Thursday, May 30, 2013

Three stalwarts on the storied Chatterbox stage, and a tribute to 'Grew

I took in a good portion of the second set Zach Lapidus' trio played Thursday night at the Chatterbox Jazz Club. The passing street scene outside the decorated front window gradually acquired density and variety, realizing the fabled Massachusetts Avenue vibe.

With Nick Tucker on bass and Greg Artry on drums, pianist Lapidus was in good company — the kind he deservedly attracts on the bandstand with regularity. The first number, familiar-sounding but not anything I could put a name to, showed the spacious command this trio exercises over whatever it sets its mind and heart to.

Artry's roiling solo introduction to the second tune gave no particular hints that the group was about to sail into Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." A favorite of jazzmen since the beboppers, the standard is typically taken at a frisky pace. This performance was no exception, but Lapidus and his mates unpacked the song as though it came with instructions reading "Some assembly required, batteries not included."

Lapidus treated some of the wistful rising phrases of the song to a dizzying series of sequences. Following a well-grounded bass solo, the rendition gradually moved into a long coda, with just hints of that drooping tag applied to it since the '40s, mainly in Tucker's line. Artry and Lapidus kept the performance highly charged right to the end.

Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013) 
The romantic mood settled in for Ellington's "Solitude," which followed.  The tender treatment was sustained throughout, and a hush seemed to fall over the aptly dubbed Chatterbox.  I suspect that's rare, but I admit I'm not a club regular.

The pianist noted the passing yesterday of a post-bop master of his instrument, Mulgrew Miller, dead at 57 from a major stroke. The trio chose a fast-paced blues for a tribute, but not so fast as to lose its inherent dignity.  The drive was uppermost, though you can always count on a Lapidus blues to reach for something essential while avoiding the hackneyed. Tucker's solo was masterly, and, following full-chorus exchanges with the drummer, his colleagues sat out as Artry took a fiery, ingeniously inflected solo.

It amounted to a great eulogy in an idiom that never grows old. Miller's adept work (on record, at least) seemed to acquire greater stature in the past decade as he shed some of his early decorative playing. His live MAXJAZZ CDs repay repeated listening, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. I'll mention just one example from a recording made at Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif., that I listened to again a couple of days ago when I learned of the severity of his stroke. Because of its witty lyrics, "Comes Love" can easily be thought to require a singer to make any kind of effect. But this piano-centered rendition brims with great ideas, all of them laced with humor, as if Miller were channeling the lines that mention one fixable annoyance after another, contrasting them with "love, (about which) nothing can be done."

Miller's birthplace was amusingly misidentified in the fifth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz, the encyclopedic critical survey of jazz recordings written by Richard Cook and Brian Morton. It's fun to think of this elegant, soulful pianist as having been a product of "Greenwood, Minnesota" (no such place exists), but Miller was in fact a child of the Delta, and that probably allowed him to banish the merely pretty playing he fell into at times. Greenwood, Mississippi, with Memphis the musical lodestone to the north, proved to be indelible in a career cut off too soon.