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Smokin' at The Nash

Dave Kaufman By

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Jazz cognoscenti may not think of Phoenix as a hotbed of great jazz. However, a confluence of factors contributes to a remarkably vibrant jazz scene. The city boasts a wealth of excellent jazz education programs spread across universities and community colleges. This has attracted great musicians and educators from around the country who play the local venues with some frequency. The music programs have also begun to produce the next generation of jazz musicians and they contribute much to the vibrancy of the scene. In addition, there are notable jazz concert series which offer performances in the many concert halls and theaters across the greater Phoenix area.

The Musical Instrument Museum and Lakeshore Music at Tempe Center for the Arts, in particular, are known for their excellence in jazz programming. However, The Nash, a nonprofit live music venue and educational facility in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, is unarguably the center of the local jazz universe. The Nash is named after Phoenix native and drummer par excellence, Lewis Nash. Nash has been actively involved in the life of the club since its inception in 2012. He has supported it in a multitude of ways including organizing semi-annual concerts that serve to raise funds for the Nash's many educational and outreach initiatives. The Nash was an outgrowth of the "Jazz in AZ" nonprofit organization co-founded in 1977 by former All About Jazz journalist Patricia Myers. Before her passing in early 2017, Myers played an important role in both promoting and reporting on the burgeoning Phoenix jazz community.

The Nash offers a full calendar of lives performance by local and touring musicians. It's an intimate venue with fine acoustics and site lines. It has been recognized by Downbeat Magazine as one of the top jazz venues in the United States for the last 4 years running. I have frequented the club since moving to the Phoenix area in early 2013. This is the first in a series on "In Picture" tributes to the venue and the musicians that play there. The title "Smokin' at The Nash" was inspired by great live jazz albums that are similarly named. It is also a nod to Smoke Jazz Club, the New York City temple of hard bop. Many musicians who have played at The Nash perform regularly at Smoke including Harold Mabern, Peter Bernstein, Eric Alexander, Eddie Henderson, Javon Jackson and Peter Washington. The first Nash article in the "In Pictures" series pays tribute to the visiting musicians who celebrate and expand that tradition.

Lewis Nash organizes annual concerts to celebrate the anniversary of the venues. He invites top flight jazz artists to perform with him at the Nash. As mentioned, these concerts are fundraisers and play a vital role in sustaining the venue and its many community activities. For their second anniversary (2013), Peter Washington, Barry Harris and Jimmy Heath joined Nash. Harris who was 85 years old at the time was in especially fine form, particularly when playing the music of Thelonious Monk. Heath turned 88 that week (he recently celebrated his 90th birthday) and was also in good form. He was in great humor, dancing, laughing and joking. The club was packed beyond capacity and it was truly a great celebration. The audience included people of all ages from 20s to 90s.

Lewis Nash brought an excellent group, named the Big Apple Quintet, to celebrate the Nash's 4th Anniversary. The group consisting of an excellent ensemble of New York based musicians who played a 90-minute set of originals and standards. Eric Alexander and Steve Davis on tenor saxophone and trombone were a formidable front line. Veteran pianist Larry Willis was liberally featured and played a gorgeous solo piano rendition of Duke Ellington's "Petal of a Rose." Willis has long been a talent deserving wider recognition. In his late 70s, his skills and musical artistry are undiminished. Lewis Nash is a remarkably versatile and musical drummer. On this occasion, he played with greater abandon/less restraint and was great fun to watch. All in all, a great evening of music.

In March of 2015, The Nash celebrated the music of jazz master Art Blakey featuring musicians who had performed with the great drummer and his group the Jazz Messengers (at various points in history) including group leader Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Bobby Watson (alto sax), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Benny Green (piano) and Peter Washington-(bass) and Lewis Nash anchoring the group. They played spirited versions of Jazz Messenger classics such as "Blues March," "Moanin'" and "Along Came Betty." The all-star band was in fine form and put on an outstanding show. The place was completely packed and very responsive. I've had the pleasure of seeing these musicians perform quite a number of times in various groups and settings, but had not seen Bobby Watson play in many years. It was great to see him in such fine form. Watson recently returned to The Nash to celebrate his recent recording Made in America. He fronted a group that included Stephen Scott (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass) and Lewis Nash. All were in great form. The rhythm section was afforded ample time to stretch out and did so brilliantly. They performed music mostly from his new recording, but also reached back into his catalog including selections from the brilliant Post-Motown Bop.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, performing with the Lewis Nash Trio, played two soldout shows at the Nash (March, 2016). I was very fortunate to catch the excellent second set. Salvant is a much celebrated and excellent young vocalist. She has a voice that is reminiscent of the vocal greats of years past, but is a rather distinct stylist. She was supported by an excellent group featuring Lewis Nash on drums, Renee Rosnes on piano and Peter Washington on bass.

Although many of the great tourist artists who visit The Nash are based in New York City, many others hail from Los Angeles and Chicago. Veteran Chicago tenor player and vocalist Juli Wood led a quartet. She was joined by fellow Chicagoan Mike Schlick on drums and excellent local pianist Mike Kocour (a Chicago native). They drew on compositions by great hard bop composers (e.g., Gigi Gryce, Monk, Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins), but selected compositions that are less commonly played (e.g., Pent- Up). A great highlight was a superb rendition of Dexter Gordon's "Cheesecake." Wood is a veteran musician who is intimately familiar with the compositions and plays with remarkable depth of feeling. She is a very engaging performer and also a fine singer.

This past February (2017), the Cory Weeds Quartet featuring Harold Mabern gave an exceptional performance at The Nash. Mabern, who had turned 81 around that time, was in superb form. He is at the top of his game and still plays with great firepower and grace. Cory Weeds, an excellent tenor player from Vancouver, is perhaps best known for Cory Weeds Jazz Cellar, a club he ran in Vancouver for 14 years. They were supported by a very fine rhythm section of Julian MacDonough on drums and Michael Glynn on bass. Although it's not widely known, Mabern is a very fine composer and has contributed compositions to many artists including the great Lee Morgan. The group played several of Mabern's tunes and drew on compositions that were associated with recordings that featured him including Hank Mobley's "Dippin.'" The music was steeped in hard bop tunes from the 1960s, a notable exception being a gorgeous rendition of Duke's "In a Sentimental Mood." Incidentally, several of the songs performed are featured on Weeds excellent recording As of Now that included Mabern.

Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Quintet appeared at The Nash this past February (2017) as part of their celebration of Black History Month. There is perhaps no artist more befitting to participate in such a celebration. Weston's music is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition and is richly infused by African rhythms (inspired by many years having lived on that continent). The core of this quintet has performed together, at least since the early 1990s.

Drummer Lewis Nash has periodically played with this group over the years. When I first saw them perform in the early '90s, they played with a lot of fire and their performances were exhilarating. Twenty-five years later, these fires have not diminished. The group performed mostly Weston compositions, originally written between the 1950s and '70s. They opened with a fine performance of "Little Niles" and really caught fire during "African Cookbook," the second song. The band was very ably led by T.K. Blue who is featured to great effect on alto and soprano saxophone as well as flute. Neal Clarke is a highly distinctive percussionist who brings an interesting tool kit and a wide range of timbres and sounds to the mix. Clarke and Lewis Nash constituted a formidable percussion section playing with great power, grace and much humor. Alex Blake," playing standup bass from a seated position and concentrating mostly on the lower register of the instrument (perfectly consonant with Weston's signature sound), was the most animated performer. His lengthy bass solos included frenetic runs, punctuated by fierce slapping and popping all accompanied by a unique brand of vocalese that would match the intensity of his bass playing and often used to great humorous effect. The 6'9 inch Randy Weston, soon to be 91 years of age, remains a commanding presence and master storyteller, though he plays piano more sparingly than he did in the past. They played perhaps six or seven songs, including the splendid "Blue Moses" and "Niger Mambo," stretched across a 100-minute set that was just outstanding. It was greeted very enthusiastically by a densely packed (sold-out) Nash crowd.
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