calendar  |  musicians  |  venues  |  concert reviews  |  CD reviews  |  photos  |  features

Big Soul Ensemble

Live at the Lark Tavern CD Release Party
Tess’ Lark Tavern
Albany, NY
January 31, 2010

by J Hunter

Webster’s defines “legend” as “a non-historical or unverifiable story.” So while this sounds like a legend, it’s definitely a fact: In order to form a truly righteous big band, a group of like-minded souls stuffed themselves onto a minuscule stage in downtown Albany once a month – every month. The result was Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, and thanks to the release of Big Soul’s first disc Live at the Lark Tavern, the rest of the world can hear the results of all that bunching up. The disc dropped on the last day in January, and I was lucky enough to get into the two-set CD-release party at the Lark.

I say ‘lucky” because I followed BSE tenorman Brian Patneaude’s explicit advice: “Get there PLENTY early! The place will be mobbed!” As such, I showed up at 2pm, two hours before the first set… only to find I wasn’t the only early bird! As other premature show-goers flowed in from the street, the Lark staff swung into action, re-arranging tables in the back room and shooing most of the early-arrivals into the bar area. Avatar rules were put swiftly into effect: If you saw the first show, you couldn’t see the second show – period.

Mind you, that was the right way to handle it, given the logistical situation. The Lark’s concert space is a classic back room, a cozy place to hang out, drink beer, and grab good grub. (Culinary note: Whatever you order from the Lark’s menu, be sure it comes with fries! They’re the best I’ve ever had!) Plus the stage at the back of the room is perfect for comedy shows or open-mic nights. But put a big band and a bigger crowd in that space, and “cozy” becomes “congested” in a big hurry, particularly when Big Soul’s keyboardist and reed section had to set up on the floor of the club – off the stage completely!

As crazy as it seemed, it was business as usual for Pray and his cohorts. So after they were introduced by some bald guy from the audience, they launched into the multi-layered Mingus/Coltrane mash-up “Syeeda’s Moanin’ Song Flute.” This piece has all the sections – reeds, horns, and tuba/trombones – working through their own complex voicings until it sounds like a hundred musicians are coming at you from five different directions. Sitting in what amounted to the front row, I felt like I was standing in the doorway of one of those houses that get blown down in documentaries about above-ground nuclear testing.

“Syeeda” was an early staple of Big Soul set lists, as were pieces by other national artists like Chris Potter and Dr. Lonnie Smith. In contrast, Live at the Lark is All Local, All the Time, and the set was peppered with tracks from the disc: Pray followed “Syeeda” with his own “Walkin’ the Dog”, a chunky blues that let bassist Lou Smalldone get fat and funky. “Elements” is one of two Yuko Kishimoto tunes on Lark, and is my favorite song because of a middle section that could be mistaken for a lost Horace Silver big-band recording; Patneaude’s solo in that section is big, broad, and eminently tasty. BSE has been playing John Dworkin’s “Renee” for some time, and keyboardist Dave Gleason’s in-the-clear intro was a spot-on set-up for the wistful piece.

Although most drop-party shows focus exclusively on the CD’s track list, Pray had no qualms about playing even newer material here. He followed “Renee” with another Dworkin composition, only “Chigliack” literally swung in the other direction from its older sibling. Then Pray closed the set with “Down at the Lark”, and it’s a shame Pray’s composition didn’t make the disc: Bob Halek’s rollicking Second-Line rhythm got things busy as trumpeters Dylan Canterbury and Terry Gordon showed how “wah-wah” was done before the electronic age. “Lark” had the spirit of NOLA running through its veins; the band was obviously having a blast, and if there had been room, I’m sure the crowd would have been dancing up a storm.

I ducked out the side door as Lark staff cleared the room for the next show. Seeing Big Soul’s second set would have been very cool, because they are a working definition of a “show band.” Even so, it was time for someone else to stand in that doorway and hang on tight.

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.