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Mundell Lowe Quartet Live At The Saville Theater

Robert Bush By

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Mundell Lowe Quartet
Saville Theater, San Diego City College
San Diego CA
July 13, 2010
Tuesday night's affair was standing-room-only for the rare appearance by Mundell Lowe, an iconic figure in the annals of jazz history. Lowe cut his teeth as an improviser in the Roosevelt administration—that he continues to perform with such vitality two years into the Obama era is nothing short of amazing. Lowe has the rare distinction of gigging with the legendary Charlie Parker, and in addition, his resume also lists work with such disparate icons as Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus, and Helen Humes, to name just a few. He also spent 17 years as a staff guitarist in the NBC orchestra, appearing on the original Today show with host Dave Garroway.

This performance gives weight to the notion that "age is just a number," because at 88, Lowe's skills as a guitarist remain untouched by the ravages of time. Playing a blend of bebop originals and timeless standards, Lowe tossed off fiendishly knotty arpeggios and seamless bits of chord melody work with a cool, casual expression. His tone is everything you'd look for in a modern, mainstream jazz guitarist: it's warm, clear and full-bodied. His comping is vintage bop but never anachronistic. You can tell he's absorbed the developments in jazz guitar from the post Wes Montgomery perspective.

As good as Lowe is by himself, (he played several unaccompanied standards that were superb), what really elevated this concert were the contributions of a veritable San Diego All-Star group supporting him. On piano: first call musician Mike Wofford. His c.v. is thick, having performed with master-arranger Oliver Nelson, drummer Shelly Manne, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and many others. His touch on the piano is completely unique and his ideas are always fresh—sometimes, startlingly so. Double bassist Gunnar Biggs has been a touchstone in the San Diego jazz scene for over thirty years. His tone is big and solid and his time-keeping is exceptional. On top of all of that, Biggs is a superb soloist: each time he got the spotlight—his messages were riveting. The versatility of percussionist Jim Plank is no idle hype: the man has played with everyone from Charles McPherson and Chico Freeman to the San Diego Symphony. He conducted the dynamics of this performance with control, taste and fire. He blended so perfectly with the group, it was simply a joy to watch.

The concert began, in swinging fashion with a take on the Mercer/Arlen classic, "My Shining Hour." After that was an arrangement of "Just Squeeze Me" with some very tasteful chord-melody work by Lowe. Charlie Parker's, "Scrapple From The Apple" was up next, and this was one of those chances for Wofford to really shine as he delivered a fleet-fingered, manic solo that was all over the keyboard. Following that was Lowe's solo guitar rendering of the Benny Golson original, "I Remember Clifford" complete with gorgeous, somber, brush strokes from the master. The Parker connection continued with a pumped reading of "Steeplechase" featuring great solos from Lowe, Wofford, and Biggs followed by some explosive trading of "fours" with Plank.

The absolute highlight of this excellent concert though, was their rendition of a seldom heard Rodgers and Hart jewel: "There's A Small Hotel" that was performed at the perfect tempo for maximum swing. This spontaneous arrangement had the entire house snapping their fingers, or tapping their feet. Lowe took the microphone and intoned: "They say it's not a good programming idea to follow a ballad with another ballad... but let's do 'Darn That Dream' anyway." It was another perfect choice and the crowd encouraged the out of the box thinking. For the next piece, Biggs and Plank sat out while Lowe and Wofford performed as a duo on "The Way You Look Tonight" in waltz time. Then, Lowe turned the bandstand over to Wofford who took the helm for a romp on the rarely played Miles Davis classic, "Veird Blues." This trio has played together plenty and it showed. Lowe returned for the Thelonious Monk composition "Ask Me Now"—which was suitably dramatic.

The 90 minute concert drew to a close with a medium swing treatment of "Willow Weep For Me" that seemed to sum up all of the things that made this show so successful: superb musicianship, wonderful material performed by a very solid quartet—guided by a jazz legend. This was a performance that will linger in the collective memories of those fortunate enough to have witnessed it. As for the amazing longevity and vitality of Mr. Lowe, I'll have to paraphrase Bob Dylan: "May he stay forever young."

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