Shawn Baltazor New York, NY September 17, 2011

David A. Orthmann By

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Shawn Baltazor Quartet:
New York, NY
September 17, 2011
It's always night time at Smalls. Thirty minutes prior to a Saturday afternoon showcase of drummer Shawn Baltazor's Quartet, the basement club was a virtual world of its own, devoid of natural light and removed from the hustle and bustle of the West Village. Operating seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, Smalls is a no frills environment ideally suited to serious performance and equally serious listening. The floor is covered with an odd assortment of area rugs. Seating mostly consists of several short rows of mismatched chairs. A long bar running down one side of the room serves alcohol and soft drinks. Consumption of food is discouraged by a sign posted on the stairway wall. Louis Armstrong's portrait hangs at the rear of the bandstand. A poster of James P. Johnson is placed in close proximity to the piano. In contrast to Armstrong's warm, welcoming smile, Johnson stares intently at the instrument as if ready to judge anyone who dares to play it. Seemingly oblivious to Johnson's scrutiny, Sam Harris warms up by playing some stride piano. Baltazor, bassist Shawn Conley, and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon chat about the recent Thelonious Monk Competition. No one needed to make mention of Irabagon's winning the Monk in 2008.

Baltazor is a gifted young performer who, over the past few years, has been associated with three potent working bands: New Tricks, the Nathan Eklund Group, and the Roxy Coss Quintet. To catch him with any of these groups is a unique experience. Witnessing Baltazor throw his entire being into the music, instantaneously making decisions that have a profound effect on a band, always raises the question: What are his designs as a bandleader? Akin to his drumming, his 75-minute set was about spontaneity, living in the moment, and trusting his own instincts as well as those of his band mates. "I purposely didn't put a set list together," Baltazor wrote in an email a couple of days after the gig. "[I] just wanted to call them as I felt." To this end, near the conclusion of Wayne Shorter's "Toy Tune," Harris quoted Kenny Kirkland's "Dienda," "just at the moment I decided to play it, but hadn't told anyone yet. It was one of those telepathic moments on the bandstand that I live for." Baltazor's stewardship wasn't so much distinguished by his choice of material—a ménage of hip, modern jazz compositions from the pens of Sam Rivers, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, and the standard "My Ideal"—as the refreshing lack of reverence in which he and the band tore into them. The message came across loud and clear: They're someone else's tunes, but this is our music.

The extraordinary rapport between the members of Baltazor's quartet was manifested in wholesale fluctuations in the music's foundation, while each of the soloists proceeded, undaunted, in his own fashion. During Harris's "Fuschia Swing Song" solo, Conley and Baltazor stayed out of tempo, and then offered hints of a steady pulse without giving any assurances that it was their actual destination. "My Ideal" began as a conventional ballad and eventually turned into something dramatic, mischievous, and drunken. "Freight Train" sounded like an up-tempo blues romp, until the band brought the music to the brink of chaos and back again in the middle of Irabagon's protracted solo.

Focusing on individual performances amidst the mass of edgy, loosely complementary voices was a worthwhile endeavor. Harris' solos, particularly on "Fuschia Swing Song" and "Toy Tune," made something coherent out of halting, segmented phrases, which often led to smoother, more tightly knit lines. Prodded by Baltazor's stubborn tom tom hits on "My Ideal," the pianist ably contrasted a stride left hand and persistent barrage of notes with the right. Irabagon displayed a very large vocabulary in ways that didn't conform to any particular style. His "Toy Tune" solo offered a series of spread-out, quasi-romantic phrases, morphed into an interlude of persistent pleading, initiated and developed an obsessive sounding phrase, and topped things off with a long, searing low note. Baltazor began his "Highsight" turn within the tune's structure, and after the band dropped out, found a pattern between the snare, bass drum, and cymbal. As he continued to shape it, time was implied than more explicitly stated, and eventually hard hitting strokes were fashioned into a rhyming motif.

Just a few hours after the set ended, a couple of blocks up 7th Avenue from Smalls at the Village Vanguard, venerable drummer/bandleader Paul Motian was scheduled to lead a trio. Needless to say, the gap between Motian's minimalist drumming and Baltazor's effusive manner of dealing with the instrument is a mile wide. However, like the man a half century his senior, Baltazor is an intrepid traveler, constantly looking for new means of expression without abandoning or tarnishing the past, seeking new partners who share his visions, and—always—ready for anything.

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