Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Musings about jazz — related to the new Palladium season and to the American Pianists Association — as April, officially Jazz Month, draws to a close

Out on a limb, in the spirit of jazz, I'm going to start this post with a retrospective judgment on the outcome of the 2015 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association.

I say "out on a limb" — and I hope without sawing off the part I'm sitting on — because I missed both the semifinals and finals in person due to an out-of-town trip. And I didn't hear all five of the Premiere Series sessions earlier this season at the Jazz Kitchen, either.

But, thanks to the Eskenazi Health series of solo mini-recitals plus my YouTube viewing of the March 28 finals, here are one fan's impression of the far-and-away winners. And I'm focusing on how the finals struck me (throwing some earlier impressions, when available, into the mix). The Hilbert Circle Theatre event presented the five young men in two outings:  one song accompanying Dianne Reeves, the other selection an arrangement played with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

No pianist comps behind a singer better than Zach Lapidus.
For accompanying Dianne Reeves, the best of the lot was Zach Lapidus. The way he played "Infant Eyes" (Wayne Shorter) in collaboration with the singer was something special.  Down Beat's correspondent called it "lapidary" (was the pun worth it?), but my metaphor would be drawn from quite a different realm — not stone-cutting, but gardening. Lapidus and Reeves worked the garden of "Infant Eyes" with botanists' commitment, patience and know-how. I can't imagine from what depths the pianist was drawing his chords and phrases, but it was as though he was Reeves' doppelgänger — like a parallel self of the singer's, but expressed through the piano at the same time she was working her vocal self.

For working together with the BWJO, my choice is Sullivan Fortner (who in fact won the
He meant him: Sullivan Fortner played 'I Mean You' like nobody's business.
fellowship). Their performance together of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" was the swingingest thing I heard on the whole program. Fortner had plenty of chops to display, but his performance didn't seem to be about that. His interaction with the band didn't slacken for a second. His rhythmic acuity was marvelous, and the jumpy intensity of Brent Wallarab's arrangement (plus the band's performance) was matched at the keyboard beat for beat. Fortner was the only finalist I had not had the pleasure of hearing at all before my YouTube acquaintance with him at the finals. If he played like this every time out, no wonder he won.

As for the finalists I have not mentioned, they may have what's needed for careers in the music, but they impressed me mostly as knowledgeable assimilators, fleet of finger and stylistically savvy. In other words, worthy of their competition eminence but likely little more in the long term.

On to one of the series announced Monday by the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel: I'm looking forward to most of the 2015-16 season there. I'll even get my hopes up for pianist Ramsey Lewis, insofar as he's  said to be celebrating his 50th anniversary of eminence, ever since he rose to fame with his jazz-lite style for "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." His professionalism is dependably smooth, unruffled and amiable, and with luck his program will avoid the easy way out he's taken in ending two previous engagements I've heard — a long, retrospective medley of his musical origins in Chicago's black churches. Sure, it's great he sees fit to honor his roots, but he can roll this stuff out by the yard, and it all sounds pretty glib after a while. Lewis will appear at the Palladium on Jan. 9.

Before that, I look forward with interest to hear how the Bad Plus — a trio that lays down the densest textures imaginable for the combination of piano, bass, and drums — accommodates a fourth player: saxophonist Joshua Redman, who (setting aside his star status) is not exactly a shrinking violet on the bandstand. That program opens the Palladium series on Oct. 18.

Violinist Regina Carter and pianist Kenny Barron turned out one of the best jazz duo recordings of the 21st century so far way back in 2001. I've sure got their Nov. 21 Palladium date penciled in on my calendar.

The star combinations continue when guitarist John Scofield adds luster to the Joe Lovano Quartet on Feb. 6.  Scofield has applied his substantial skills and distinctive sound across a broad spectrum of mainstream to jam-band expressions; the equally malleable veteran saxophonist should make an impressive partner for him in the front line.

Based on the versions I heard the Butler University Jazz Ensemble play in opening for the Christian McBride Trio during the recently concluded Butler ArtsFest, I'm eagerly anticipating the bassist's big-band arrangements as performed by the band he wrote them for. The Christian McBride Big Band comes to the Palladium on March 4.

Closing out the series is the San Francisco-based young-star ensemble, gifted both in arranging and soloing adeptness, known as the SFJAZZ Collective. The group was consciousness-expanding enough making creditable jazz statements out of the songs of Stevie Wonder a couple of seasons ago in this series. This time they will do something all their own with the songs of Michael Jackson.  Look for them nearly a year from now, on April 8, 2016.

The full fifth-season lineup in all the series at the Carmel showplace is available here.

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