Friday, September 15, 2017

Themed 'Hip Then, Hip Now,' Indy Jazz Fest looks to past glories while asserting present ones as well

Rob Dixon was bandleader and emcee as Indy Jazz Fest 2017 got under way.
Thelonious Monk's enduring companion and patient wife, Nellie, once said memorably of her often cryptic genius husband that he had "a marvelous sense of withdrawal."

Apparently, that trait applies posthumously as well, at least as far as the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest is concerned. As the 19th annual festival got under way at the University of Indianapolis, Monk was withdrawn from what had been advertised as a tripartite tribute concert to the birth centennials of three jazz giants. The other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, who were duly celebrated in a 90-minute concert of generally high quality at the University of Indianapolis.

1917 is to jazz what 1685 is to classical music's baroque era, when three geniuses first saw the light of day — J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Mark Buselli was occasionally Dizzyesque.
Program length may have been a consideration, yet it seems the unique pianist-composer — whose contributions to the music are still widely enjoyed and take many developing musicians profitably to school — could have been troweled into the program somewhere. His best-known piece, "'Round Midnight," might  have gotten an outing. If a quirky masterpiece like "Criss Cross" had been considered a little out there, one of his funky-sided tunes, like "I Mean You," would have been a natural. And if "'Round Midnight" had been the choice, there is a natural tie-in to one of the other honorees, because Gillespie contributed material at the beginning and end of the song that is usually considered an essential part of it, the way Barney Bigard's original clarinet solo in "Mood Indigo" became fused to the Duke Ellington composition.

I'm sure this excellent sextet knows its Monk: saxophonist Dixon, trumpeter and congas player Mark Buselli, trombonist Ernest Stuart, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. We heard good things from them in the Gillespie numbers: Buselli's plunger-muted solo in "Birks Works," following upon Allee's tidy, deep-rooted blues playing; Stuart's exuberant showcase in "Manteca," setting the stage for a delicious congas-drums duet bringing forward the excellence of the Buselli-Phelps partnership; and tenorman Dixon's  forthright staking of claims on "Groovin' High" territory.

Yvonne Allu held up the Ella end of the tribute concert.
True, Stuart sometimes sounded unfocused and scattered in his soloing, especially on "Groovin' High." And Tucker's typically alert work on bass came across somewhat blurred — the well-managed sound system still has disadvantages in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall where jazz is concerned. Tucker was clearest, joined to the subtlest of Phelps accompaniments, in "Birks Works."

Nonetheless, the pacing and variety of the show worked well, with instrumentalists taking turns sitting out now and then. There were several beautiful endings, drawing hushed audience responses before the applause.

The Ella portions of the concert were competently handled by vocalist Yvonne Allu.  She has a heavier instrument than Ella's, but she deployed it tastefully.  I missed hearing a few scat choruses on "How High the Moon," where Fitzgerald was accustomed to showing off her virtuosity.  But Allu went briefly into scatting elsewhere, and her spontaneity reached in the direction of Fitzgerald's genius for paraphrasing a melody. "Summertime" really rocked, and "Night and Day" featured an exquisite partnership between the singer and Buselli's flugelhorn.

As an ensemble achievement, "Manteca" came across a little lead-footed, though it always stirs up excitement. More cohesive, in part because the composition has a more interesting structure, was "A Night in Tunisia." Ahead of a performance late in his career with the United Nation Orchestra (whose drummer, Ignacio Berroa, brings his band to the festival next Wednesday at the Jazz Kitchen), Gillespie hilariously (and accurately) said of his classic: "It has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world and moved in an odyssey into the realm of the metaphysical."

No one could have put it better. And whatever that description may mean, the Indy Jazz Fest Band seemed to embody it Thursday night, no more so than in the flamboyant break with which Buselli launched his trumpet solo — Dizzyesque to the nth degree and harking back to a similar break taken in the golden age of bebop by Gillespie's confrere, Charlie Parker. That's metaphysical, bruthuh!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]