Sunday, July 28, 2013

Steve Allee Quintet cooks up good things at the Jazz Kitchen

When Steve Allee complimented the audience at the end of his band's first set at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night, it was more than a formality from a musician who is known for being unfailingly gracious.

Veteran pianist-bandleader Steve Allee
It actually was a great audience, quite attentive and appreciative in comparison with those at some of the Steve Allee sets I've heard at the Jazz Kitchen. On those occasions, it didn't seem such an accomplished artist and his bandmates should have had to work so hard to get a reasonable level of silence from patrons determined to regard  the performance as background music for conversation.

This time, Allee had put together a band whose exact personnel was unprecedented for him, though he's played with all the sidemen in various settings.  They were Dick Sisto, vibraphone; Rob Dixon, tenor saxophone; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

From the first number, Joe Henderson's "Isotope," on through the rousing Wayne Shorter tune that ended the set, this was a band with evident commitment to the music and each other. Henderson's fast blues showed off the quintet's cohesion, and was particularly notable for the deftness and shapeliness of the solos, which went round the ensemble from Sisto through Phelps.

The half-dozen compositions covered in the 90-minute set included just one original. Dixon's "Found by Love" is a new work inspired by a couple the saxophonist observed gradually getting together out of two solitudes at the Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown. The piece had a smoothly outlined, busy but unperturbed backdrop provided by the rhythm section.

Probably no other drummer in the city besides Phelps could have laid down such well-articulated, busy yet soft patterns behind the slow-moving theme. Dixon's solo was first among equals in this composition, and he led the band through an intense final episode before the performance came to a hushed conclusion.

The arrangements were quite appealing: John Coltrane's "Wise One" paid tribute to the original's meditative nature, but also found plenty of room — somewhat counterintuitively — for swinging, especially in solos by Sisto and Dixon. It approached its denouement through a stylistically adventurous unaccompanied piano solo that neatly took in Phelps' entrance on hand drums, soon joined by Tucker.

Another Coltrane classic, "Naima," was given a complex rhythmic underpinning. Phelps' distinctive style broadened to include the sort of "spread rhythm" (propulsive but free of emphasis on the beats) characteristic of Coltrane's essential percussionist, Elvin Jones. Sisto, who had been a little buried by the rhythm section's dense accompaniment texture behind his "Naima" solo, came into his own most conspicuously in Benny Golson's "Stablemates," dividing his effective solo into stirring four-mallet and two-mallet episodes.

All told, an exemplary set: small-group jazz of the highest quality in a club setting, where the music can be heard to best advantage.