While it’s often assumed that only the big cities can entice touring jazz names to their concert venues, the fact remains that there are pockets of activity in unlikely places throughout the country that would surprise even the most avid of jazz followers. Such is the case with each year’s series of jazz concerts presented by the Dayton arts support organization Cityfolk at the venerable downtown watering hole known as Gilly’s. When it comes to some of the best places to hear jazz in the United States, this club ranks up there with the best of them thanks to great sight lines and a sound mix that is never too overpowering but exact enough to render each instrument clearly. Simply put, there’s not a bad seat in the house.
As a culmination of his year long position as Cityfolk’s Jazz Artist-in-Residence, saxophonist and composer Steve Wilson brought his own quartet to Gilly’s for two inspired sets. A brief opener was provided by a student ensemble from the Stivers School of the Arts, where Wilson spent much of his residency working with director Claude Thomas and the students themselves. Then Wilson’s quartet took the stage, with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Jonathan Blake rounding out the group. Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” served as fodder for Wilson’s fluid alto, his voice only getting stronger and more individualistic over the years to the point that his influences have been assimilated into a style all his own.
The Keith Jarrett opus “Days and Nights Waiting” served as a perfect example of the kind of telepathy that this group shares. Going in and out of tempo in an extremely unified manner, Wilson’s soprano soared over the carpet laid down by Howard and Blake. The bebop warhorse “Woody ‘n’ You” also proved challenging in a new guise, shifting from Latin to bop and getting underway with a free duet between alto and drums. From his upcoming MaxJazz release, Wilson demonstrated his wares as an arranger of pop ditties in the guise of Stevie Wonder’s “Easy Goin’ Evening,” making it a true crowd pleaser in the process.
While not quite as long, the second set commenced with a newly commissioned work that Wilson had yet to title as of that evening. He picked up the clarinet to start things off, sounding very Giuffre-ish in the establishment of the work’s first section. Then, a rumba beat found Barth soloing with a creative flair that was something to marvel. In fact, over the course of the entire evening it was the pianist who impressed the most, with a jubilant style that mixed modal elements of Tyner with the bluesy eloquence of Wynton Kelly. David Hazeltine’s arrangement of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” got the crowd going just prior to Barth’s boppish “The Lexter” which concluded things on a highly incendiary note.