Sunday, April 4, 2021

Family values, riffing on community support: Steve Allee & Friends celebrate Jazz Kitchen anniversary

Pianist Steve Allee guides a top-drawer quintet.

 A fortunate continuity linking business acumen and art can account for the Jazz Kitchen's survival since it opened its doors in 1994. 

In addition to the insight and doggedness of proprietor David Allee, the musical links that he built upon through the stature of his father, pianist-bandleader Steve Allee, has allowed the club to keep its head above water through a schedule combining touring acts and local performers, boosted regularly by Thursday Lain DJ nights.

The senior Allee was on hand again Friday night to light the candles on a Jazz Kitchen birthday cake. The pandemic probably made assembling the usual big band next to impossible. Instead, a stellar quintet was on hand to join the durable pianist-composer: Sophie Faught, tenor sax; John Raymond, trumpet and flugelhorn; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

The first set consisted of flavorful Allee originals, with the pianist's solo turn reaching back to the Eubie Blake evergreen, "Memories of You." (There's an incidental local connection: Though that song was written with Andy Razaf, much of Blake's collaboration involved Indianapolis native Noble Sissle.) Allee's rendition was a deeply felt excursion in the penultimate spot, just before the band reassembled for "Fourth Street," opened assertively by Tucker and featuring a significant exhibition of Phelps' drumming with bass-drum bombs and cymbals galore.

Earlier in the set, Tucker picked up electric bass as Allee took a turn on electric piano behind Raymond's coruscating solo. Allee invited the capacity crowd to submit a suggested title for the captivating number on a 50-dollar bill. Being a little short of cash, I want to suggest "Herd Immunity," both for its topicality and its appropriateness in light of the piece's upbeat, let's-get-this-done feeling and a surprising chord pattern that signaled the adventures to come as we emerge from the pandemic. (A punning variation: "Heard Immunity," except that might connote an irrelevant commentary on the drummer J.C. Heard [1917-1988].)

As for the rest: Ever a canny program organizer, Allee opened with a catchy hard-bop update, "Midnight at the Sunset." He told the audience later this was a tribute to the heyday of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene, which flourished in the 1950s (about the time that hard bop made its mark). The follow-up, an evocation of an old Indianapolis neighborhood, was a more variegated tribute, fanning out from a ballad start into a lively stunner featuring some forceful eloquence by the saxophonist. 

In "Twisted Taffy," the horn solos were vivid and sounded fully at home in a sojourn to the funky side. With his deft manner of exploring all sides of the jazz spectrum, Allee guided the group through "A Prayer for All," in which every solo followed a common thread. That was a sure sign of the players' flexibility and their ability to convey a consistent sense of a new piece's atmosphere.

 "Shuffle Play" picked up on the randomness of its title by bringing out everyone's sense of fun. It was typical of this band's joy and sureness in its celebratory mission. Happy 27th birthday, Jazz Kitchen!

]Photo by Rob Ambrose]



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