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The Nash Second Anniversary in Phoenix

Patricia Myers By

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The Nash Second Anniversary
The Nash/Private Home
Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona
October 31, November 1-2, 2014

There's something about the way Lewis Nash plays drums. No, there's everything about the way he plays drums—selectively, tastefully, underplaying vs. bombastic; in a word, elegantly. Nash's classy combination of swing and sophistication was abundantly evident during two weekend concerts with two NEA Jazz Masters, tenor/soprano saxophonist Jimmy Heath, 88, and pianist Barry Harris, 84.

The legendary beboppers were brilliant stars of the second anniversary for The Nash, a jazz performance and educational facility in Phoenix, operated by Jazz in Arizona and named for the Phoenix-born drummer. Two totally improvised sets featured the duo with Nash and bassist Peter Washington to create the highest musical peaks of the five-event weekend.

The longtime New York musicians performed with the Washington-Lewis duo, Harris first in a trio setting for "Woody 'n' You," written in 1943 by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as an homage to bandleader-clarinetist Woody Herman. The chart was elevated by a segment of fours that featured Nash replicating a succession of Harris' lively riffs.

Then Harris turned toward the audience to ask, "What should we play next?" Someone called out the numbers 6-7-3-55, causing the pianist to laugh, because it was a reference to the previous night's concert when Harris had requested five numerals from the audience, then improvised a chart from those notes on the keyboard. This night, he declared, "Only one chorus this time" and played just that before launching "It Could Happen to You." That melody segued into "Prelude to a Kiss," then "I'll Keep Loving You," written by Harris' early idol, Bud Powell. Each segment was illuminated by Washington's stylish acoustic bass progressions and Nash's well-placed percussive choices.

Saxophonist Heath then joined the trio and performed his original, "Winter Sleeves," calling it his sequel to "Autumn Leaves." Heath demonstrated a rich tenor tone and amazing dexterity, Nash offering a bare-hands solo segment. Heath said he met Nash in 1982, a year after the then-21-year-old Arizona drummer moved to New York City to work for vocalist Betty Carter.

Heath switched to straight soprano sax to deliver fluid lyricism on a waltz-tempo rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream." He went back to the tenor for Louis Jordan's infectious "Riffs on a Shuffle," then closed the first of the evening's two concerts with Blue Mitchell's calypso treat, "Fuji Mama."

The night's second concert for a new audience again started with the piano trio, Harris delivering an agile improvisation of "This Nearly Was Mine," sparked by his trading-fours segment with Nash. Heath then joined to inject angular tenor progressions on "All the Things You Are." He moved into the 1950s Mal Waldron chart "Soul Eyes" that the saxophonist quipped should be titled "Old Eyes" now, even as those eyes sparkled when he danced in place between solos.

Taking up the soprano again, Heath crooned "'Round Midnight" while responding to Harris' intriguing tempo changes. "Freedom Jazz Dance" was an upbeat treat as both veterans engaged in bebop riffs, Nash adding his entertaining vocal scat form that induced a roomful of smiling faces. Nash followed that with an exciting and often bombastic solo. Then it was time for a closing selection, Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" that had the veterans shifting into angular minor moves that the pair filled with melodic quotes.

The previous night, Harris performed in a trio setting with Nash and Washington for a cocktail party in the palatial Scottsdale home of Don and Yvonne Bland. This was when the pianist introduced his "number song" (the aforementioned 6-7-3-55 sequence) that he turned into a sing-along. Harris then threw a bit of a curve to his colleagues by introing his original ballad, "Sometimes Today Seems Like Yesterday." Even without charts to guide them, Washington and Nash both soon joined in to support this unknown melody. Staying in a similar mode, Harris' elegant keyboard style was further defined via a waltz-tempo foray into "Prelude to a Kiss," his quote interjections frequently saluting Thelonious Monk.

"All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" from 1937 was performed in super-fast tempo, Harris creating cascades of notes and bold chords that refuted his age. Featured on "All the Things You Are" was a guest performer, 14-year-old alto player Alex Yuwen, whose tone and fully developed solo were remarkable for his age. The final selection was another Harris original, "Nascimento," during which Nash added a bare-hands sequence, Harris standing up to lead the audience singing "la-la-la" and hand-clapping for a joyous end to the evening.

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