Saturday, April 4, 2015

Steve Allee Big Band helps the Jazz Kitchen reach the traditional age of majority

Steve Alllee (right) helped celebrate success of David's club.
Just as it did 21 years ago, the Steve Allee Big Band helped mark a significant occasion in Indianapolis jazz history Friday night. Then, the occasion was the opening of a new club, the Jazz Kitchen, run by his son David from that day to this.

The birthday salute was high, wide, and handsome, judging from a first set to a full house. The pianist-bandleader has been a mainstay of the jazz scene here for even longer than the span of the Jazz Kitchen's climb to prosperous adulthood. Properly in this appearance, he featured mostly his arrangements, rendered by an expert band.

The 18-man ensemble is so experienced individually and collectively as to make apparently scant rehearsal time no obstacle to polished yet relaxed performances. That was evident from the opener, "Pure Spirit," an Allee original that amounts to a fond farewell at the end of his 2006 trio album. In its big-band form, it retained both its mellowness and its drive, and immediately showcased two band members based in Ohio — tenor saxophonist Chip McNeal  and flugelhornist Scott Belk; later,  Cincinnati vibraphonist Rusty Burge would be featured.

The lightly applied Allee wit was in evidence with "Three Hip Mice," spun out of the simple tune of "Three Blind Mice." Drummer Steve Houghton contributed well-crafted fills between phrases, and pungent solos were turned out by trombonist Loy Hetrick, trumpeter Mark Buselli, baritone saxophonist Ned Boyd, and tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon. (Buselli can also sound distinctive in simply stating a tune with slight paraphrasing, as he did to lead off a performance of Duke Ellington's "In a Mellotone.")

Allee tucked into the set a couple of inventive arrangements by Slide Hampton, the master trombonist who grew up in Indianapolis. One of them, the Brazilian standard "Amazon River," allowed the bandleader his most extensive solo of the evening, gently energized and lyrical. The other, of Eddie Harris' galvanic "Freedom Jazz Dance," took an oblique approach to the jumpy theme, making it all the more welcome when it arrived.

I was enjoying the progress of a Sandy Williams guitar solo when I thought: I would love a Mike Stricklin alto solo right about now. Lo and behold, the answer to a maiden's prayer! I won't hazard a guess as to how many maidens were in the audience, but my wish was fulfilled anyhow: Stricklin rose and laid out a characteristically soulful one, setting up the ensemble's return with a sly quote of Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre" before Houghton capped it all with a splendid solo.

Indianapolis greats were also saluted by performances of Freddie Hubbard's enduring "Little Sunflower," which opened with a subtle unaccompanied solo by bassist Nick Tucker and later featured trombonist Rich Dole, and Allee's "The Whistler,"a straightforward swinger remembering Russell Webster, an old-school saxophonist around town who was known as "the whistling postman," which ended the set.

Steve Houghton had brought in a more complex flag-waver (as they called them in the Swing Era) titled "Dangerous Curves," which featured an amazing vibes display by Burge, a searching Dixon solo — rootsy and free of cliches (both his own as well as ones in general use) — and a Belk trumpet outing that proceeded from Morse-code-like staccato phrases into a more sustained outburst as the ensemble swelled around him. It was just one of the many spine-tingling moments in a celebratory set.