The Phantom Band at Birdland

Tyran Grillo By

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The Phantom Band
New York, NY
November 21, 2014

When pianist Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenorist Jimmy Greene, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Al Foster took to the Birdland stage to present its "Music of Joe Henderson" program, one thing was clear: these cats understand their history—Rosnes not least of all, having played in Henderson's quartet from 1987 until illness kept his reeds at bay. Foster, too, had backed Henderson in a variety of settings, hitting the skins alongside Charlie Haden in the incendiary Montreal Tapes record of 1989, also with Brecker on the trumpeter's 1993 leader date In The Idiom, and further with Mraz on a live album released the following year by the now-defunct Jazz Door label. Greene, as the youngest of the group better known as The Phantom Band, held his own and then some, evoking the honoree's flair for unpacking while bringing his distinctly cellular improvisations to quintessential themes.

Indeed, theme was the watchword as the band came swinging hard out of the gate with "Tetragon." A forthright intro opened the floor for a keynote solo from Brecker, who lit one torch after another as the night progressed, burning brightest in the Latin-flavored "Y Todavia la Quiero," for which his incremental structures dovetailed well into Greene's progressive kick. As ever, Rosnes rummaged deep in the pocket, pulling from it a surprising array of harmonies and leaps of intuition, and all of it stemming from Mraz's soulful intro. Foster held down the fort at every turn, ensuring that the backbeat was impervious, drawing in as much nutrition as possible from Rosnes's fertile chords. From this core trio spun the gig's most atmospheric threads, as in the urban swirl of "Inner Urge." Here Foster showed his truest, most swinging colors. Greene led the frenzy with squint-eyed confidence, hitting highs with rough-hewn elegance in a playful, precise setting.

Three more tunes came straight of Rosnes's Henderson tribute album, Black Narcissus. Two Henderson classics were highlights of the night. That album's title cut, a 3/4 slice of beauty as sweet as sunrise, wove its horns like tree branches. A sweeping undercurrent from Rosnes and Foster eased Mraz's stretching of lines during the trio phase. The pendulum of "Isotope" followed a different gravity, Brecker and Greene reading between the lines over waves of pianism. Rosnes displayed an unusually complex approach that served this music well, keeping its spirit in constant check but freeing the reins once in a while for effect. Duke Pearson's "You Know I Care" was the requisite ballad. Its initially dark waters flowed seamlessly into their surroundings, morphing into brighter tides.

The musicians approached this rich, and enriching, music like an origami master in reverse, unfolding often-complex motives into networks of creases and triangles. Their step-by-step exposition became more complex by the moment, but never crossed the cerebral line. While grounded in the changes, they were free enough to emote as if by rules of a dream, leaving us with the reality of a legacy that shows no signs of fading anytime soon.
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