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Keith Pray

Colleen Pratt

featuring: Keith Pray Quintet, Mulligan Stew, The Mellowtones w/Colleen Pratt
Muddy Cup Cafe @ Proctors Theatre
Schenectady, NY
April 20, 2008

By J Hunter

Random thoughts in a very cool coffeehouse on a Sunday afternoon:
THE OPINIONS OF THIS AUTHOR, ETC.: Jazz Appreciation Month makes so much sense, there's probably a politician out there somewhere denouncing it. After all, to reach beyond the already-converted, the music needs to go into "non-traditional" venues like museums, libraries, schools (Especially schools!), and spaces like the Muddy Cup, and the Smithsonian's yearly outreach program makes that happen.
And it worked here, if the regulars surfing the Cup's Wi-Fi were any indication. They did seem bemused at the throngs of listeners that cycled through the impromptu concert hall, but they didn't leave, either.
YOU BETTER RECOGNIZE: SMU President Marc Anthony handed out plaques for meritorious service to long-time AFM Local 85-133 members Norman Frederick and Paul Aldi; Aldi's son Steve – a musician himself – accepted his father's posthumous award, dedicating it to his mother. Frederick and Aldi joined keyboardist Rob Erenstein and drummer Andy Kern for a short jam session that included a bopping take on Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and a funked-up version of "My Funny Valentine." It wasn't slick by any means – Frederick cracked that it was obvious how "well-rehearsed" the band was – but it was completely consistent with the friendly, relaxed atmosphere Anthony said the SMU wanted to establish.
"CONGRATULATIONS, MISTER PRAY! IT'S A MONSTER!" While the quality and complexity of his Big Soul Ensemble is remarkable, I think Keith Pray is best heard when he's putting the "fun" in "fundamentals." His latest project – a tribute to the post-Miles music of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley – definitely lives in that neighborhood. Beginning and ending the 45-minute set with Joe Zawinul compositions ("Scotch and Water" at the top, "Money in the Pocket" for the finale), Pray torched the Cup with alto sax that went right for your heart ands soul.
Seeing Joe Barna play drums is like watching a Bruce Lee film: One moment Barna is maintaining the beat, minding his own business; then there's a blinding flash of movement, and six Ninjas are lying in a heap on the floor, inventorying their limbs. Barna brought drama and counterpoint to the proceedings while BSE bassist Lou Smalldone laid a pristine floor, and Dave Solazzo – who played Hammond B3 on Pray's 2006 party disc One Last Stop – provided the softer colors with some impeccable piano. However, Pray's best move was adding Tony Speranza to the front line. Speranza (who had already done a fill day's work on Colleen Pratt & the Mellotones' Duke Ellington homage) played Freddie Hubbard to Pray's Cannonball, and the combination was phenomenal: Their harmony on the heads couldn't be beat, and Speranza's solos flat-out soared, particularly on Nat Adderley's "Work Song."
TRIED AND TRUE – IT'S A GOOD THING: You know what you're going to get when Mulligan Stew plays a gig. Paul Couch will lead his quartet – all dressed in some form of black – onstage, where Couch builds a set from a voluminous songbook that's a mix of Couch originals and classics from Couch's muse, baritone sax pioneer Gerry Mulligan. Couch's affinity with Mulligan is so strong, it's hard for the uninitiated to tell when Couch is playing one of his own compositions and when he's pulled out a Mulligan standard like "Corner Pocket."

And you know what? It doesn't matter in the least, because the end result is always outstanding, just as it was here. The dynamic Couch shares with trumpeter Paul Supple never fails to impress, and the sound they create is a mirror-image of the music Mulligan made with star-crossed "matinee idol" Chet Baker. Plus Scott Hall nailed it: "Without Gerry Mulligan, there would be no Pepper Adams! There would be no Gary Smulyan!" Mulligan broke a lot of ground in a lot of different areas, and Mulligan Stew reminded us all why Gerry Mulligan is still an important figure.
KEEP IT SIMPLE(R): Colleen Pratt was definitely in the relaxed spirit of the event as she sang to a packed audience section at the start of the afternoon. This was a reunion show for Pratt: She and the band were old mates, and she had used Renny Crain's charts when she opened for Bob Newhart at Proctors a couple of years ago. Those charts were originally written for a 12-piece band, which is more in line with Pratt's recent collaboration with the Empire Jazz Orchestra; the Mellotones was a sextet on this afternoon, but you didn't miss the other six players.
First, the charts had the kind of interesting twists and turns you need on an Ellington tribute, and the Mellotones – featuring Crain on piano, Mike Wicks on bass, and the aforementioned Tony Speranza – performed them flawlessly. Second, Pratt didn't have to belt in order to be heard on a bluesy "Ain't Misbehavin'" or an impressive "Somewhere over the Rainbow." Pratt's dedication to Big band is heartfelt, but seeing her in smaller units really lets you see her talent's endless wingspan.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON: This was a great afternoon, but the month's not over yet! This Sunday, the Albany Musicians Union holds their 4th annual JAM gala at the Best Western – Albany Airport Inn, with a bill that includes an all-star band featuring Lee Russo, Paul Couch and Peg Delaney. Clear your schedule, because you know it'll be terrific.
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.