Monday, September 14, 2015

Pharez Whitted brings some guests along on a sentimental journey home

With deep Indianapolis jazz roots, Pharez Whitted has credibility all his own.
Trumpeter Pharez Whitted, a forceful master of his instrument and a galvanizing bandleader, paid a visit to his hometown Sunday evening, courtesy of the Indy Jazz Fest.

The Indianapolis-born Chicagoan brought with him his current band, and the Indiana Landmarks Center's Cook Theater rocked and throbbed to its music for nearly two hours. Contributing to the voice emphasis of this year's festival, Whitted welcomed onstage, for a few numbers each, singer Opal Staples and rapper John Robinson.

Robinson got an outing almost immediately, during a roiling original, "Everlasting." He provided a controlled torrent of rhymes on the theme of colors, projecting clearly and shaping his words visually with a compact vocabulary of gestures. His raps favor building up over tearing down.

After a soaring eulogy to "The Tree of Life," which embraced a stunning Whitted solo, Robinson and the band offered a hip bit of jazz nostalgia, "Miles 'n' Trane," recalling the partnership of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the 1950s. The lyrics featured a host of Coltrane and Davis song titles, and the phrases set forth in unison by the trumpeter and his frontline partner, saxophonist Eddie Bayard, recalled some classics of the "Milestones" era.

As the nostalgic atmosphere thickened and became intoxicating to breathe, Whitted and the band closed with a tune he says he's often used as a finale, "The Bringer of Joy," which he picked up long ago from the late Indianapolis drummer/griot Prince Julius Adeniyi. 

In Sunday's concert it became  primarily an essential showcase for Whitted's childhood friend and longtime colleague Jonathan Wood, whose electric bass solo represented the pinnacle of creative virtuosity on that instrument. The performance brought me back to the interesting 1980s fusion band Decoy, of which Whitted and Wood were members, and its performance of the tune under the stars at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I still have the band's souvenir T-shirt.

Whitted has a steely, declamatory approach in uptempo burners like "Afghanistan," and Bayard matches it. This is a partnership that works not so much by contrast, as John Coltrane and Miles Davis did for a time, but by presenting different timbral sides of the same stylistic and temperamental coin. The partnership claimed the attention as a truth-telling force in the "spiritual" realm of "Journey Home" as well as when the band was in the full assault mode in such pieces as "Afghanistan" and "Everlasting."

Bayard was featured in Whitted's "Freedom Song," which opened with a coruscating solo by drummer Greg Artry. When the theme came into view the drummer established a groove also laid down by Wood and pianist Lovell Bradford as Bayard spun out a plangent solo, marked by rattling tremolos and plunges to the bottom of his horn's range.

Whitted and his mates were fine partners for the show's other vocalist, the radiant Opal Staples, who sang "Perfect Stranger" and "Crazy" (definitely not Patsy Cline's) with expressive, artfully ornamented phrasing and a lyricism that steadied the outsized emotions in both songs.

The trumpeter's solo on "Crazy" was his best of the night. He was always good at putting his heart on the line while making every musical gesture — whether outlandish or tender — fit into the whole story. That makes him a natural accompanist for any vocalist who resonates with him. He was clever and fortunate enough to bring two of them along for Sunday's hometown ride.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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