Saturday, November 14, 2020

Drive it and park it: Indy Jazz Fest starts virtually with "Garfield Park Sessions: Celebrate Naptown"

The tour de force finale of the Indy Jazz Fest premiere

We have all adopted adjustments to doing our usual jobs since mid-March, and blogging about musical events is no exception. Mine is a labor of love, which eliminates the kind of stress that paid jobholders are feeling.

The necessary idleness has not hurt me as much as it has the many excellent people who make their living, at least in part, from music. So I leaped at the chance Friday night to cover the opening of the 2020 Indy Jazz Fest, well documented on video in daylight performances and in warmer weather at Garfield Park. The MacAllister Amphitheater was the audience-free site for the parade of local bands, with a lot of mix-and-match among the personnel.

Among the pleasures, since I've brought up the site (of which I have a firm memories of concerts and plays in those fabled pre-pandemic days), was the camera work. There were recurrent shots from above the amphitheater looking toward downtown; they were breathtaking. It was the Indianapolis musical version of looking from a ventricle into the central heart.

I also enjoyed views of the sort that would have been much different, or unavailable, from audience seats, however much we might wish for a return to that vantage point. I liked Everett Greene's animated expressions during his performance of Horace Silver's "Senor Blues," especially with glimpses of tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught's radiant smile in the singer's direction. I usually avoid punning on people's names, but we might as well collapse his name into "Evergreen" at this point — so ageless does he seem.

The camera loves some soloists more than others, which will inevitably be the case. I'll give this show's top honors for the love affair between camera and singer to Rebecca Rafla for her performance of "You Stepped Out of a Dream." In sight and sound alike, this was memorable. The rendition itself stepped out of a dream.

It was also thrilling to catch a side view of the front line as the Indy Jazz Collective strutted its way through the legendary Pookie Johnson's "Going to the Avenue": four horns (two tenors, trumpet, and trombone) in the front line, that juicy ensemble sound powered by Jared Michael Thompson, Rob Dixon, Mark Buselli, and Freddie Mendoza. 

Finally, with the addition of Faught and alto saxophonist Amanda Gardier, six horns! That was in a Rob Dixon finale called "Soul Talk," and it certainly did preach righteously, with a phalanx of stars behind the horn folks: guitarists Ryan Taylor and Charlie Ballantine, drummers Richard "Sleepy" Floyd and Carrington Clinton, keyboardists Steven Alexander Jones and Steve Allee, and bassist Brandon Meeks.

Reviewing an anthology of performances remotely can't follow the usual protocols of full-canvas journalism. So I am making choices here that aren't meant to disparage any player or performance I don't mention. Besides, I'm fond of a Ralph Waldo Emerson description of his reading habits; "I read for the lustres," he said. Well, I listen for the lustres, particularly with the festival format, and those sparkling moments will differ from person to person. Here's another literary reference that might  be helpful: Of daffodils in the familiar poem of that title, William Wordsworth wrote in the last stanza: "They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the  bliss of solitude."

Some of what is flashing upon my inward ear in solitude this morning: Complementary solos, as in the way Dixon followed up Gardier's luminous alto in "Strange Idea," a wry modal original that Ballantine wrote for his band and has recorded on his new album "Vonnegut." In the same piece, there was a compelling contrast between a raving guitar solo and its soft answers from piano and bass.

Another one: Thompson and Premium Blend performing Taylor's "In the Lac," highlighted by Gardier's lyrical but never wispy alto solo, a deft episode of trading fours, and a great ending with simultaneous blending of forces throughout the band. Here's an early float in the lustre parade: the kind of energizing transition between solos that's often obscured by an applauding audience was fully audible in the way Faught took off from the burning suggestions of Joel Tucker's guitar solo.

A kind of collective lustre was the opportunity to study different keyboard styles, particularly in close-ups of hands doing their individual things in black and white: Steve Allee, Steven Alexander Jones, Kevin Anker, Pavel Polanco-Safadit. The Indy Guitar Summit offered similar opportunities to appreciate Ballantine, Taylor, and Tucker in succession. On a smaller scale, but with explosive impact in "Soul Talk," how could you top the look the show afforded of the different drumming styles of Clinton and Floyd, in full cry, meshing simultaneously in a risky format of the sort that split up the classic Coltrane quartet.

Well, that's about enough. My bad penmanship is forcing me to leave out amplifying a few of my notes, but that's no great loss: What does "career or dinner good" (my best guess) mean, with a little star beside it, in my entry for Indy Guitar Summit's "I Hear a Rhapsody"?  Who knows? 

Again, I'm out of room here to mention more good impressions, whether or not they're reinforced by legible notes. Here's hoping we all get many opportunities to listen for the lustres live before too long, preferably without masks, etc. In the meantime, may both the careers and the dinners of Indy Jazz Fest musicians offer good sustenance. The public can get its fill by connecting to the remainder of the concerts through the web site.


Monday, November 2, 2020

'Present Company' should not be excepted if you seek a new pianoless jazz quartet

Peter Hess with his other instrument: bass clarinet

 Jazz musicians who play non-keyboard instruments probably don't have anything against pianists, but now and then they form bands that don't include them and achieve either enduring or occasional good results.

A new entry in that niche field is the Peter Hess Quartet in "Present Company" (Diskonife Records). The disc comprises seven originals (by Hess, with a couple of collaborations thrown in) that make the most of the tenor saxophone, trombone, bass, and drums makeup of the band.

The arrangements are lustrous individually, with clever distribution of material among the four musicians. The unaccompanied bass intro to "The Net Menders" yields to a soft-spoken, hymn-like theme for the horns.

 Subsequently, we have some bowed bass from Adam Hopkins as commentary on what he has said before; then the horns (Hess, tenor sax, and Brian Drye, trombone) get wilder. I don't know if there's a biblical subtext here, but there came to mind the biblical scene as Jesus recruits his disciples from men about to cast nets into the Sea of Galilee, promising "I will make you fishers of men." The mission's promise of both solace and turmoil to come is reflected in the music.

I may be reading too much into this; by the same token, I might be reading too little into "Engines," which despite its title is the only track on "Present Company"  that spends too much time ruminating. What are these engines up to?  There is no groove to catch here, it seems, though drummer Tomas Fujiwara is a reliably steadying influence. That seems only proper for an excess of rumination. The track chugs along without generating a great deal of interest beyond the obvious compatibility of the players with one another.

Otherwise, the vibe is inviting throughout, and the themes are presented across a spectrum of the group's four primary colors. As perhaps with "Engines,"  ironic humor may well be the deliberate message of "When to Move," the piece that closes the disc. At the start, the horns are deliberately shaky, as if to mimic the hesitancy behind many real-life decisions of "when to move." The music gains assertiveness, establishes a reliable pulse, and heads toward a confident conclusion.

This is a set worthy of its parade of predecessors, from the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker archetype on down through various modernist bands that make complete statements without the piano's inevitable tendency to dominate.