Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bloomington's Caswell Sisters get their groove on for IVCI, Indiana Landmarks

The Cook Theater at Indiana Landmarks Center made a welcome home for a visit Tuesday night by the Caswell Sisters, fronting a five-piece group with a rhythm section their equal in rapport and panache.

Sara and Rachel Caswell (photo by John Abbott)
The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and Indiana Landmarks Center jointly sponsored the annual "jazz cabaret" in the IVCI's stellar Laureate Series of concerts.

Each sister has a style — Rachel as singer, Sara as violinist — that's straightforward but imbued with personality, not bland or cut from common cloth. It was particularly gratifying in Rachel's singing not to be confronted with a clutch of mannerisms too common among jazz vocalists.

In two sets brimming with vitality, the quintet entertained a large crowd enjoying food and drink at a number of round tables in the acoustically hospitable room. The initial full-ensemble assault in the first number must have been dialed back, for the thickness of the amplified sound soon dissipated, and the audience was treated to better balanced sound throughout the evening.

As Glen Kwok pointed out in his introduction to the music, Sara Caswell is well credentialed to be in the IVCI series.  She participated in the 2002 competition, the first Indiana native to be admitted. As part of the Josef Gingold studio since childhood she had made waves as a classical violinist before turning her focus to jazz at Indiana University.

Rachel Caswell is a skilled, seemingly intuitive scat vocalist, a near-match for her sister when the pace is frenetic. That was evident in such up-tempo numbers as "Asiatic Raes"and the rollicking "Sweet Adelphi," composed by Christine Jensen of another notable jazz sisters duo (trumpeter Ingrid Jensen completes that pair). Sara's glinting, ferocious solo set up a nicely complementary solo by Steve Allee, the top-drawer pianist of a rhythm section also including two Bloomington musicians, bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Steve Houghton.

Programming was exemplary, with the ballads nicely spaced amid the faster-paced pieces. I liked Rachel's unaffected delivery and apt phrasing in Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" and Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," both of them tenderly punctuated by Sara's violin.

The arrangements were ear-catching and fresh, too. "Bye Bye, Blackbird" was laid out with interesting rhythmic hitches in the familiar melody, complementing the violinist's long, arching lines. Charlie Haden's "First Song" provided a beautiful exposition of Sara's firm, mellow sound, and her nimble articulation got a showcase, again with Rachel taking a breather, in "Seven Rings," a Brazilian tune featuring a cymbal-intensive Houghton solo.
Sara's  original composition, "Stroll," demonstrated that striking novelty in the blues form is always possible, linked to a witty, offhand manner that was sustained by the ensemble solos and transmuted to a relaxed boogie-woogie feeling by Allen and Allee.

Solos all around characterized the vigorous fast samba that concluded the show, Nancy King's "I Sing for You,"  featuring a spirited bop unison passage for the sisters before the final chorus put a seal on this exhilarating demonstration of sibling excellence backed up by three worthy peers.