups. This concert embodied such a philosophy.

Parenthetically, the setting for the concert was an enclosed long space that was formerly a pier the length of a football field. At the end, on the Delaware River is an open air restaurant. The steel beam infrastructure is reminiscent of some European rail stations. It has an ambience well-suited for a festival space or various kinds of exhibitions. The only regret was the lack of seats around the sound stage. Listeners sat on benches a considerable distance from the musicians. Hopefully, there will me more such concerts there, and the producers will think to place some rows of folding chairs around the stage.

Set List

Sister Sadie (Horace Silver); Black Nile (Wayne Shorter); Till Then (Bobby Hutcherson); Still Doing Our Thing (Behn Gillece); Blues; The Very Thought of You (Ray Noble); Poor Bird (Michelle Lordi); No Expectations (Mick Jagger/ Keith Richards}; Shining Spirit (Joseph Block).


Matthew Parrish: bass; Camille Thurman: tenor sax; Behn Gillece: vibraphone; Joseph Block: piano; Byron Landham: drums; Michelle Lordi (guest artist, vocals).


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