Copacetic to the end: Cohen-Rutkowski Project opens JK stage to a pair of guests

Rich Cohen: saxophonic mass and energy from a former physics teacher

"Copacetic" is one of those faux-fancy words that entered the language about the start of the Jazz Age (1919). Like jazz itself, its origin is unknown (says the dictionary), and its meaning ("very satisfactory") can also apply to countless jazz performances by adept practitioners of the music. 

It was thus quite fitting that a piece of that title concluded a long Sunday night set by the Cohen-Rutkowski Project at the Jazz Kitchen. Like all of this band's book, it was composed by Chris Rutkowski, the pianist who co-leads the band with saxophonist Rich Cohen. And the peppy finale also got a little extra heat as one guest star (tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon) was joined by another (trombonist Freddie Mendoza) to make for a formidable front line.

Opening with an infectious riff and settling into a Crescent City groove, "Copacetic" featured ripe solos by the two guests. It provided roomy accommodation for all the solos — Rutkowski worked Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" into his turn in the spotlight — and sent a large, appreciative crowd happy out into the chilly night air. Things were "chill" inside, of course, in the best sense. Quite copacetic, in other words.

Chris Rutkowski shapes band's sound from the keyboard.
Rutkowski is in the tradition of jazz pianists  who come with classical credits to boast of as well as a collegial way of putting their stylistic stamp on bands that include other players of star quality. I think of Mel Powell briefly with the Benny Goodman band circa 1940 (though nobody was permitted to upstage Benny) and Joe Zawinul as the resident composing/arranging genius of Weather Report in the '70s and '80s. Rutkowski seems to have a similar shaping influence on what the Project projects from the bandstand.

Cohen is certainly a comrade-in-arms worthy of leading the musical charge along with Rutkowski. And the rest of the rhythm section consisted of two in-demand players: bassist Jesse Wittman and drummer Brian Yarde. One of Cohen's best solo outings of the evening came when he partnered with Dixon for a piece receiving its two-tenor premiere. Called "Double Barreled Rhythm Thing," it had a classic four-to-the-bar swing over which a melody in conventional song form was draped. It's worth singling out not only for Dixon's statement, but also for Cohen's searching yet emotionally settled improvisation. It's also worth noting that Rutkowski's solo received imaginative support from Wittman and Yarde.

The set's other two-tenor outing followed immediately: a gutbucket blues called "Slow Train to Chicago" featuring relaxed, earthy solos by the saxophonists. Here and in a tribute to him called "Rob's Thing," I noticed that Dixon has refined his delivery agreeably. The upper register is quite firm: he doesn't split or splinter any notes high up; his tone has genuine unity top to bottom. His early style incorporated lots of shakes, warbles, and curlicues — which I always found attractive and part of his brand, but whose absence was not missed Sunday. When he first came to town decades ago, Dixon also told jokes from the stage. I don't miss those either, though he wasn't bad at it.

There was still enough drollery from the stage to go around, however. Cohen is a gifted, amiable emcee. He trained the audience in a fingersnap/handclap repeated gesture that made something special to a Halloweeny repertoire choice: the theme from "The Addams Family." (Just typing those words has given me a daylong earworm, probably. ) Everyone was having fun.

Rutkowski's tendency to find fresh ways of being funky at the piano seems to be based  on his composing personality, which, as I said, exerts a powerful influence on everything that comes from this band. Something of an outlier was his "Slow Waltz," which Dixon sat out. It was a tender respite from the Project's usual fare. It didn't seem very waltzlike to me, though, with its repeated accent on the second beat — kind of like a poky mazurka. 

What followed was a better sample of the composer's resourcefulness, the next-to-last piece of the set. "Contrafaction," as Cohen explained, is a contrafact on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." A contrafact is a jazz original following the harmonic basis of a well-known popular song. The beboppers came up with these in profusion, as they perfected "playing the changes" and sought to put that procedure on top of new tunes that would be free of the need to make royalty payments. 

Rhythmically, too, "Contrafaction" seemed quite closely modeled on "Confirmation," and it had a melodic contour that would have drawn nods of approval, one suspects, from Parker himself. There was wonderful exploitation of what Rutkowski had created in the outreach of Wittman's solo. Like almost everything about the set, it was copacetic.




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