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Peter Bernstein & Grant Stewart / Jason Moran at Chris Jazz Cafe

Edward Zucker By

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Peter Bernstein & Grant Stewart / Jason Moran
Chris Jazz Cafe
Philadelphia, PA
March 31, 2006 / April 2, 2006

If the benchmark of a jazz club is the quality of their music, Chris Jazz Café raised the bar in Philadelphia this past weekend. On Friday and Saturday evenings they had two New Yorkers, guitarist Peter Bernstein and tenor player Grant Stewart, joined by local trumpet stalwart John Swana, bassist Madison Rast and drummer Doug Hirlinger. Staying with standards, the trio of Swana, Stewart and Bernstein led a swinging hard bop set. One of the highlights was their rendition of the Coltrane tune "Theme for Ernie." Stewart's tenor playing was gorgeous on this often-overlooked smoldering ballad.

Bernstein was experiencing problems with his amp on Friday evening, and you could see his displeasure with the dropouts and feedback. Yet his sound was still magnificent on the electric hollowbody guitar he plays. His style is not one of flash, but one of substance. He eschews blazing speed and overwhelming notes in favor of clean, nuanced runs. Whether playing solo or with Swana and Stewart, his distinctive sound drove the band on this night.

Sunday evening's performance featured Jason Moran and Bandwagon. Moran came in with his trio version of Bandwagon, minus guitarist Marvin Sewell. They performed two sets, covering a selection of cuts from Black Stars and Same Mother. Moran and Bandwagon are some of the most dynamic musicians performing today. They move seamlessly from traditional jazz to the cusp of free/avant-garde jazz. The influences of both Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard can be heard in Moran's playing, yet he clearly has established his own voice.

The band's interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev's "The Field of the Dead," from Same Mother, was as lyrical and haunting a piece of music one could ever hear. It contrasted sharply with the greasy, bluesy take of "I'll Play The Blues For You," where Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits' playing was explosive, creating an interesting exploration of the tune, which originally featured Sewell's guitar on Same Mother.

If there was any downside to seeing an artist like Jason Moran in such an intimate setting, it was the disappointing turnout. Moran routinely fills larger venues, yet there were only about 25 people in the audience on this evening. Give credit to Moran and Bandwagon, as their performance was outstanding—and, as he said after the show, "It does not matter if there are five or five thousand people in the room, it is the energy in the room."

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