Monday, September 15, 2014

Indy Jazz Fest: Steve Turre leads quintet, including two players with strong local backgrounds, in J.J. Johnson tribute concert

During Steve Turre's first appearance with his band at the Jazz Kitchen in the 1990s, the audience included a distinguished guest: J.J. Johnson, father-figure to all modern jazz trombonists and an Indianapolis native son who returned home late in life.

Shortly before his retirement, Johnson had brought his band into the club, owner David Allee reminded a large audience Sunday evening at the Indiana Landmarks Center, and sold out three nights running. Allee still remembers it as a highlight in the 20-year history of the Jazz Kitchen that helped set its direction.

Steve Turre listens, Javon Jackson solos with the rhythm section.
Turre was also on hand at Johnson's memorial service here in 2001. The bond between the two musicians clearly went beyond routine professional respect. So Turre came back to town for a centerpiece Indy Jazz Fest concert specifically focused on the Johnson legacy.

All the music came from Johnson's pen. And a trombonist full of pep and stamina — as Turre remains these days at the age of 66 — provided just the sort of expansive tribute Johnson deserves in his hometown.

On piano was Steve Allee, celebrating his birthday in grand fashion, playing hotter than almost anytime I've heard him since he sat in with the late James Moody many years ago at the Kitchen.  "Hotter" doesn't necessarily mean better, as Allee always delivers something good and seems to work well with anybody. But "hot" is good when the context demands it, and the pianist set the thermostat way up there when called for.

Also in the rhythm section was drummer Greg Artry, who made an indelible impression on the Indianapolis jazz scene before his recent move to Chicago, and veteran Chicago bassist Larry Gray. After Turre and this group got loose and expansive together in "Bloozineff," the trombonist was featured in a magisterial reading of "Lament," Johnson's most famous piece. Gray's pungent tone and keen phrasing were remarkable aspects of both.

From then on, the smooth-working group became a quintet, as tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson came onstage for the fast-moving "Overdrive."  Such hell-bent-for-leather pieces were relieved occasionally with something more deliberate and tender, such as "Carolyn in the Morning," which Johnson wrote for his wife, now his widow, who delivered a gracious thank-you speech before the music started.

 Jackson's solo was particularly well-focused and full of feeling, and Allee's was notable for its lightness, backed up by Artry's deft touch with the brushes. The group's fitness as an ensemble was amply demonstrated by its poise in Johnson's tricky "Sidewinder."

With sticks in his hands, Artry is a monster. He showed that first on whirling, cascading fills between alternating four-bar statements by Turre and Jackson. That was well into a skittering piece called "Tea Pot," based on the harmonic underpinning of "Sweet Georgia Brown." (It was instructive to hear, just two days apart,  two different contrafacts on this familiar tune, well-known in a whistled version as the Harlem Globetrotters' warm-up music. The Claire Daly Quartet played Thelonious Monk's much different "Bright Mississippi" Tuesday night at the Kitchen.)

Artry cut loose in the finale, "Coffee Pot," which — as Turre pointed out, is hypercaffeinated in comparison with "Tea Pot." The drummer's solo was simply the most high-profile feature of an all-out blast from the band. The leader's trombone stayed rambunctious and full of ideas to the very end, making the tribute more than a memorial occasion. Instead, it was a display of a top trombonist's staying power and his unassailable aptitude as a bandleader with a mission.

(Photo credit: Rob Ambrose)