Vincent Herring Philadelphia Museum Of Art Philadelphia PA June 23, 2006
"Vincent Herring" and "smooth jazz" are, somehow, words that do not easily roll off the tongue together. Judging from several recent appearances, saxophonist Herring, who has developed one of the most clearly defined voices on alto in mainstream jazz, is apparently switching gears from a traditional bop sound to a contemporary jazz sound.
Herring is currently touring in support of his latest release Jazz Earth Agents. The current release features Herring (saxophone), Anthony Wonsey (piano), Richie Goods (double bass & electric bass), and Jouris Dudli (drums.)
Due to unfortunate traffic problems, the band started this performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art forty minutes late and were forced to perform a truncated first set. The set began with a mid-tempo version of "Norwegian Wood which featured a wonderful two-handed run by Wonsey. Staying in a boppish mode, the band then played "You've Changed with the high points being a "deep in the pocket" solo by Goods and a complex and powerful solo by Herring.
Smooth jazz began creeping into their second set, starting with the classic standard "Speak Low which had Goods switching to electric bass. The second song, perhaps the most interesting of this set, featured Herring playing tenor on the engaging Wonsey original "Pamela. One could easily imagine "Pamela as a beautiful traditional mainstream jazz ballad using a double bass instead of the electric.
The only tune in the second set free of the smooth jazz feel was an early Herring tune "Dawnbird, which began with a Dudli solo that would have made Blakey proud, but this was the only song on which he really kicked into high gear. Things picked up even more when the rest of the band joined in for the remainder of the song.
The set then quickly retreated to the "smooth jazz groove with an original tune by Goods entitled "At The Moment. With the exception of "Dawnbird, the second set did not swing nor did it provide any risk-taking by the band. Although the compositions were artfully arranged and some of the melodies were memorable, the groove was bland. It reminds me somewhat of the Crusaders of the 1980's. Giving credit where it is due, Herring's music is still much more interesting than the pop without vocals elevator music one usually associates with smooth jazz.
With the band's current contemporary sound, Herring may be reaching for a new audience, or is just trying something new or something outside of the box. The result was that the evening had a disjointed, almost schizophrenic feel. The dichotomy between (and even within) songs was discordant.
If this project is not just a detour but a new path for Herring, it will interesting to see how his long-time listeners react to this new sound. It will also be worth keeping an eye on Wonsey and which path his chooses to take on his own career. This young pianist recently released his own recording, The Thang, an excellent mainstream effort.