Thursday, March 8, 2018

Freddie Mendoza heads a quartet, with an academic colleague sitting in

The trombonist from Texas who has in recent years made his mark on the local jazz scene, anchored by academic positions — first at the University of Indianapolis, now at Ball State University,  put together a quartet for a Jazz Kitchen engagement Wednesday night.

It's good to have Freddie Mendoza come down from Muncie now and then for such gigs. His Indianapolis-based collaborators on the bandstand this time were top-drawer players: pianist Steven Jones, bassist Brandon Meeks, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

Jones in particular is infrequently a Mendoza sideman, but his adaptability was quite apparent. I want to single out "Here's That Rainy Day" to honor the freshness and aptness of his playing, starting from the compact introduction he offered to a ballad showcase for the leader. Mendoza's soloing was consistently well-judged, with florid touches yet always a clear direction to it. Jones' solo followed in the same spirit.

Freddie Mendoza (Mark Sheldon photo)
Slow tunes that are receptive to a medium-bounce tempo also bring out the best in Mendoza. He showed a sure feeling for the possibilities in "I Hear a Rhapsody." There was almost a choppy feeling to the way he sliced-and-diced the song's phrases, but it worked. His high regard for the tune was evident, and there was a fittingly rhapsodic touch to Jones' solo. Meeks took a solo highlighting his relaxed, unforced agility.

A Cannonball Adderley blues, "Spontaneous Combustion," got the first set off to a lively start, with solos all around and zesty exchanges with Phelps — turns of four bars each for trombone and piano, eight for the drummer — before the final strut through the melody.

Mendoza welcomed to the stage his senior Ball State colleague, trumpeter-flugelhornist Mark Buselli, who immediately grabbed the bull by the horns in Wayne Shorter's "One by One." His coruscating solo shot off sparks that further energized the already engaged Phelps. Buselli caught his breath, then stayed in the front line for Duke Ellington's eloquent "Angelica," with suitable solos all around and a tender, loose-limbed coda.

Buselli was to return to the stage for the last two numbers, most welcome for his simpatico manner of fitting into the quartet. In "The Girl from Ipanema," he briefly suggested that the young lady consider taking the "A" train. Phelps accompanied Meeks' compact solo with some tasty rim work. The set ended with Kenny Barron's "Voyage," with hot solos from the horns and Jones going a bit "outside" — an uncharacteristic excursion that worked. Exchanges with the perpetually interesting Phelps moved the tune, and the set, toward a satisfying conclusion.

A weather-related postscript: In one of his remarks between tunes, Mendoza took note of the snow starting to fall and the forecast for a bit more to say that he didn't know of any snow songs that weren't related to Christmas, and it seemed way too early to go there. I immediately thought of three, and this morning I double-checked the lyrics online to make sure there was nary a Yule mention in them. I've sometimes wondered why "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" are heard among the glut of Christmas carols and secular songs every year, then vanish. And I believe, though I can't call up examples, that jazzmen have sometimes enjoyed playing them. They are all kosher for seasonal performance, the season being winter, not Christmas. Then there's a fourth song, but it's become tref — "Baby, It's Cold Outside." We'll let that date-rape classic disappear even when it's still cold outside, out of respect for the #MeToo movement.