Saturday, September 22, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest sets up its festival-ending block party with a spiffy Cabaret concert

Guest artist Sean Jones takes care of business as  bandleader Steve Allee looks on.
Finding the "big beat" theme attractive as the Indy Jazz Fest draws to a close, the Steve Allee Big Band welcomed a mid-career star trumpeter, Sean Jones, to the bandstand at the Cabaret Friday night.

The concert was focused on a celebration of Freddie Hubbard, born here 80 years ago and commonly boosted into the pantheon of Indianapolis jazz musicians.

Of the three names occupying the top niches in the Indianapolis wing of those who made their first splash in the middle decades of the last century, Hubbard in my view doesn't have the same luster as men who advanced their instrument in jazz as much as trombonist J.J. Johnson and guitarist Wes Montgomery.

His greatness has a lot to do with timing and the way he fitted smoothly into one of the the music's most fruitful eras, especially as represented on the Blue Note label. And two of the monuments of the avant-garde, John Coltrane's "Ascension" and Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," featured the burgeoning talent of the precocious Hubbard. He is a figure to reckon with on so much of the 1960s forward-looking mainstream, and briefly showed in the subsequent decade that he had something to contribute to "fusion" before that sub-genre washed out.

At any rate, he is worth celebrating as a player and writer with unimpeachable Hoosier roots, but it's difficult to understand the aura that surrounds him as a crucial influence. Jones pegs Hubbard as such a figure, and he is not alone in this estimate. Sometimes I'm inclined to sign on to such kudos, and I leaned that way in my review of this festival's opening night. Nonetheless, though I never heard Hubbard live, it was more fun to get a lot of Sean Jones Friday than it was to imagine up there on the Cabaret stage the ghostly reappearance of the man he was celebrating.

Jones displayed a wider expressive range than his hero. His technique seemed more solid than what I hear on Hubbard's records. (If you choose to play so many high notes, shouldn't you split fewer of them?) Maybe it's a matter of standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I liked the way Jones made the most of his high regard for Freddie: He was never wedded to lots of notes on fast pieces ("Bird Like"), but throughout found a way to vary any approach deep into Hubbard territory with something of his own, more understated and patient.

That showed up on a favorite Hubbard composition, "Little Sunflower," in which Jones launched his solo in the low register, coloring it with some half-valving. Gradually he became more flamboyant, somewhat in the Hubbard manner; but he never abandoned an apparent interest in finding something fresh to say in the piece, giving it a bluesy cast without distortion. The tone for this first-class statement had been set by Freddie Mendoza's trombone solo — smoothly laid out, trying a little tenderness, but still assertive.

Jones' work with the band was thoroughly sympathetic and supportive of the first-class arrangements, several of them by bandleader Allee. "Red Clay," from the cusp of Hubbard's transition away from hard-bop into a more marketable idiom, was fun to hear. The catchy tune has an unfortunate way of reminding me of Bobby Hebb's pop hit "Sunny," which was paraphrased in several solos, but it's one of the Hubbard originals that helps keep his flame burning brightly.

The 17-piece band distinguished itself in its lead-off performance of "The Song Is You," in a jumpy arrangement that had the virtue of putting the ensemble through an aerobic warm-up. It incorporated burning features for altoist Michael Stricklin and drummer Steve Houghton (who throughout both sets displayed all one might ask of a big-band percussionist).

Subsequent challenges were met in the solos and the multifaceted group presence along the way; backing riffs behind the soloists were always exciting and to the point. Another standard, "You've Changed," was a miracle of tone color shifts, framed by bass clarinet and four flutes at start and finish.

After "The Song Is You," Jones was onstage pretty consistently, always focused and stylistically adept. Among the many concise descriptions of Hubbard, the guest trumpeter exemplified the one Wynton Marsalis offered as an obituary — "exuberant." Jones never strayed into anything resembling the wicked phrase Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker once hung on the Indianapolis icon: "glassy vacuity."

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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