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Odean Pope Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café

Victor L. Schermer By

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Odean Pope Quartet
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadephia, PA
August 4, 2018

Saxophonist Odean Pope is a living legend who has been blowing strong for sixty years, early on including John Coltrane among his Philadelphia cohorts and serving Max Roach as a charter member of the latter's groups. So when he gets on stage, you expect something special. In this set at Chris' Jazz Café, you got it.

Since each musician and performance is unique and cannot be easily compared with others, I try not to be a thumbs up/thumbs down judge of a performance. But I'd have to give this set an A+ for sheer musicianship, selection of tunes, and crisp and imaginative solo and ensemble playing. It was just what you hope for when you go to a club, not so much for bombshell innovation as to hear some terrific playing. Pianist Tom Lawton, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Craig McIver are seasoned, superb Philadelphia-based musicians, which partly explains the feeling of perfection here. But there was an additional factor that made the whole thing work like a charm. Something about Pope, maybe his leadership style, his legacy, his discipline, pulled them together to deliver brilliant, crisp, clean, coordinated playing that made for sheer listening pleasure from beginning to end.

When Pope walked on, his unique attire, an artistic silver-etched black hangar jacket, suggested there might be something a bit different in store. Indeed, in addition to his signature pulverizing rapid-fire lines sustained indefinitely by a well-honed circular breathing technique, the focus was on imaginative variations that swung, sang, and created a veritable kaleidoscope of "pictures at an exhibition," a music of images and ideas. This was helped by Pope's original tunes, which are among the finest in the jazz repertoire.

The group immediately showed its stuff with Pope's great tune, "Out for a Walk." The calypso version they perfomed was bound to evoke Sonny Rollins' "Don't Stop the Carnival" for many listeners. Pope got things going with an extended solo. Then Smith signed on with his unmatched panache. After Pope and McIver traded fours, the latter delivered a rocking and imagistic drum solo that captured some of the moods of the film Black Orpheus.

"Prince La Sha" is a tune Pope wrote for the saxophonist by that name with whom Pope recorded an album, Prince Lasha & Odean Pope Trio: The Mystery of Prince Lasha (CIMP Records, 2005). Pope laid out pulverizing solos using his awesome breathing technique to extend the duration of his phrases. Pianist Lawton soloed magnificently, including several choruses with a classical music sound of dissonances and modal shifts that heightened the tensions.

Pope reflected that "Framed in a Picture" is a ballad inspired by his wife. It featured an evocative solo by Pope for which Lawton's chordal comping provided a beautiful "frame." "Fresh Breeze" initially shocked the room with heavy syncopation, then broke out into a lively swing. It gave opportunities for Pope, Lawton, and Smith to press the limits of their instruments in lively, extended solos. Bassist Smith, in particular, felt free enough to try diverse motifs in all the registers of the instrument with remarkable agility.

The group then performed the standard. "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" providing the tune with the lyricism and emotional nuance it deserves. Another ballad standard, Billy Ekstine's "I Want to Talk About You" ended with a superb, virtuosic cadenza by Pope that echoed Keats' statement: "Beauty is truth; truth beauty." There are profound truths and wisdom in jazz that emerge in moments like this.

The set wound up with an up-tempo blues in Bb. McIver brought it to a fired up conclusion with a drum solo, manifesting power, elegance, and imagination, with the audience cheering him on like the crowd at a baseball game after a home team home run. This was a set that one wishes were recorded for posterity. It had everything a jazz lover could ask for.

Set List: (All Pope originals, except where noted.) "Out for a Walk"; "Prince La Sha"; "Framed in a Picture"; "Fresh Breeze"; "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" (Weisman/Wayne/Garrett); "I Want to Talk About You" (Ekstine); Blues in Bb.

Personnel: Odean Pope: tenor saxophone, leader; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith: bass; Craig McIver: drums.

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