Kimmel Center for the Peforming Arts
November 18, 2005
This concert maintained the particular focus on Philadelphia musicians of the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel. Odean Pope is a Philadelphia legend, who worked with John Coltrane, Max Roach and many other jazz masters. His saxophone choir members mostly hail from Philadelphia. Ravi Coltrane's father is from Philly, and Ravi has maintained that connection. McBride is a Philadelphia native who attended CAPA (The High School of Creative and Performing Arts) here. The sound of both the Pope and McBride groups gestated and developed in the Philly neighborhoods of Germantown, North Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia. It is a driving rhythm and blues sound that could be heard in the clubs in these areas during the 1960's and '70's. Somewhere in the musical background were Sun Ra and his Arkestra, a "far out big band whose "planetary music earned it a too little known place in the history of modern jazz. Not to mention Joe Sudler's Dream Machine. (Joe plays baritone sax in the Pope Choir.) And also in the artistic background was Joe's sister, Monique, one of the best jazz guitarists of all time, in my opinion.
Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir is the equivalent of an expanded big band saxophone section. For this concert, Pope wrote arrangements reminiscient of Ellington, Basie, and Kenton. The word "Choir connotes a classical chorus, but this was anything but. Rather, we were treated to a swinging big band sound where the augmented saxophones did the work of the trumpet and trombone sections.
Opening with a Pope composition entitled "E-pity Me (a nod to Monk's "Epistrophy ), which had an Ellingtonian flavor and demonstrated Pope's use of "circular breathing (the player simultaneously inhales and exhales, allowing him to play very lengthy phrases without pausing). I feared that this might be a gimmick- one I have heard both brass and woodwind musicians use with no particular virtue- but Pope puts it to good musical effect for expansive runs that go along with his powerful blowing, which has a gruff but lyrical sound with hard articulation and rhythmic precision. I appreciated that each saxophonist in the group has a unique style, yet they blended together seamlessly. Their sound, as well as that of the compelling and forceful rhythm section, filled Verizon Hall to the rafters, yet was never overbearing.
The Basie influence was present in a piece entitled "Prince Orsay with its fast-paced, driving rhythm and a truly virtuosic solo by Pope. It was followed by a lyrical tune that Pope dedicated to his wife, "The Better Half of Me. "Little Miss Lady had a contemporary feel with dissonances and blaring choruses reminiscent of the Kenton orchestra. In a striking blues ballad, whose name I don't recall, Tyrone Brown did a haunting and heart-rending bass solo with exceptional technical prowess, making huge leaps from low to high register and back again. Ravi Coltrane came on for three tunes written by his father, John, including "Central Park West and "Giant Steps. Ravi sat in with the sax choir- probably sight-reading- and took some marvelous solos that captured Trane's intentions while maintaining Ravi's creative influence in everything that he does. In his rendition of "Giant Steps, Ravi repeatedly emphasized the major third intervals and key changes that formed the basis of this composition and are often sloughed over by less astute musicians. Lewis Porter offers an excellent discussion of this ground-breaking piece in "John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1998).
The Pope Choir ended its strong-suited set with a tune reminiscent of "Caravan, which, like Ravel's "Bolero, developed its intensity gradually, ending up with simultaneous solos by all the sax players, as they pranced around the stage in animalistic wildness, creating their own Stravinsky-esque "Rite of Spring!
Following the intermission, McBride and his band came on, McBride in a funky cap, and saxophonist Ron Blake, with a basketball player's tall, lean physique standing "above the crowd, creating a slightly amusing "Our Gang feeling on stage. McBride exuded enthusiasm in his brief commentaries and his obvious satisfaction of performing with his own band, which he does not do as often as he would like. The group started with a tune called "E Gad, and McBride's genuine superiority on the upright bass was immediately evident in the quality of his sound and rapid tightly done runs all over the range of the instrument. I am certain that his technique would be the envy of even the best classical bass players. He was as articulate on this massive instrument as if he were playing a violin or a cello.
Following "Sonic Tonic and "Far from You, the group did a tune written by the great all too short-lived electric bassist, Jaco Pretorius, a Pennsylvania native, followed by a piece in waltz time done with astonishing rapidity. McBride has assembled a group of virtuosos who match his technical mastery and rhythmic intensity. Drummer Craig McIver, for example, outdid himself with an extended solo that brought the house down and virtually recapitulated jazz drumming from the 1940's to the present day. McIver has mastered the art of playing simultaneously in differing time signatures of which Joe Morello was the "resident genius with the Brubeck Quartet.
Both the Pope and McBride groups received well-deserved standing ovations. They combined creativity, virtuosity, and musical excitement in ways that did more than justice to the great Philly Jazz tradition.
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir: Odean Pope: director and tenor sax soloist; Julian Pressley, Sam Reed, Louis Taylor: alto saxophones; Elliott Levin, Terry Lawson, Terrence Brown, Seth Meicht: tenor saxophones; Joe Sudler: baritone saxophone; Tyrone Brown, upright bass; George Burton, piano; Craig McIver, drums; Ravi Coltrane, guest tenor saxophonist and soloist
Christian McBride Band: Christian McBride: electric and acoustic bass; Ron Blake: tenor and soprano saxophones and flute; Geoffrey Keezer: piano and keyboards; Terreon Gully: drums
This article is dedicated by its author to the beloved memory of Suzanne Sonne, who passed away in early November, 2005. "Suzy" was the wife of my mentor and friend Dr. John Sonne of Galena, MD, Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University. Suzy was a bringer of love and peace to everyone she met. She will be deeply missed.