Friday, April 16, 2004

Rutgers Institute for Jazz Studies – Small Group Showcase

Keeping with my vow to see more live music, I went up to New Brunswick to see a couple of their student ensembles. Rutgers has one of the finest and oldest jazz studies programs anywhere and the faculty has some big names, so I knew the music would be good. The first group was a piano trio led by graduate student Rachel Eqioff (sp?) with a bassist and a drummer that I did not catch the name of.

The band led off with Joe Henderson’s “Afrocentric” taken at a mid-tempo with some strong playing by the leader. Fred Hersch’s melodic “Heart Song” followed, opening with a drum solo and then with the rest of the group joining in. The music had a melancholy pastel like feel with the drummer switching to brushes. Their set ended with an arrangement of the standard “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” which began at a stately mid-tempo with the drummer keeping a strong beat. Things downshifted a little for the bass solo, but the drummer kept things moving along briskly. The drummer took a slightly fractured solo of his own with the pianist playing chords underneath him.

The second group was “coached” by well-known drummer Victor Lewis and included Eric Swingtowski on piano, Justin Tomsorid on drums and Jason Wexler on piano. The group opened with an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” starting with a lush opening and then breaking into a really fast improvisation. The group shifted dynamics between loud and fast and mid-tempo. They’re not exactly The Bad Plus, but I bet the drummer really gets a kick out of David King’s playing. He took a forceful and powerful drum solo that drew enthusiastic applause for the audience. They followed with a medley of original tunes by the pianist, “Absolution” and “Catch You on the Flip Side.” Bowed bass and mallets introduced “Absolution” which gave way to a slower tempoed and darkly romantic melody. The band improvised very well together. “Catch You” ups the tempo to a full boil and the drummer keeps a driving beat the whole way through. The bass player gets a nice dark, elastic tone that holds up well amidst the improvising piano and drums. He uses this tone well in his solo, getting a nice full bodied sound and never rushing the music. The pianist indulges in a few romantic flourishes before leading the trio back into the theme at full throttle and taking the song out.

Tim Ries was the coach of the final ensemble of the evening. Piano, drums, guitar, tenor saxophone and the bass player from the previous group. The bass player kicked things off with a strong melodic solo and the group was off at a very fast tempo. The saxophonist and the guitarist were improvising in tandem and then the pianist took over still at the same scalding tempo. It’s impressive to see the group play at this speed, but the very speed of the music seems to limit their improvisational choices and they become stuck in a repetitive groove. Then, inevitably, when the group tried to downshift to a more reasonable tempo they got lost and nearly had a train-wreck as the guitarist missed the signal to relax the speed. They recovered quickly, though and finished the song, apparently entitled “Patch’s Revenge” with no further problems.

An interesting cover of Jason Moran’s “Gangsterism on Canvas” followed and slowed things down with a lilting melody. The tenor player gets a nicely controlled solo somewhere along the Seamus Blake/Chris Cheek continuum of tenor saxophone playing. The guitarist also contributes a fluid and well paced solo. Their final selection of the evening was a very interesting arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Nardis” which has the guitarist switching to an acoustic guitar for a flamenco like opening. The tenor player comes in, taking a darker tone and the drummer backs the group with an ominous mallet pulse. The opening segment gives way to a swinging groove with the tenor player (too bad they didn’t announce the members names) taking a solid solo over the guitarist’s folksy accompaniment. After the pianist takes a brief solo, the tenor player indulges in a little free playing out of the late period Coltrane bag. This was by far the most adventurous group of the evening, and while they were a little ragged in spots they showed a lot of spirit and energy.

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