Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest: Two Butler musicians show the benefits of dialogue-based jazz

It's more than academic when Gary Walters and Shawn Goodman get together to make music, though an academic setting seemed a comfortable place for the two Butler University faculty members to present a concert Tuesday night.

Partly a CD release party for the clarinet-piano duo's  "Not Benny's Goodman," the performance took place under  the Indy Jazz Fest umbrella, besides being the third presentation in Butler's 2013-14 Faculty Artist Series.

Walters and Goodman sounded well-attuned to each other in the eight-piece program, but not consistently to the hall. There were signs that Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall may have been too live a room to be hospitable to everything they played.

Goodman has an ease and expressiveness in the clarinet's low register, evident especially in "Infant Eyes" (Wayne Shorter) and "A Child Is Born" (Thad Jones). Her frisky sweeps into the highest range were exciting, if sometimes in danger of being overblown. Her imagination is active and suited to her long-breathed phrasing, though to my ears it wasn't until the finale, "Dear Old Stockholm," that the suppleness and warmth of those long phrases became fully evident.

The duo sounded quite comfortable with the set's one straight-ahead swinger, a Swedish folk song associated with saxophonist Stan Getz. Walters kept his accompanying subordinate, whereas earlier he had tended to cover the clarinet from time to time. For a while, he put a nice bass line underneath Goodman's solo, as he had earlier in "Embraceable You."

In a club gig, a second set might have found the duo really hitting its stride. I say that because the next-to-last song,  "It Never Entered My Mind," also found success.The tune was stated clearly early on, and Walters gave himself more breathing room in his solo. Clarinet-piano balance was even and practically 
Clarinetist-educator Shawn Goodman
life-affirming.

Though there's no jazz rule against it, it can be a mistake to delay stating the original melody: The musicians are feeling a context that the audience hasn't discerned, even those who may know the tune. With "A Child Is Born," for example, both players were too ruminative at first; their subsequent flamboyance while soloing would have made more sense if a stronger outline had been given to the melody from the outset.

The program opened with a wistful, Latin-flavored original by Walters, "Chaz Carter," a tribute to a deceased colleague active around town for many years, Chuck Carter.  The composer's lengthy solo made the tribute especially personal.

Though the concert was rich in mellow moments, there was plenty of muscle-flexing, too — some of it apt, some of it less so. Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" was an overfertilized bloom for most of its duration, settling down after each player soloed. The balance, way out of whack at first, became more natural toward the end.

"Moonlight in Vermont" got unconventional treatment, jumpy and rather angular, but attractive and fresh, too. In their solos, both players were inspired by the churning arrangement to deliver floods of sound. This must have been moonlight in the Vermont of 2011 and, to some degree, earlier this year. Sometimes a sentimental song needs to be shaken by the shoulders and told to stop admiring itself — even while basking in moonbeams. That's what Walters and Goodman took it upon themselves to do. Lesson learned, class dismissed.