Zen Zadravec: West Orange, NJ September 16, 2011

David A. Orthmann By

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Zen Zadravec
Cecil's Jazz Club
West Orange, NJ
September 16, 2011

The presence of bassist Bill Moring and drummer Eliot Zigmund on a New York City area bandstand virtually guarantees a nimble, efficient, swinging foundation, and bodes well for the success of any ensemble. Along with alto saxophonist Mark Gross, Moring and Zigmund served as subs for pianist Zen Zadravec's working band during a recent gig at Cecil's Jazz Club. While the combination of a pick-up band and the calling of standard tunes on the spot sometimes results in a bland, lackluster performance, Zadravec and his cohorts made for a cohesive team throughout a rewarding opening set.

The first indication that the gig was something other than mundane occurred only seconds into "Alone Together," the band's first selection. While Gross played the melody with a sharp, biting tone, Zadravec's chords fed the saxophonist and added another dimension to the music. The pianist's ability to excel in a supportive role occurred time and time again. A cluster of single notes emerged during a brief pause in Moring's "Alone Together" solo, while in the midst of Gross's "There Is No Great Love" turn, Zadravec took one of the saxophonist's phrases and quickly found another way to state it. In the case of "All Blues," he simply dropped out for long stretches of Gross's solo. Earlier he jabbed bassist Moring with riff-like chords and then lightly struck chords on the first beat of several bars.

Working economically and finding sustenance in Moring's and Zigmund's steadfast grooves, Zadravec's solos were every bit as impressive as his comping. At the outset of "There Is No Greater Love," he probed the lower end of the keyboard with his right hand, executing brief phrases and swinging tenaciously without playing a lot of notes. A flurry of brusque chords was answered by Zigmund's buzz roll. During "Alone Together," rhyming chords promptly followed short, single-note runs. A bouncing figure comprised of a chord and two single notes was repeated several times amidst Moring's and Zigmund's riveting momentum, Zadravec's concise style leaving plenty of room for Zigmund's booming bass drum accents.

Aside from tactfully putting his own stamp on the melodies of the standard material, Gross proved to be an engaging improviser. At the beginning of "There Is No Greater Love," his tone evolved from a thickset mass to something sharper and thinner. As Moring walked up a storm, Gross's bebop oriented lines became longer and more agitated. The saxophonist reached for a number of blues phrases on the tune's bridge, suddenly sounded unhinged for a few seconds, and then deliberately worked his way back into the pocket. For all of the changes in Gross's tone, phrasing, and dynamics, there was a genuine continuity from beginning to end. The ongoing tension between relaxed lines that carried some weight and the delivery of long exaggerated remarks throughout "Have You Met Miss Jones" was resolved in fluid, logical ways.

The unpleasant reality of under-rehearsed bands appearing in local clubs and other small venues is something that every jazz fan has to contend with. Regardless of the level of talent on stage, the lack of preparation sometimes makes us regret the time and resources we put into going out to hear these engagements. "There are no casual gigs," a veteran musician once told me. These words popped into my head a couple of minutes after the last note of Zadravec's band sounded. For an hour or so, they embodied—indeed, renewed my faith in—the commitment, passion, and willingness to face the unknown that jazz musicians put into live performance, regardless of the circumstances.

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