Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shrove Tuesday jazz program lets the good times roll at Second Presbyterian Church

Gary Walters was master of Second Pres' pre-Lenten revels.
Jazz is not naturally at home in churches, despite owing part of its history to the influence of African-American Christianity. But the music, now in full maturity, is adaptable for many situations, including a pre-Lenten celebratory program at Second Presbyterian Church on Tuesday evening.

Pianist Gary Walters, leader of the Second@Six jazz trio, welcomed a partishioner vocalist, Erin Benedict, and guest reedman Michael Strickln to the front of the chancel for an hourlong set. Other trio members are Chris Pyle, drums, and Steve Dokken, electric bass.

Benedict was an apt interpreter of such wistful numbers as Johnny Mandel's "Where Do You Start?" and Michel Legrand's "You Must Believe in Spring," whose first few phrases drew laughter from the winter-weary audience.

According to Walters, Benedict was responsible for the arrangements of the songs she sang. Among them was an effective pairing of the Beatles' "Blackbird" that swirled into a flapping of instrumental wings toward the evergreen "Bye Bye Blackbird." That took in a hearty Stricklin solo on tenor saxophone of the sort that confirmed the concert's jazz credentials impressively.

He was equally effective as a sparring partner for Benedict on such favorites as "Taking a Chance on Love." The fat, rolling style of his solo evoked Cannonball Adderley. It was perhaps an unconscious salute to one of jazz's most famous alto-chanteuse pairings: Adderley's album with Nancy Wilson (though "Chance" is not one of its songs).

Generally, Stricklin is his own man, and always a pleasure to hear. His versatility takes him beyond the "Texas tenor" stereotype, though he can roam that territory authentically. His playing Tuesday night was a typical blend of passion and competence — on soprano, alto and tenor saxes, with one outing on flute. He never pushed at the boundaries of intelligibility. Stricklin's fervent solos can take him close to the "outside," but it's always with the taste of a master chef knowing just how much spice to shake into the pot.

There were some appealing instrumentals to give Benedict a rest. Originals by Dokken and Walters showed the quartet's internal rapport. Dokken's "SWD" and "Lake Minnewaska" showed off the veteran bassist's affinity for jazz-rock fusion styles. The former piece rollicked over an insistent rhythmic ostinato implying fast triplets under four accented beats, giving the quartet something of the sound of a Celtic band in full cry.

Walters' facility and steady attention to the etiquette of swinging, qualities that make him an excellent accompanist, can readily blossom into bold turns in the spotlight,  That was the case on his own piece, "Air," where he worked its melodic content hard while probing its hard-bop idiom with an exciting solo that opened in the baritone range and flourished upward from there.

The set closed with a fleet, mostly tidy excursion through Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," the highlight of which was two choruses of scatting unison by Benedict and Stricklin. Another sweeping Stricklin tenor solo sealed the deal, and the audience's call for an encore got a response that both saluted New Orleans' Fat Tuesday traditions and the pious restraint called for by the season beginning today: "When the Saints Go Marching In."

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