Mike DiRubbo Quartet At Smoke

David A. Orthmann By

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Mike DiRubbo Quartet
New York, NY
March 16, 2006

Alto and soprano saxophonist Mike DiRubbo returned recently to Smoke, an important Upper West Side venue that presents established and up-and-coming talent. A decade ago, Smoke (then named Augie's) was the place where the Hartt School of Music graduate began to stake his claim in New York City's fiercely competitive straight-ahead jazz scene.

Throughout the opening set, DiRubbo showed why he's earned a semi-regular gig as a leader at the club. His quartet included pianist Harold Mabern, the redoubtable seventy-year-old pianist who is venerated by generations of hard-blowing, tradition-minded players. A sign of the saxophonist's maturation is the ease in which he handles Mabern's lively, full-bodied accompaniment. DiRubbo's extended alto solo on John Coltrane's "Straight Street, the band's first selection, set the standard for everything that followed. Withstanding the pressure of Mabern's jabbing chords, he displayed a sharp, keening sound, and shunned extended climaxes in favor of placing brief peaks aside concise pauses. Mabern's turn encompassed a volatile yet tightly focused approach to swing. His persistent chords chomped against biting single note lines.

Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses was taken at a relaxed medium tempo. Drummer Tony Reedus began with brushes and switched to sticks in the middle of DiRubbo's solo. The alto saxophonist sprinkled soulful phrases throughout and maintained a narrative thread during lines of varying length. One high pitched, jagged remark was repeated and then evolved into something smoother. Supported by Paul Gill's sturdy walking bass line, Mabern's right hand swept the keyboard, and at times his playing assumed a fiercely swinging, march-like feeling. Reedus' eight-bar exchanges with the band displayed impressive sticking technique and imagination. One break featured convoluted, Elvin Jones-like trips around the drum set; another included the buzz of precise closed rolls; and a third spotlighted airy, melodic sounding taps to each of his cymbals.

Mabern was the engine stoking "Simone, Frank Foster's cyclical composition in ¾ time. His powerful, surging chords ignited the band during DiRubbo's statement of the melody. Taking the first solo, Mabern exhibited a superficial resemblance to McCoy Tyner. The left and right hands were at near war with one another, yet the blues was always present amidst the ostensible clamor. From dancing single note runs to thunderous chords, everything he played was pointed and direct. Mabern maintained this volatile stance during DiRubbo's solo, in which the leader's tart alto kept on building momentum yet stayed grounded and recognizable.

The standard "You've Changed began as a ballad, as DiRubbo rendered the melody in a lovely, low-keyed fashion. Mabern's chiming chords implied the double time that began at the start of the leader's solo. Still recognizably in the ballad mode, DiRubbo favored bebop expansions tempered by a blues based sensibility. A series of ascending phrases was cut short by a pregnant pause; and one four-note figure briefly stood out from everything else. Mabern manipulated textures and dynamics. In one instance he executed huge chords that suddenly became light as a feather.

The set ended with "Clarity, a DiRubbo composition somewhat reminiscent of Coltrane's "Giant Steps. There was little pause in the leader's solo as his penetrating phrases constantly drove forward. Reedus' four bar breaks were equally rousing, especially when he leapt from one drum to another with a five stroke figure.

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