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Rick Lawn's Power of Ten at Chris' Jazz Cafe

Rick Lawn's Power of Ten at Chris' Jazz Cafe
Victor L. Schermer By

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Power of Ten
Rick Lawn, Musical Director
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
February 4, 2014

The Power of Ten is a cracker-jack ensemble of some of the best Philadelphia-based musicians. Powered by its founder and leader, Rick Lawn, their first and only CD, Earth Tones (Self-produced, 2011) impressed this reviewer sufficiently that he seized the opportunity to hear them live at the club everybody knows simply as "Chris" on a "wintry mix" evening, a great way to warm up and catch some swinging vibrations. The personnel varied somewhat from the regular crew, with vibraphonist Tony Miceli away on tour, ace trumpeter Joe Mosello sitting in for Matt Gallagher, and Dan Monaghan subbing for Erik Johnson on drums. Monaghan's light and flowing approach gave the whole group an extra liveliness that balanced out the "heavy lifting" of Lawn's baritone saxophone, Chris Farr's mindfully moody (reference to James Moody intended) soprano and tenor choruses, and bassist Kevin McConnell's absolutism. Lawn provided all the arrangements, which were deeper-throated than the ones on the album, so the whole mix had a more gritty sound yet with a relentless momentum.

Although Lawn compares his arranging style to inspirations such as Gil Evans, the Gerry Mulligan Big Band, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra, an historical comparison evoked by this particular gig were the so-called "territory bands" that made their way around the midwest and southwest in the 1920s-40s, like Walter Page's Blue Devils, with many musicians like Lester Young ending up in Kansas City and ultimately participating in the birth of swing and bebop. On this particular evening, the group seemed to be groping for ideas that would shift the music around, just as those seminal bands did during a time when they were trying to find their footing. Some of the best jazz comes out of uncertainty, which gives the music extra spice.

The set began with a Rick Lawn original (all the band's arrangements are his, but not all the tunes), "Never Too Late," a musical reflection on the composer's return to his Philadelphia roots after a long stint in the west. Moving through blues and self-doubting confusion, it ends with a feeling of uplift and hope vaguely akin to an African American gospel song. Guitarist Mike Kennedy took it home with an earthy solo that was very different from his usual lyricism.

Lawn next told the audience that the tune "Homage" was composed by his late beloved friend and cohort, saxophonist Gerry Niewood, who died in the horrific 2009 plane crash near Buffalo, NY, where he was going to play a concert with Chuck Mangione. The tune, dedicated to John Coltrane, allows Lawn as arranger to play around with intervallic structures the way that Trane did in "Giant Steps." It's a brilliant arrangement that captures something of Trane's abrupt changes and "sheets of sound," with Farr on tenor sax, and Randy Kapralick on trombone almost nailing themselves to the cross with their movements in and out of the chord changes.

"Room 509," a Lawn original oddly named after a rehearsal room, could be called a "musical joke" in the manner of the humor conjured up by Haydn and Mozart (and also trumpeter Clark Terry!) At least Tom Lawton on piano, and Farr again on tenor sax, seemed to take it that way, with relaxed improvisations that contrasted with the grief implied in "Homage."

"Chasing After Dreams" is a scaled-down big band chart, a ballad from Lawn's suite entitled "Mirrors: Four Reflections in Jazz and Dance." Here, the laconic sense of motion was gracefully supported by Monaghan's held-back drumming and Farr's extended and reflective tenor sax solo.

There seems to be a current trend towards jazz revivals of rock and Beatles tunes. Vibraphonist Tony Miceli's absence was palpably felt on Lawn's version of Paul McCartney's "With a Little Help from My Friends." Miceli, whose musical roots were layed down in the rock'n'roll and acid rock 1970s, has performed unique jazz interpretations of Beatles and rock tunes first with vocalist Meg Clifton, and more recently Paul Jost. In Miceli's absence, Ron Kerber's magnificent alto saxophone solo gave a little help to the whole band, lifting it into heavenly spheres, a feat that this remarkable reed player has accomplished more than once. Kerber stunningly made us wonder if the Archangel Gabriel played saxophone rather than trumpet! Kerber, who is principal reed player with the Philly Pops, is an under-recognized wonder who belongs in the top echelon of music makers.

The straight ahead groove of guitarist Kenny Burrell's "Bass Face," with its recurrent four note bass line, offered the band an opportunity to showcase trumpeter George Rabbai, a local wizard who is a master of swing and bebop improvisation. To paraphrase a TV ad, "When Rabbai plays, people listen." During his solo, people put down their drinks, stopped talking, and were simply taken in by the Rabbai's message. His playing is sheer beauty-in-motion, every well-chosen note laid down in rapid succession and clock-work perfection. In this case, the muted trumpet lent finesse to the infinite inventiveness of Rabbai's bebop choruses.

Like the opening number, "Never Too Late," "Retrospect" was written during Lawn's transition to Philadelphia. Again, as in "Room 509," Farr, on soprano sax, and Lawton, on piano, frequent cohorts with various groups, did choruses that complemented one another in expression and structure.

Bassist Paul Chambers' "Ease It" provided a lofty finale to a sterling set that taken as a whole could have done well as a live recording. Solo work was the keynote of this rendition. Once again, Rabbai made magic. Trombonist Randy Kapralick showed his incredible chops, and Monaghan danced through his drum solos with a panache that concealed the fact that as a stand-in, he was probably reading the chart for the first time. At the conclusion of the tune, he looked at the other musicians with the knowing smile of one who has pulled off a bank heist.

Power of Ten will be returning to Chris' on March 18, an integral part of an ongoing revival of the jazz scene in Philadelphia, which suffered an attrition due to the economic recession and is now echoing poet Maya Angelou's famous words spoken at President Clinton's 1993 inauguration, "Still I rise."
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