Sunday, May 31, 2015

At the Jazz Kitchen, the Steve Allee Quintet debuts some new material, most of it by the prolific keyboard maestro

Pianist-composer Steve Allee had new music to share Saturday.
Steve Allee continues to write some of the most engaging, agreeably knotty pieces on the local jazz scene. There were a number of such compositions — their concentrated swing linked to perky melodies — on the first set he and his adept quintet played Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen, the successful SoBro nightclub-restaurant run by his son David.

The players on hand to enhance the introduction of these pieces are all familiar faces — some of them over decades, others over just a few years. Among them was another bandleader-composer of distinction, saxophonist Rob Dixon, whose featured works had a similar  bounce, elegance, and accessibility.

Both men are contributing new pieces inspired by paintings that will be displayed July 19 at an Indy Jazz Fest fundraiser called "Jazz on Canvas." One of them heard Friday night was Dixon's "Ragsdale," named for a local artist and distinguished by a theme that flowed like freely applied paint. In the front line with Dixon was trumpeter/flugelhornist Marlin McKay, with the rhythm section headed by Allee and including bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. The piece moved toward an effective coda, all the more so in that limited rehearsal time seemed to let the mutual rapport be established moment-to-moment as the music subsided.

Dixon and Allee were front and center for the set's sole standard. Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood."   The pianist's accompaniment paid tribute to the soft, reflective chiming that Duke placed behind John Coltrane in their memorable performance of the song. Dixon fashioned an unusually soft-spoken solo, its phrases holding back just enough to avoid impeding the momentum, yet lending something especially nostalgic to the sentimental mood of the title.

Allee turned to electronic keyboard for the peppy but somehow soothing "Chill," and the set ended with an extensive version of another original, "In the Fray." The work seemed both on edge and confident of staying abreast of whatever fray — Allee suggested it was urban life — may have inspired it. The pianist-bandleader's international travels, always fruitful musically, here were represented by "Santos," a salute to the Brazilian city and its inspired architecture. The piece's wild vibe was well established before Phelps raised the stakes with a witty, accompanied solo near the end.

Tucker put forth a deep-dyed bluesy solo on Dixon's "Passage," which was also notable for McKay's warmly articulated two-part solo, each part slightly different in expressive profile, as he switched from flugelhorn to trumpet.

The program opened with Allee's "Brother to Brother," whose theme featured an intriguing bridge that gave the music's rhythmic personality a somewhat manic air. As nearly always throughout the generous set, the five-man ensemble worked like a charm — as firmly constituted throughout as any small band you are likely to encounter hereabouts these days.

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