|Josh Kaufman sings; Gardier and Buselli front the band.|
Paraphrasing the title of a pianoless quartet record issued after Gerry Mulligan returned to the East Coast, I can answer the question "What Is There to Say?" in terms of what a band led by Amanda Gardier had to offer Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen.
First off, there is something positive to say about the saxophonist picking up the heavier, deeper baritone saxophone after she has established her reputation hereabouts with the alto. It was essential to exhibit her chops on the bari to evoke Mulligan as he made a splash in the early Fifties.
Gardier scored well on that account, though there would be no point trying to replicate the uniquely light tone that her predecessor pioneered. But she had the idiomatic heft needed and plenty of ideas to dress it in. Her best solo in Friday's first set came in Mulligan's "Swinghouse," a jump tune based on "Sweet Georgia Brown." (Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi" may be the best-known jazz number similarly founded.)
My preference for Mulligan's successful experiment in eschewing the keyboard is for the quartet with Art Farmer featured on the aforementioned Columbia LP. In his California years the lanky saxman made his mark in the combination of bari, trumpet, bass, and drums, with Chet Baker on the brass instrument. The JK tribute band opened the first set with Mulligan's call-and-response "Festive Minor" that I know from that album with Farmer.
Historically, Baker's wispy vocals added a dimension to his collaboration with Mulligan that the trumpeter later exploited when out on his own. Their plaintiveness was underlined as Baker declined physically and musically in the thrall of a heroin habit.
I'm guessing Josh Kaufman has no such monkey on his back, and the prize-winning singer was on hand to represent that part of the Mulligan-Baker legacy in four songs. "I've Never Been in Love Before" introduced his participation in the program. It was taken quite slowly with a really sweet instrumental arrangement as backdrop. Veteran trumpeter-flugelhornist Mark Buselli filled out the front line here and throughout the program; his manner was suitable to evoke Baker's nearly vibratoless tone.
Kaufman also offered a nicely phrased "But Not for Me," "I Remember You" (the horns tastefully synchronized in accompaniment and first-rate "walking" bass from Jesse Wittman), and the evergreen "My Funny Valentine." That became a signature song for Baker almost on the level of Judy Garland and "Over the Rainbow." On flugelhorn, Buselli's support of the vocal was exquisite, and the performance attained you-could-hear-a-pin-drop status among the normally effusive and presumably protocol-observant audience.
Mulligan brought to his innovation an uncanny ability to improvise counterpoint to suggest a song's harmonic structure while adding a melody of his own. His trumpeters did that as well, but Mulligan was the master. Some of that was evident Friday night, though I suppose such elements had been written out here and there. The arrangements had that bright, full quality Mulligan often displayed, making the absence of piano irrelevant. True enough, you could detect in such a song as "I Remember April" places where some harmonic nuances had to be ignored, but if the original melody could still be represented with integrity in new garb, the loss was a small one.
Solos from Wittman, Buselli, and Gardier were topnotch in Mulligan's "Walkin' Shoes," with a slight dip toward cliche near the end of Gardier's. Wittman displayed a good mixture of longer and shorter notes in his spotlight turn.
Throughout the set, Chris Parker provided a steady, animated rhythmic foundation, using brushes —with a notable exception in the band's finale, where he helped the ensemble end this flavorful tribute in a stick-driven blaze of glory.
Everyone involved put their own voice into the music while bringing it forward creditably sixty-some years after it wrote a new chapter in small-group modern jazz.
[Photos by Rob Ambrose]