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Keith Pray

Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
Albany, NY
July 8, 2007

by J Hunter

There's an old saw that hangs over the head of every performance: “Bad dress rehearsal, good opening; good dress rehearsal, bad opening!” Here's hoping the Capital District Jazz Cooperative's dry run at the Hilton Center - with Keith Pray's Soul-Jazz Revival playing musical guinea pig - defies that maxim.

Following the instructions printed in the Sunday TU, I arrived at the Hilton Center twenty minutes before the start of “the experiment” (in Pray's words) to see if a jazz concert series of the same size, quality and intimacy as A Place for Jazz was possible in the performance space across from Westgate Shopping Center. The trouble was, I should have checked the email I had received a few days before: The TU said the show started at 3pm, but the actual start time was 6pm, and everyone was being told to come back later.

Now, I know I could find something to do for three hours, but I worried about the TU readers who made a snap decision to check things out, and who might have other plans at the time Pray and his mates actually hit the stage. I needn't have worried. The theatre (set up in a coffeehouse style, with four rows of candle-lit tables in front of the expansive stage) was nearly packed by the time I returned. Far from being perturbed at the mix-up, the crowd was on board from the jump, urging the band on and applauding every solo as the Soul Jazz Revival worked through two excellent sets dominated by music from Pray's terrific 2006 disc One Last Stop. Even the toddlers who got dragged along by their parents got into it: As Keith counted the SJR into “The Other Funk”, a small voice piped up, “One-Two-Three-Go!”

I can't decide whether I like Pray better on alto or tenor sax. The alto lets Pray indulge his inner Maceo Parker, as he did on the “Europa”-like ballad “When She Smiles” and his thrilling take on the J5's “Never Can Say Goodbye”, but his tenor on “Maceo's Groove” (written for Pray's son, who shares Parker's first name) and the exciting new piece “Doin' Alright” had a fat, fuzzy tone that offered equal tastes of Coleman Hawkins and Cannonball Adderley. No matter what instrument Pray chooses, the result is consistently nasty (in a very good way), and is instantly accessible to anyone looking to nod their head, tap their foot, or snap their fingers.

Much as I loved One Last Stop, the Soul-Jazz Revival brings a color and a texture to Pray's music that the B3-based quartet just couldn't provide. A lot of the credit goes to SJR keyboardist Scott Bassinson, whose goody-filled trick bag is loaded with great sounds that broaden the material while it complements Pray's solo attack. Bassinson gave “One Last Stop” a new twist by adding a funky Fender Rhodes vibe, and his Tom Coster-like organ brought big fun to “The Other Funk.”Jim Wilson's guitar is a plentiful source of power and contrast; he brings the chunk to the funk like John Scofield, and skirts the edge of rock & roll without diving headlong into the trench Mike Stern frequently falls into.

Pat Perkinson held down the bottom with a slapping electric bass - another improvement from the organ band, in that the bass frees the keyboard from maintaining the foundation. Perkinson also lets drummer Joe Barna do what he does best: Embroider each piece with fills and counter-solos that are often dramatic but always appropriate. Seeing Barna play is like watching an oncoming fright train while you're standing on the tracks; one moment he's far down the line, giving you a hint of a beat, and then he's rolling over you like the biggest tidal wave ever. In short, he's a blast, both literally and figuratively.

I saw the Soul-Jazz Revival at Spill'n'The Beans in Troy only a month before, but their chemistry has improved immeasurably in that relatively short time. They inspire each other to greater heights as they explore Dave Cowens' favorite motto: “If it isn't fun, why do it?” The CDJO proved the Hilton Center could be a convivial jazz club when the occasion called for it. Keep watching the skies for shows in the fall, and hope that old saw is rusty.

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.