APA Club Finals: The crescendo builds for the naming of the 2019 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz

Giants of the keyboard: Jazz finalists put their feet into play before the big weekend.
The Club Finals of the current American Pianists Awards presented five top jazz pianists who already show promise enough to honor the competition before a note is heard. That is ample testimony to the quality of the American Pianists Association's structure, history, and reputation.

One of the finalists will get a special boost as the jury puts its assessment of Friday night's work at the Jazz Kitchen together with the Gala Finals today at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Judgment of their work in the season-long Premiere Series will also be a factor in the result. The crown is selection as the APA's Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz.

A packed Jazz Kitchen heard two sets by the stellar fivesome, accompanied by Jeremy Allen, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. This is a report on the early program, briskly hosted by the affable Matthew Socey, in recognition of the live-streaming presentation of the evening to anyone anywhere wishing access to the double attraction.

The crowd was openheartedly responsive to all five men. It greeted Dave Meder's announcement of his set's ballad, "If Ever I Would Leave You," with sighs of appreciation and affection, almost as if a parade of cute puppies had just passed along the bandstand. The performance of the Lerner and Loewe song, taken quite slow, seemed to caress the lyric. Though I doubt Meder made a conscious effort to do so, the rendition approximated the mosaic finesse of the sort that Kurt Elling, who was seated in the audience and will be featured in this evening's Gala Finals, gives to songs like "All or Nothing at All" and "In the Wee Small Hours."

Not that an evergreen in slow tempo inevitably evokes a singer. For contrast, Emmet Cohen's ballad choice, "The Second Time Around," was thoroughly pianistic. The theme was slightly ornamented with grace notes, and the growing intensity Cohen imparted to it with Allen's and Phelps' assistance took care not to overload the interpretation. It was never vocal, but all about the piano: Some might beg to differ, but I thought the heavy accents that barged their way into the climax were integrally exciting, capped by a kind of pile-driving buildup a la Oscar Peterson.

Keelan Dimick, with a characteristically light touch that permitted some restrained digging-in (as in his original, "Hole in One"), put a deliberate variety of texture in "In a Sentimental Mood." Bass and drums sat out until the bridge. Later a rare bass solo (Allen was subbing adeptly for an indisposed Nick Tucker) inserted a respite that was brightly interrupted by an outchorus full of feeling.

As for Meder, his ballad choice — Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" — prized the sort of mental focus the song's title suggests. Phelps switched naturally from brushes to sticks as Meder's playing became chordal. Yet the thickened texture never took over, and thinned sweetly again as the piece neared its end. To underline the reigning mood, Meder inserted a suspenseful pause before the song's final phrase, which is of course the title.

Other high points:

*Meder avoided the obvious in his unaccompanied life essay, "This Road." The controlled jerkiness of the main material was fascinating, as interior voices vied for the ear's attention. The work became more ambitious as it proceeded. There was always some striving going on, with countermelodies briefly raising their heads. The polarity of conflict and resolution characteristic of most people's lives was skillfully implied throughout.

*Kenny Banks Jr.'s original, "Dream Waltz," brought to the fore his sensitivity to old musical styles. Lots of pedal and trilling established the work's nostalgic cast. A lightly applied oompah bass was varied just before it became boring. The performance came close to the Palm Court style — the genteel, sentimental idiom found in English resorts that crossed the Atlantic and mingled with ragtime more than a century ago. Banks has a very picturesque approach to his work: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" evoked its period with a few quoted tunes before shedding new light on the classic song's martial resolve and fulfillment of an idealistic mission.

*Billy Test stretched out more than his colleagues. His original, "Belonging," seemed simplistic at first, but later expounded on the useful difference between simplistic and sturdily simple, which it turned out to be. "Love Is Enough," an obscure pop tune with manifold phrases in the rhythm of its title, got things started. The set finished with a torrential charge through Miles Davis' "Nardis," in which explosive exchanges between Test and Phelps galvanized the atmosphere. With a lavish solo turn of his own, even Allen abandoned any confinement to merely filling in, assuring everyone that he had as much to say as his bandstand companions.


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