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Tony Miceli Quintet at Chris’ Jazz Café


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Tony Miceli Quintet
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
April 5, 2024

Vibraphonist Tony Miceli has a way of drawing talent around him like a magnet. Of course, it's because of his exceptional musicianship, but he also has a knack for creating interesting situations for playing. This time, he brought together four other jazz masters for a retro take on hard bop. Their virtuosity and musical imagination made the set come alive as if time had not passed since those heady times in the 1950s. It had the lively feeling of a jam session while at the same time, they all minded the store for a serious gig. With Paul Bollenback on guitar, Chris Farr on saxophone, Lee Smith on bass, and Byron Landham on drums, many of us would go out of our way to hear any one of them.

They played several standards with a couple of offbeat lesser-known tunes interspersed among them. For example, Ray Brown's "FSR: For Sonny Rollins " is played about as often as a solar eclipse. But it's a great tune that provided a warmup and workout for the group. Each had his own way of going about it. Bollenback started with the warm sound and relaxed but firm pulse of Jim Hall, but often segued into thinner softer swift runs. Miceli used his famous but paradoxically little known "stoned grip" with four mallets to produce complex changes, sounding like a worthy descendent of Milt Jackson. Farr was more reserved on saxophone, just seeking interesting changes. Lee Smith brought forth his rich inimitable sound on bass, and he was always inserting a unique phrase or line into the mix. Then each of them traded fours and eights with Landham, whose playing was like a cross-pollination of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach.

Cole Porter's "I Love You" featured songbook-like solos by Farr and Bollenback, while Smith upset the applecart by bringing in a bit of dissonance and struggle. The group went around the room a few times with solos and then Farr traded with Landham. They played around with some chord changes and modes, but frankly some listeners might have preferred a faster pace for this perennial.

There were so many times when the late great tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna graced Chris' stage, so it was a pleasure to hear one of his original tunes again. McKenna had an understated sense of humor, and he wrote a "contrafact" alternative tune around standard changes, in this case those of "How Deep is the Ocean?" which he cleverly called "Is It Over My Head?" Bollenback comped like Jim Hall for a while and then went his own sweet way on his solo. Solos by Farr and Smith kept the action going, but Landham's playing was most notable. There aren't many drummers who can paint an impressionist picture with colorations as subtle as he, a rare drummer you could rightly describe as "painterly."

Another standard, "The Nearness of You" began with the melody stated by the saxophone and the refrain by the guitar. Farr's playing shifted to a decidedly Stan Getz style that was perfect for this tune. Bollenback and Miceli contributed assertive yet lyrical solos as well.

The set concluded with Wes Montgomery's "Fried Pies" which allowed Bollenback to produce a beautiful tribute to Montgomery, and maybe as well to Pat Martino. There were great solos by Farr and then Miceli. Smith began his solo with an amazingly lifelike bagpipe sound (or maybe it was the sound of fried pies?) All of the musicians came on simultaneously in the final chorus, creating what in the hard bop era would have been a harbinger of free jazz co-improvising.


Tony Miceli: vibraphone and leader; Paul Bollenback: guitar; Chris Farr: saxophone; Lee Smith: bass; Byron Landham: drums.

Set List

FSR: For Sonny Rollins (Ray Brown); I Love You (Cole Porter); Is It Over My Head? (Larry McKenna); The Nearness of You (Hoagy Carmichael); Fried Pies (Wes Montgomery).

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