Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest at Indiana Landmarks: A jazz milestone and a signpost on the way forward

There was a wealth of honor paid to the modern jazz heritage Monday night in a re-creation of most of the "Birth of the Cool" repertoire, with which Miles Davis made the first of several influential changes in jazz.

But besides the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's painstaking but gratifyingly fresh presentation of that music at the Indiana Landmarks Center, there was a stupendous opening act that indicated the ongoing vitality of American jazz: the Zach Lapidus Trio.

Several years of familarity with Lapidus' performances around town have led me to expect music that is both stimulating and unfussily polished. He is a pianist with an oddly appropriate harmonic sense. Though moment to moment his choices may seem far-fetched, he always brings each oddity back into natural relationship with its context.

Zach Lapidus (Mark Sheldon photo)
In his current, astonishingly well-seasoned band, he enjoys the support of two spot-on, intuitive sidemen: bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Greg Artry. If the trio turns its attention to a pop standard, such as "It Could Happen to You," you can expect to find the tune's backbone in sturdy, flexible condition. And yet every flourish of originality from each member of the trio sounds essential to a single, developing concept. Such concepts, even when they seem intricate, attain unity along pathways that simply emerge, such as the overlay of 6/8 and 4/4 meters during the first part of Tucker's solo on that song.


If the pieces come from the jazz repertoire, their fruitfulness as grounds for group improvisation is abundant, as in David Berkman's "Fairy Tale" and Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio." In the latter tune, I admired the integrity and self-assurance of Tucker's walking bass — though as with most bassists for several decades, this conventional on-the-beat pattern is merely one arrow in his quiver. It was also fun to revel in the polyrhythmic density this trio can get into without becoming frazzled, much of it driven by Artry and readily seconded by Lapidus and Tucker.

The consistent rapport evident in this group often turned witty and playful at the ends of pieces, especially in dialogue between pianist and drummer.

A thorough study of Lapidus' originality, for enjoyment if not for the sake of studiousness, could be undertaken if his unaccompanied introduction and subsequent trio ruminations on Duke Elliington's "Solitude" had been recorded. Heard live just once, this performance was remarkable enough. I love this tune, but I did not expect to hear such an almost "outside" interpretation of it that was emotional enough to bring me close to tears. It made for a great tribute to an influential, much-admired local pianist, Claude Sifferlen, who died three-and-a-half years ago.

Such a tribute was also extended as an interlude in the BWJO "Birth of the Cool" set. Co-director Mark Buselli picked up his  fluegelhorn to lead the band's rhythm section in "Claude," a lovely ballad Buselli wrote in Sifferlen's memory.

BWJO's "Birth of the Cool" ensemble (Mark Sheldon photo)
Other departures from the "Birth of the Cool" repertoire amplified the view of post-war jazz in New York, specifically suggestions of a third way beyond the pitched opposition of bebop and traditionalist revival camps. Saxophonist Tom Walsh was featured in a quicksilver account of Lennie Tristano's "Ablution." As spirited as that was, BWJO pianist Luke Gillespie astounded the audience with a virtuoso solo piano interpretation of "You Don't Know What Love Is" that saluted Tristano stylistic devices such as an independent bass line in the left hand and free-floating atonal passages.

As for the "Birth of the Cool" material, I especially liked "Godchild," with the lively rumble of blended tuba and baritone saxophone starting things off; "Boplicity," for its relaxed velvet swing; "Venus de Milo," with its apt reminders that these arrangements, however novel, grew out of the Swing Era (saxophones riffing behind the trumpet solo); and the ever-lively set opener, "Move."

I would have not wanted the concert any longer, frankly. Still,
I missed John Lewis' "Rouge" a little bit, and "Darn That Dream" (even if BWJO had engaged a less glutinous singer than the original Kenny Hagood) not at all. I understand why co-director Brent Wallarab dropped "Moon Dreams," the other standard on the complete recording, but it's a historically important arrangement in that it so beautifully reflects the sound of the Claude Thornhill band for which "Birth of the Cool" father-figure Gil Evans pioneered a new kind of ensemble writing.