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Mike Moreno

Warren Wolf

Matt Brewer

Warren Wolf & Matt Brewer

Aaron Parks

Ted Poor

Photos by
Rudy Lu

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A Place For Jazz
The Whisperdome
First Unitarian Society
Schenectady, NY September 24, 2010

by J Hunter

Okay, here’s 30 seconds of cooking class: Adding an extra ingredient to a dish that’s already perfect will not automatically screw it up; the overall flavor can still be very, very good. However, unless that ingredient adds significantly to the experience, all it’s going to do is stand out, and not in a good way. The repast guitarist Mike Moreno’s quintet served up at A Place For Jazz was unquestionably tasty – it’s just that one component needed to be either accented or deleted.

Moreno and pianist Aaron Parks started out playing duo on the opener “The Spinning Wheel”, one of several pieces on the night that this same group recorded for a (hopefully) soon-to-be-released CD. Anyone who saw these two longtime collaborators play at Parks’ Skidmore Jazz appearance a couple of years ago knows what wonders of musical alchemy they can perform when the mood takes them, and this was more of the same, as Parks and Moreno flew tight formation on an intriguing opening figure until the rest of the band joined in on the melody. “Spinning” started out as a waltz, but then the group coalesced around a driving groove that only relented for Moreno’s first solo.

“Heavenly” is one of many over-used adjectives, but it applied to every solo Moreno gave us. The sound itself seems to hover above the stage, unencumbered by strings or gravity, with a distinctive ring that broadcasts continuous waves of white light even on dark pieces like “The Fifth Element.” Moreno’s left hand danced up and down the fret board like a juiced up spider on “Forward and Back” and “Isotope”, so there’s no question the man can shred. But while other guitarists would crank it up past 11 and try to blow out both eardrums and windows, Moreno’s sense of color and nuance puts them in a package that delivers the goods but doesn’t overpower the product.

Parks doesn’t need to do much to make an impression on a piece; his chord progressions are brilliantly unique, elegant but impactful. His work on “Old Wise Tale” summed up the sound he and Moreno create, both separately and together – Trad, but “Not Trad” – and his phrasing on an untitled 1st-set ballad made the tune fuller and brighter. Bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Ted Poor provided an outstanding foundation, and Poor’s dynamic fills kept the energy up even on softer tunes. The downside of that dynamism is that when he actually got a solo spot on “Isotope”, Poor had run out of ideas.

But Poor wasn’t the aforementioned “extra ingredient”; that would be vibes player Warren Wolf, who was a big part of Christian McBride’s own trad effort Inside Straight. It’s not that Wolf mailed it in – quite the opposite. He was an active participant in the three-way conversation inside “Element”, and his solo on “One and a Half” was on point, giving voice to a protagonist who was feeling less than secure. But although he worked at his kit with the same intensity as Poor, Wolf’s overall lack of resonance flattened out most of his lines. This also made him disappear inside Moreno’s attack, neutralizing any differentiation or expansion Moreno might have been attempting with Wolf as a foil. Most importantly, Wolf’s work solved only half of the “Trad but ‘not Trad’” equation, leaving him sounding surprisingly ordinary in comparison to Parks & Moreno’s next-generation offerings.

Moreno’s new music makes me hope that new disc is released sooner rather than later – for one thing, Wolf may have made the connection in the studio that he missed at the Whisperdome. This was a great musical meal, to be sure, but it could have been so much better.

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.