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Keith Pray

Steve Lambert

Big Soul Ensemble

Kevin Hendrick

Big Soul Ensemble

Lee Russo

Lou Smaldone

Rick Rosoff

photos by Albert Brooks

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A Place For Jazz
Schenectady, NY
November 9, 2007

By J Hunter

A Place For Jazz emcee Tim Coakley wasn't kidding in his introduction when he said, “We like to showcase local talent… and tonight, we have all of it!” Of the 17 players that make up Keith Pray's Big Soul Ensemble - and there isn't a time-waster in the bunch - 6 of them are leaders in their own right, well established in the community with CDs that have received national or international airplay. These guys didn't need to show up once a month at Tess' Lark Tavern, where Pray had gotten the BSE a “regular” gig; these guys had plenty of other fish to fry.

And yet, there they were at the performer's end of the Whisperdome: Brian Patneaude, hunched over his tenor sax in the first chair on the front line, smiling at the sound of his composition “Change” translated into Big Band; Adrian Cohen, making the Whisperdome's grand piano dance to a lovely take on Rodgers & Hart's “Have You Met Miss Jones”; Lee Russo, blowing sweet tenor on John Dworkin's “Renée” and on the standard “I Got It Bad”; Terry Gordon and Steve Lambert, pairing their powerful trumpets on a wild first-set-ending mashup of Coltrane's “Syeeda's Song Flute” and Mingus' “Moanin'”; and, of course, Pray, sitting in the middle of the front row, alternating between fiery alto and hypnotic soprano. The graduate of SUNY Potsdam was living his dream and loving the shape it was taking, as this phenomenal collection of Capital Region talent put an exclamation point on a sensational APFJ season.

If you've seen Pray play around town, you've grown accustomed to him channeling his Inner Maceo Parker - and if you're like me, you eat it up with the biggest spoon you can find. With that in mind, you'd figure a band called “Big Soul Ensemble” would be an extension of that musical bent. You'd also look at this unit's musical throw weight and think that the Whisperdome was going to be an open-air theatre at the end of the night. You'd have been wrong on both counts. Those who weren't regular attendees of the aforementioned Lark Tavern gigs got their education early as Pray counted the band into Machito's “Congo Mulence”, a mid-tempo, multi-layered samba that had the four-piece trombone section laying down the melody. Pray's Inner Maceo Parker had the night off; his Inner Gil Evans was driving the bus here.

The Big Soul Ensemble's stock-in-trade is nuance: The depth and color this group is capable of can bring an audience to its feet, and it has the orchestral ability to successfully tackle Pray's multi-part suite “The Gate: A Portrait of the Mohawk.” Pray used the band's wide palate to simulate the sounds and colors of a Hammond B3 on Dr. Lonnie Smith's “And The World Weeps”, and then flew us all to the Great Wall for Kenny Garrett's fractured “Ching Wen.” Patneaude bent into his ripping solo on the beautifully chaotic encore “Fables of Faubus” as Pray and Russo vocalized the support parts, adding color and humor to the outstanding moment.

Trombonist Brian Kaplin's bouncing “Buck the Schmuck” was a smart, powerful ending to the regular set; the trombones served up several gifts on this night, including a great C&A session from Ken Olsen and Rick Rosoff to close “Conga Mulence.” Scott Hall's baritone sax (sporting a patina that suggested its first owner played on the Titanic) brought serious heft to the proceedings, particularly on “Faubus” and on the Coltrane/Mingus mashup. Lou Smaldone was the subject of “Walkin' the Dog” (a Pray original, not the Rufus Thomas classic), and Smaldone responded with bridge-cable-thick bass lines. He and Cohen teamed with the always-amazing Joe Barna - the drummer in Pray's Soul-Jazz Revival - to create a rhythm section that was a creative voice all on its own.

The anchor leg of a series like A Place For Jazz is normally reserved for heavy national artists guaranteed to give a great performance. Keith Pray's Big Soul Ensemble may not be known outside the Capital Region, but they have home-run power many “big” acts would envy, as well as a dedication to deliver a rich, exciting sound that showcases both the talent and the spirit that lies at the heart of the local scene. If this is the result of a Keith Pray dream, let's hope nobody wakes him up.

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.