Denver has always had a thriving jazz community, and between the 1920s and 1950s, the Five Points neighborhood was the heart of the scene. Known as the "Harlem of the West," at its peak Five Points had over fifty bars and clubs, and played host to all the greats: pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington
, singers Billie Holiday
and Ella Fitzgerald
, saxophonist Charlie Parker
, and trumpeter Miles Davis
, just to name a few. Local players also kept things cooking, and soon enough the Five Points sound emerged, a brand of jazz characterized by red-hot swing and boundless joie de vivre
Thankfully the Five Points sound is still alive today, and the main keeper of the flame is pianist Purnell Steen and his group Le Jazz Machine. Now in his early seventies, Steen is a consummate performer who has a legion of devoted fans in his native Denver. Steen is also part of a musical dynasty, with relatives including vocalist Dianne Reeves
, pianist George Duke
, saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
, and bassist Charlie Burrell. Imagine Count Basie
's swing combined with Duke Ellington's "Love you madly" charm, topped off with a healthy dollop of Wild West spirit, and that's Purnell Steen and Le Jazz Machine.
Recorded live at Dazzle Jazz in Denver, This Little Light
is a perfect introduction to the Five Points magic. Steen is a generous leader who gives his sidemen plenty of solo space, and consequently these seven songs are nice and long, with five clocking in at over nine minutes. The title cut starts off the CD, and it would take a sour person indeed not to respond to the group's tremendous enthusiasm on this piece. Max Wagner's sax is fat and happy, trumpeter Hugh Ragin
is bright and strong, and Steen is just irresistible, with a rousing, jamming swing that will not quit. Mention must also be made of Fred Fuller, a quintessential bassist who anchors the group with Buddha-like calm, and drummer Todd Reid
, who keeps time like a Swiss watch and ensures that the swing cooks to the boiling point.
Other highlights include "A Night in Tunisia," which is propelled by Ragin's soaring trumpet, as well as a version of "Georgia" that's so evocative it's possible to feel the humidity and taste the peach cobbler. The CD wraps up with a rollicking take on the Ellington staple "Caravan," which includes a scorching solo by Wagner that just about steals the show. This Little Light
is bursting with the energy of a live performance, as well as Le Jazz Machine's trademark warmth and exuberance. This is joyful jazz at its best, proof that the legendary Five Points sound is not just a thing of the past, but a vital form of jazz that is still thriving right here, right now.