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Joe Major

Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 5, 2017

by Joe Major

The second installment of the Skidmore Jazz All-Stars continued a cavalcade of elite POJA masters, my coinage for Practitioners of Jazz Arts. As before, their suite prompted a furtherance of expressive septet-ology well-modulated with ballads and scorchers, originals and arrangements, and broad honorific dedications.

This is the Institute’s 30th year, and inherent in the Concert Series programming is a decided depth of commitment to instructors and students alike: to process, to material and to connection. Director Todd Coolman’s opening statement noted that, “Our Institute is not the reason young people go on to great things in music, but I do believe we are a significant link in the chain leading to that.” Indeed, two musicians tonight were former graduates presently doing distinguished duty as teachers.

This evening’s ensemble included Part One carryovers Bill Cunliffe on piano and Michael Dease on trombone. Newly on board were: Dick Oatts, alto saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; John Riley, drums; new alumni/faculty trumpeter Brandon Lee and bassist David Wong.

They hopped right to it with a paean to mentorship and role modeling by Dease called “Father Figure,” dedicated to the late Geri Allen. This orderly mid-tempo number seemed to carry itself with a spritely upright posture and the customary opening-piece round o’ solos were thick with earnest, appreciative tone. For all the well-tempered spring, they integrated a fittingly hallowed aura into the velvet mix.

Next up was a bright, spirally, looping Cole Porter show tune from “Out of This World” that Oatts “tweaked a little bit and modulated a few times.” It was “Use Your Imagination,” and his aspirational drive made a goal that was “out of this world,” reachable only via imagination. All the horns were buoyant and peaky, certain that anything could be overcome. The piano laid an iteration of wishful opportunity, and the guitar registered a ringing assuredness. After a unison stint, Oatts plumbed a remarkable soliloquy that ultimately substituted hope and dreams for imagination.

With the stage now cleared, Lee and Wong delivered a dramatic duet of Vernon Duke’s ballad “I Can’t Get Started With You.” In this focused spot, before this audience, they projected an especially endearing covenant with the lovelorn realm. Lee’s trumpet was fleshy, wounded and stalled in emotional stasis. Wong’s bass was the perfect consoling companion. The glimmer of light exchanged in their outcry winnowed down to a coda wherein the essence of Lee’s resolve faltered and tragically weakened.

Continuing the event-long centennial tribute to Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, the group offered “Pannonica,” Monk’s own nod to his dear patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. In a quartet format highlighting guitarist Bernstein, he and pianist Cunliffe extracted a sublimely sweet and sour poetic ode. Molding and contouring, full guitar pinches gave dimension to a complex portrait, and with stabs of piano dissonance, defined the unique undulations of Monkland.

“A Change Will Come,” an Oatts original, followed. He launched into a comedic introduction that involved presumed political changes, George Bush, Amsterdam, elections and serendipity. The story ended with an unexpected tune in his lap, one with enough dips and doodles that he admiringly dedicated it to Diz. And sure enough the band came on in a swelling surge; probing alto beseeched a new order; trumpet petitioned its cause; guitar tallied strokes; trombone roused an esprit de corps; piano solved for the “how could there be any other outcome?” solution. In unison now, a swinging, momentous change!

I detected an extra affection beyond just “one of my favorites” in the sun-rising, sun-setting manner that Cunliffe clasped “Crepuscule With Nellie” to his bosom. His slow-drag of ascending and descending tenderness blended an ever present, reverent, captivating tincture of discordance. After abrupt stops the band was spot-on with their owl-like devotional eruptions that dissolved into gentle free fall. They were utterly conversant in Monk’s signature language of questioning whispers.

“You and the Night and the Music,” an Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz standard that Bill Evans reworked and popularized was the group’s seven-alarm contribution to the let ‘er rip category. Every last one of them characterized the song’s three title elements in an ecstatically popping tempo that swirled with footloose exuberance, joyous revelry and breathtaking guileless abandon.

Time for special guests! Cunliffe and drummer Riley stayed on to join two esteemed featured players, tenorist Pat LaBarbera and bassist Todd Coolman. LaBarbera, who was an early on Institute instructor and compatriot of founder Don McCormack, and is renowned for his work with Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones, recounted his many seasons and memories at Skidmore. Grammy-winning Coolman currently directs the Institute. It was only fitting then that they launched into Jule Styne’s ballad, “The Things We Did Last Summer.” LaBarbera’s confident, resonant, memoir-soaked parsing conveyed wind-blown scrapbook pages slowly turning over. And Cunliffe’s after-hours tone was redolent of soul searching moments of essence from yesteryear.

The All-Stars, still absent Wong, returned to the stage for “Red Top,” a 50s Lionel Hampton tune LaBarbera learned from Gene Ammons. The hot-rodded octet lit an instant fuse on this jump-jive piece when they, in period-perfect vocalese, shouted out the title. Again, LaBabera ushered in a slippin’ and sliddin’ jam-joint ambiance and all the soloists followed suit, each player tracing the arc of a florid operetta. Reconvened for the theme, and right in time, they brought things to a rockin’ wrap by exhorting “Red Top!”

But wait, there’s more! Determined to render unto bebop that which was bebop’s, de facto bandleader and linchpin Cunliffe bestowed an encore, to the delight of a grateful audience. And there was no better number to go out on than a Dizzy tune actually named “Bebop.” With LaBarbera still in tow, Coolman out, Wong in, take out the dog, bring in the cat, set the blender for blister, all systems go. This was classic hurricane Gillespie, where driven speed and dexterity were placed right alongside direct, straightforward statements. All the horns ventured just this side of uncontrollable and the piano and guitar, after brief tempo pit stops, couldn’t refrain from stoking the sizzling phraseology. The bandmates themselves encouraged and awed one another, and everyone, doting crowd included, appeared giddy from having dined sufficiently at Dizzy’s “chops” house.

Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.