The Grove Park Inn, a luxurious old resort hotel and spa in Asheville, North Carolina, hosts an annual “All That Jazz” weekend every winter. The final evening’s festivities began with a solo set by guitarist Gene Bertoncini, introduced by emcee Maddy Winer as the “Segovia of jazz.” In his remarks to the audience, Bertoncini admitted that he had trained as an architect at Notre Dame, but opted for a musical career. When asked why during an interview a number of years ago, his musical partner at the time, bassist Michael Moore (now a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet), chimed in “Because the bridge collapsed.”
The veteran guitarist opened with one of Johnny Mandel’s loveliest ballads, “The Shadow of Your Smile” (written for the film “The Sandpiper”). Bertoncini’s development of the theme was gorgeous, as it slowly grew more intricate. Brazilian music has always been one of his specialties, so his interpretation of Jobim’s well known bossa nova “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars”) proved to be another lyrical masterpiece. The next selection was a surprising medley: “How are Things in Glocca Mora?,” with an almost Middle Eastern flavored introduction, which then segued directly into a brisk treatment of Claude Thornhill’s theme song, “Snowfall,” recast in a brisk arrangement with brilliant improvised choruses.
Bertoncini then told his hushed audience that he thought he’d like to play a few Broadway tunes. His started off with an unusual song not typically heard in a jazz setting, “March of the Siamese Children,” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s hit musical “The King & I.” It was hard to keep up with Bertoncini’s free flowing medley, which often moved onto the next song before I could begin to name the one I had just heard. Some of the other selections included “One Morning in May,” “If I Loved You,” “There is No Greater Love,” and finally, two more pieces by Rodgers & Hammerstein: “Hello Young Lovers” (also from “The King & I”) and a delicate finale of “Edelweiss” (from “The Sound of Music”). Bertoncini then invited Ms. Winer onto the stage to sing a duet of Jobim’s “Dindi” with him to wrap his delightful set.
Before anyone could get out of his or her seat to stretch, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was promptly introduced, though before all of its members were assembled offstage, so the pianist took the stage with bassist Michael Moore and asked how everyone liked his “quartet.” Alto saxophonist Bobby Militello and drummer Randy Jones appeared in a moment, though Brubeck proved to be in a rather talkative mood as he told of the making of his upcoming Telarc release “Park Avenue South,” which was recorded in the wee hours of the morning at a Starbuck’s in Manhattan to reduce noise levels from sirens and subway trains running underneath the coffee house. He described constantly seeing people staring through the window during the gig, mouthing “Let me in,” as if he was going to get up from the piano to do so. He also mentioned that this was the quartet’s first concert of the year; they seemed very rested, yet also well prepared for the challenging evening which lay ahead.
The first of Brubeck’s two sets at the Grove Park Inn didn’t begin with his frequent choice, “St. Louis Blues;” instead he opted for another great standard, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The piece was highlighted by Militello’s soulful playing, an extended solo by Moore (critic Whitney Balliett’s choice as the top jazz bassist now active, with which I’m inclined to agree), as well as a great series of chorus trading between Brubeck and Moore. The leader, who seemed in a extremely lively mood, was full of humor, particularly working in a series of brief quotes, including a snatch of “Peter and the Wolf.” The next song, “I Got Rhythm,” got well away from the expected path with some wild improvisations far beyond Gershwin’s original conception. “Theme for June,” a gorgeous melody composed by Howard Brubeck, the pianist’s late older brother, quieted things down. “Sometimes I’m Happy” is not a piece one would typically expect to hear during a Dave Brubeck concert, though he has previously recorded it. It just came to him in a flash on stage; later on, he playfully utilized Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” as a vamp in support of Militello’s solo. Although Brubeck may not have been the first to record “Someday My Prince Will Come” (though he beat Miles Davis to the punch by several years), it has long been a part of his concert repertoire. Only the sharpest fans picked up on its theme as the pianist quietly introduced it in a somewhat stripped setting. Then he launched into his buoyant up tempo arrangement of its theme, which remains fresh after hundreds of performances and several recordings, again working in a number of quick quotes for fun, including a salute to his old friend, the late Gerry Mulligan, with a few bars from Mulligan’s “Jeru.”
During intermission, Brubeck was amazed when someone commented backstage that he hadn’t performed anything from his vast library of original compositions during the first set. After a discussion with his musicians, he had yet another surprise up his sleeve. He announced that they going to be playing his “Elementals,” an extended work for jazz quartet and orchestra at an upcoming concert, so he decided that they could rehearse a portion of it on stage, a piece he had never played with just the quartet. “Just the two middle pages,” he said, “because the rest is too hard. I oughta know, because I wrote it.” The audience wasn’t disappointed at all. Next was a new composition, “Elegy,” written for Swedish journalist Randi Hultin, who befriended many touring jazz musicians by hosting them in her home. The piece was written in her honor and originally titled “Blues for Randi.” Hultin, who was extremely ill with cancer, vowed to attend its debut performance at an Oslo concert after seeing the sheet music, but died before it took place. This very mournful instrumental evokes Brubeck’s sense of loss of a good friend, with Militello’s lyrical flute and Moore’s delicious arco bass helping to convey the mood. This was one of four songs heard in Asheville which are also a part of the upcoming “Park Avenue South” CD.
For some reason, many writers insist on referring to Dave Brubeck as “West Coast Jazz” or a member of the “Cool” school, though his style of writing and playing is far more diverse. A perfect example is the thunderous “Crescent City Stomp,” which was originally titled “Shilling,” in honor of the pianist’s long time manager, Russell Shilling Gloyd. I was present at its public premiere in 1998 during a concert in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nancy Wade, Brubeck’s goddaughter (who also assists him in editing his choral music), requested that he perform this challenging work, which was so new that the members of the quartet still had to sight read it to navigate its difficult changes. Although it was recorded on several occasions, Brubeck was never quite satisfied with any of them, until the recent set at Starbuck’s. Upon hearing it some four plus years later, there was absolutely no hesitation in the group as they plunged into this turbulent post-bop vehicle, driven by a New Orleans drum riff which Brubeck had heard all over the Crescent City.
The end of the second set was yet another twist. Brubeck began noodling around very slowly and faintly with “Take Five,” which most of the audience failed to catch. With its bluesy tone and sparse arrangement, it sounded much like a soundtrack to a late night street scene in a detective movie. This refreshing look at a piece demanded at every Brubeck concert for over 40 years was extremely welcome. Finally, the rest of the crowd caught on as Brubeck switched to his famous vamp, providing the fuel for Militello’s often dissonant and consistently explosive solo. Randy Jones, who has worked continuously with Brubeck for almost 24 years (longer than anyone else), was the focal point of “Take Five” and wowed the audience with his creative solo.
Finally, Gene Bertoncini, who is no stranger to working with Brubeck (having performed with the pianist during his annual concert featuring his Mexican flavored choral cantata “La Fiesta de la Posada”), joined the quartet for a rousing finale of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It is a safe bet that no one in the packed ballroom went home disappointed.