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JERRY WELDON TRIO
“This guy never calls me!” Jerry Weldon exclaimed, holding up a black flip phone for his laughing audience. Usually it’s the crowd’s cell phones that interrupt performances; this time, it was the performer’s cell that buzzed just as the ebullient tenor player was about to count in his rocking organ trio at one of the most unique venues I’ve ever experienced.
Located in a minuscule strip mall across from Colonie Central High School, Flights of Fantasy is a non-chain, Mom-and-Pop bookstore with no previous track record as a performance space – Dave Perry is the “Pop.” Catering primarily to fans of science-fiction and medieval fantasy, most of FOF’s walls were stocked with books (hardcover, paperback, and comic) dedicated to one of those genres, while the rest of the space was reserved for various aspects of role-playing games, from tiny unpainted miniature figures to detailed mock-ups of ruined buildings. The neon lighting and blue industrial carpeting reminded me of my old high school, except Darien HS didn’t stock the 4th edition of Dungeon Master for Dummies.
The 50-60 people who came out for the first night of Weldon’s weekend stand at FOF paid no mind to the “non-traditional” décor, settling themselves into the rows of seats that obviously came from several sources, including someone’s back yard, and come showtime, there were only a few seats left when Weldon launched into a pumping version of “It Could Happen to You.” The stage had no mics or mixer, which could have been both disastrous and harmful to the audience’s hearing, but Weldon and his partners – keyboardist Kyle Koehler and drummer Joe Barna – had themselves in complete balance. The sound was crisp as a fresh celery stalk, and the crowd reacted to the sizzling Hammond flavor like chocoholics who’d just discovered the secret tunnel into Godiva’s main factory.
To watch Weldon play is to see a man in love with his work. He was in a major back bend almost immediately as he started blowing ideas past us at a furious rate. Weldon was working without a mic, which allowed him to walk the “stage”, firing his solos anywhere the music seemed to be needed – at the crowd, in the band, at the floor, even at the ventilator grill in the ceiling directly above him. Weldon’s attack recalls Hank Crawford, whose sound had a sly, grinning R&B quality, and that meshed perfectly with the growling undertone coming from Koehler’s A100. The Philadelphia native is a devotee of Jimmy Smith and Captain Jack McDuff, two B3 legends who played to your mojo first and foremost, so all the signs said this night was going to be nothing but fun.
The trio’s two burning sets weren’t all pedal-to-the-metal: “Indian Summer” got a samba makeover that began and ended on a deliciously light note; “Autumn in New York” was as sweet and sexy as it ought to be; and a luxurious take on “Body & Soul” started with Weldon ruminating in the clear and conjuring up visions of a lone street musician playing under a single streetlight. The night wasn’t all about covers, as Koehler’s boogie-down original “The Easy Out” fit right in with the standards. Weldon and Koehler have worked and recorded together for quite some time, honing their chemistry during weekly gigs at New York clubs like Smoke, so their give-and-take was always right on the mark. One of my favorite moments was watching Koehler listen to Weldon’s opening solo on “Summer’, digging the sound but also looking for the right place to slip inside and contribute to the construction.
The only local having more fun than the audience was Barna, who had a smile on his face and a glint in his eye long before Weldon urged him to “Play it! Play it!” on the first-set closer “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” Anyone who’s seen my favorite thunder-drummer in concert knows he doesn’t need encouragement to bring the noise, but this had to be the most inspired I’ve seen (and heard) him all year, and that’s in the face of the Sketches of Influence shows and his trio dates with Ralph Lalama and Gary Smulyan.
As Weldon took us home on the encore “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, it occurred to me that this show had a real underground feel to it. As good a job as the standard venues do to bring jazz to this area, the community still wants more. They will go someplace off the beaten (performance) path to get that fix, and they have no problem if the music on tap ignores the head and goes straight for the heart… or other, more tender regions. Me, I don’t care if the music’s happening at a bookstore in Colonie, a hot dog stand in Watervliet, or a corn maze in Schodack. If it’s as tasty as what Weldon served up at Flights of Fantasy, then long live the underground!
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.