CONCERT REVIEWS

TERRY GORDON QUINTET
The Electric City Jazz Appreciation Month Concert: Tribute To Sam Farkas
Proctors Robb Alley
Schenectady, NY
April 17, 2011

By J Hunter (Albanyjazz.com)

Notes from the Schenectady Musical Union’s latest contribution to Jazz Appreciation Month (now in its 10th year of celebration):

IN MEMORIAM – I never had the pleasure of meeting Sam Farkas, or seeing him play guitar, but he was one of the names you had to know about the Capital Region jazz community. His footprint on the scene was as big as that of Jack Fragomeni, another friend we lost too soon. In announcing a fundraising effort for a scholarship fund in Farkas and Fragomeni’s memory, Joe Barna described them both the same way: “A teacher, a father, and an educator.” Emotions ran high all afternoon long, especially when union president Mark Anthony presented a memorial plaque to longtime Farkas friends. Forget “He will be missed.” Sam Farkas is missed.

TAKING RISKS – One thing that kept coming up was how Farkas had no problem with taking it out on the ragged edge in concert. Terry Gordon went out on the edge on this afternoon, though it wasn’t ragged – at least not in the “nasty” sense. After an eye-popping set that let guitar wizard Joe Finn go where he’s rarely gone before, Gordon augmented his quintet with a string quartet for “Contemplations”, which Gordon dedicated to Farkas. The piece itself was both beautiful and intricate, and all participants did well. However, in the face of the Gordon Quintet’s electric power, the un-mic’ed strings were practically inaudible beyond the first row. Still, Gordon gets points for trying to go the extra mile on behalf of a friend and peer.

TERRY GORDON QUINTET
Second Sunday Concert Series

Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library
Clifton Park, NY
October 13, 2013

By Glenn Griffith (Clifton Park Community News)

The live sounds of cool jazz are not something one often associates with libraries.  Biographies or autobiographies of jazz musicians certainly.  CD’s of course.  But live tunes?  Never.

But that is exactly what took place last Sunday from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library, 475 Moe Rd.

The five-piece Terry Gordon Quintet drew 60 jazz enthusiasts to the library’s second floor program room to hear a free, mid-day jazz set without the extraneous noise found in a nightclub.

Gordon’s appearance was the second in a four-part musical series called the Second Sunday Series.  Last month all-female Irish band Triskele played the same room.

November and December will see two more groups.  The funding comes from the Friends of the Library in partnership with the Clifton Park Arts and Culture Commission.

Gordon is a local trumpet player and is well-known in the area.  Sunday’s set consisted of eight tunes ranging from straight ahead bebop to bossa nova.  This was jazz in the truest sense.  There were no vocals.

Playing with Gordon were Michael-Louis Smith on hollow body amplified guitar, Lou Smaldone on standup bass and Bob Halek on drums.  Sitting in for this performance on tenor and soprano saxophone was well-known area musician Brian Patneaude.

As with all good musical performances the talk between numbers was sparse allowing the musicians’ instruments to do the conversing.  After introducing the group Gordon gave the name of each number.  Occasionally he expanded to explain how it was written or how it came to be in the set.

Most numbers followed a standard jazz arrangement with full ensemble openings, individual spots for the musicians to stretch out with solos, and full ensemble closings.  Each solo brought a round of applause from the mostly older audience.

Gordon and Patneaude were up front preferring to stand next to each other on the carpet and let the others use the riser to their rear.  At times the two men switched back and forth musically from playing with each other to playing against each other. When playing in tandem their horns rode over and around the melody like a single fine tuned machine.  At other times they chased each other around it like a dog after a rabbit.

Smith, Smaldone, and Halek kept the rhythm pushed to the edges and took turns demonstrating their knowledge of their instruments and the tune when it was their time to solo.  Each musician took at least one solo on each tune.

The group’s bossa nova number, “The Sound”, was dedicated to the late sax player Stan Getz.  The title of the song was Getz’s nickname.  Halfway through the bouncy bossa tune Patneaude tossed in a few bars of “The Girl From Ipanema”, Getz’s most well-known number.

The longest introduction from Gordon came prior to the group playing a tune called “Blues For Tanner”, a number he wrote for a young boy who died from leukemia.

“It was the drummer’s gig,” Gordon said, “and he asked me to write a song for Tanner (Zullo).  I wrote it on the back of my car 30 minutes before the gig.”

Rather than a slow melancholy tune as one would expect, the song had an upbeat tempo.  It swung.  It was reminiscent of New Orleans jazz funerals where the musicians turn away from the cemetery and switch from slow drags and dirges to hot numbers like the traditional send off, “Didn’t He Ramble.”

ARCH STANTON QUARTET
Bridge Jazz Festival
Massry Center For The Arts
College of St. Rose
Albany, NY
February 27, 2016

By J Hunter (Nippertown)

Night Two of last year’s Bridge Jazz Festival was like the first stage of a relationship: Gretchen Parlato & Alan Hampton produced the quiet, shy opening; the Fred Hersch Trio let us delve into the personal details; and Cecile McLorin Salvant brought that first bloom of real passion.

Now it’s one year later, the relationship is a lot more comfortable, and we’re ready and eager to party down – and party we did!

Shifting the paradigm right from the jump at the Massry Center for the Arts was Greater Nippertown’s “garage-band jazz” ambassadors, the Arch Stanton Quartet. The key word there is “ambassadors,” as ASQ dove right into “Kofta,” the first piece from the suite of music inspired by their whirlwind tour of Egypt a few years ago. Guitarist Roger Noyes and trumpeter Terry Gordon were both on point, deftly passing the melody back and forth during the lurching opening movement. Noyes’ first solo growled and snapped like a pissed-off crocodile, while Gordon’s knee-bending spotlight moment threatened to blow the place down before we’d even gotten started. While the band wasn’t amplifier-heavy, the baffling curtains definitely came into play, because Arch Stanton was both loud and proud.

ASQ’s set may have been limited to the four pieces that make up the “Lady Egypt Suite,” but don’t think that the band (or the sold-out crowd) was shortchanged. Each tune was a little more muscular and a little more fleshed-out, as the Stanton Quartet hit us with wave after wave of musicianship and energy. Gordon absolutely busted it on the swinging “Zamalek,” blowing up real good as Noyes’ jangling fills slashed the air behind him and drummer Steve Partyka cheered Gordon on; Partyka feverishly worked the rims as bassist Chris Macchia stepped out for one of several tasty moments of his own. Noyes’ opening strum on “Groovin’ at the Azur” was completely out of tune, which actually matched the mental and physical state Gordon was in when he heard the Egyptian wedding party that inspired the epic, swirling tune; Gordon muted his trumpet in places to accentuate the middle eastern vibe. Partyka’s short, sweet, simple drum solo knocked us right into the middle of the laughing “Blues for Soli,” which put a very sporty cap on the evening’s scene-setter.

ARCH STANTON QUARTET
“Shadow And Act”
The Book House
Stuyvesant Plaza
Albany, NY
February 18, 2017

By J Hunter (Nippertown)

I’m all in favor of putting live jazz in spaces not associated with live music. It’s simple mathematics: The more places we put the music, the more chances we have to turn somebody on that might not have been exposed to the real thing.

The Arch Stanton Quartet’s latest gig was at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, but for once, the group’s “garage-band jazz” wasn’t the sole star on the afternoon. This show would be the second time the ASQ would perform compositions inspired by one of the most powerful works in American literary tradition: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” I first read the book in 2015 while flying from Albany to San Jose, and when I’d finished, I felt like someone had spent the eight-hour journey smacking me upside the head with the book.

Published in 1952 and set in the early 20th century, Ellison’s unnamed narrator takes the reader on a winding, episodic journey that stretches from his small hometown in the South, through a black college loosely modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University, and straight into the heart of New York City, where we find the narrator hiding in a basement and reviewing his life.

Throughout the book (which guitarist-composer Roger Noyes calls “an American ‘Ulysses,’” though I see parallels to Homer’s “The Odyssey”), the narrator finds himself in – or is literally thrown into – social, professional, political and physical situations that prove racism is not exclusive to the southern bigots he grew up with; indeed, he discovers that there is as much racism on the liberal side of the scale as there is on the conservative side.

I missed the debut of this music two years ago at Albany Public Library, but I literally had a front-row seat (and a nice, cushy front row seat, at that) for “Shadow & Act” when Noyes made the introductions at the Book House. Noyes writes non-fiction as well as music, and his love for the words and mental pictures Ellison stitched together was more than evident, as the guitarist set up a seemingly simple premise: How does something you read turn into music?

To set the stage – and the tone – for the afternoon, the Stanton Quartet eased into an old classic that plays an important part in Ellison’s novel: Louis Armstrong’s “Black & Blue.” To put it mildly, standards aren’t part of the ASQ’s normal repertoire, let alone something as deep in the jazz tradition as Satchmo, but the group put the slow, sweet blues on like a favorite jacket, and it fit absolutely perfectly.

Horn blower Terry Gordon pulled a cornet out of the brass arsenal at his feet and expertly used a plunger mute to create that mournful sound Armstrong could conjure at a moment’s notice. Noyes’ solo was more traditional than I’m used to, but Noyes also does trad damn well, so what do I know? Chris Macchia’s fat bass rolled right down the middle while original Stanton Quartet drummer James Ketterer pushed the piece straight on through with brushes and attitude. The piece didn’t sizzle, but it bubbled like hell, just like the book, and if you closed your eyes, you could easily transport back to the days when jazz was the thing and Satchmo was king.

Noyes took great care between tunes to break down “Invisible Man” for the crowd, explaining how the narrator went through life as “an invisible man” from childhood to adulthood, and was only seen as whatever (or whoever) it was the people in front of him saw him as. Noyes also talked about how the book showed that life is like jazz, because the narrator “walks through the breaks, and then fades back.” He even broke it down for us visually with pictures of the music from the opening of the Noyes original “Prologue,” which was inspired by the narrator’s opening “monologue” from deep in his basement. You could hear a little of Armstrong in the piece, though Gordon and Noyes definitely showed higher levels of aggression that evoked the ASQ’s earlier recorded work.

As such, the barely contained rage inherent in the narrator at the beginning of “Invisible Man” kept the piece crackling, just as it did during the suite-like piece “Atalanta.” The latter work allowed Noyes to compare and contrast Booker T. Washington – who the narrator greatly admires in the beginning of the book – with Washington contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois, who embodied the spirit of social activism that presaged the civil-rights movement: The narrator clings to Washington’s “accomodationist” views in the beginning, but is much closer to Du Bois’ more confrontational attitude by the end of his journey, and Noyes’ pulsing composition lets you hear that transition.

The afternoon finished with the straight-up groove “Liberty Paints,” which is the name of a company where the narrator works for a short time; Noyes also pointed out that the word “Paints” could be used as a verb: “What does Liberty paint over?” It’s why “Invisible Man” is just as relevant today as it was in the days when the battle in the African-American community was Washington’s calls for social responsibility versus Du Bois’ push for social equality.

Noyes’ between-tunes presentations had enough detail to jump-start a doctoral dissertation, and could have used a PowerPoint display to bring it home completely. But between the excitement Noyes brought to the discussion and the smoldering fire the Arch Stanton Quartet always has burning, this was the most interesting time I’ve ever had at a bookstore, and I hope the passers-by caught in the concert felt the same way.

ARCH STANTON QUARTET
“Jazz In The Key Of Dylan”
Caffe Lena
Saratoga Springs, NY
August 19, 2017

By J Hunter (Nippertown)

My protracted search for a parking space reminded me why I don’t come up to Saratoga Springs when it’s in the throes of flat-track season; the six-block walk from my car to Caffe Lena only exacerbated my irritation at all things turista. Then again, tourists can serve a useful purpose: In this case, they helped pack the fabled folk venue’s new location for “Jazz in the Key of Dylan,” a daring concept from emcee-musician-show organizer Michael Eck.

Eck has been creating tributes to Bob Dylan for a number of years now, but although his opening remarks focused on how he’s always wanted to put the legendary singer-songwriter’s music through a jazz filter, this show would be his first attempt. While converting Dylan’s music to jazz is not unprecedented, it’s always been through rock that his compositions have really thrived. Nevertheless, Eck pulled some of Greater Nippertown’s best jazzers together for this event, and the results were both surprising and invigorating.

There was a bit of surrealism attached to this evening for me – not because of the music, but because of Caffe Lena’s new home on the second floor of one of the Springs’ many new office-condo structures. The old location’s brick-lined staircase still leads you up to the performance space, and elements of Lena’s long-time decorations are interspersed around multiple areas of the club. However, the club’s hardwood floors, bright red paint and baby-blue stage background was less Saturday Night Hootenanny and more Karaoke Night at the Marriott. You got the sense the space was designed by committee, with every member getting one thing they wanted. At least the club’s old upright piano survived – still up against the back of the miniscule stage, so whoever played the piano got no face time with the audience whatsoever.

All that said, things got seriously coffeehouse when Eck read a section from Dylan’s “11 Outlined Epitaphs” while Keith Pray played extemporaneous alto sax underneath him. Eck would preface each set with a Dylan-related reading while a member of each band backed him up. While all the reading/soloist moments were both interesting and fun, my favorite was when the Arch Stanton Quartet’s Roger Noyes played eerie pedal-steel guitar under Eck’s delivery of Dylan’s acceptance speech for the 2015 MusicCares Man Of The Year Award.

Starting a musical evening with one of Pray’s various musical creations is never a bad thing, and the altoist-educator brought some of his longtime collaborators to Lena for a tight four-tune set, starting with a waltzing take on “Blind Willie McTell” and finishing with a terrific reggae reboot of “I Shall Be Released.” Kevin Grudecki’s loping guitar moved the latter tune from the mournful to the celebratory, and pianist Scott Bassinson injected a healthy dose of gospel to “Lord Please Protect My Child.” Pray’s choice to do four songs ran up against the evening’s time constraints, so each piece seemed frustratingly truncated, particularly Pray’s righteous arrangement of “Masters Of War.” Despite that, his usual teeth-bared attack – supported by drummer Bob Halek and bassist Bobby Kendall’s stellar foundation – galvanized the full-to-bursting house, letting us all know that any we could throw all guesstimates about this evening right into the trash.

While Pray and his partners have been gigging together for many years, the following act, Dylan & Sons, was more of a last-minute get-together: Reed monster Jeff Nania (pianist-leader Lecco Morris’ usual foil) had a previous engagement, so clarinetist Jonathan Greene stepped into the void; Greene had played with bassist Dylan Perrillo in Hot Club of Saratoga, but Morris and drummer-percussionist Rob Morrison had never worked with him. Even so, the quartet burst out of the blocks with “Hurricane,” an appropriate choice to follow Eck’s reading from Sam Shepard’s “Rolling Thunder Logbook.” Greene’s solo on the piece was a heavyweight prizefighter, and then the rest of the band vamped while Perrillo bowed an exquisite solo. If that tune didn’t set you reeling, Dylan & Sons’ driving send-up of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” should have done the job. Their set-closing version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was remarkably funereal, but when the group stopped dead and started singing the chorus in a monotone a cappella, the audience jumped right in for two reverent rounds.

With the appearance of the pedal steel, I’d hoped the ASQ had found a whole new door to take me through; unfortunately, either the instrument or its amplifier gave up the ghost after Noyes accompanied Eck, so I had to “settle” for Noyes’ regular axe as Terry Gordon fed his trumpet into an effects box to start a blistering rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The resulting wah-wah gave Gordon’s horn a truly angry tone that dovetailed perfectly with the song’s lyric, and the crowd sang the tune’s snarling chorus completely unprompted. Gordon switched to flugelhorn for a bolero take on “Idiot Wind,” and as usual Gordon took the instrument’s softening characteristics and squashed them like a bug. The group swung hard on their closer “Gotta Serve Somebody,” coming closer to rock than any band on the bill. While Noyes was his usual crunch-tastic self and Gordon was definitely turned up to 11, it was the notes drummer James Ketterer and bassist Chris Macchia didn’t play that mattered, letting the front line do all the major moves that left the crowd howling for more.

While Brubeck Brothers Quartet pianist Chuck Lamb set up for the final set of the night, it occurred to me that the last time I broke my track-season travel ban was when the BBQ played Universal Preservation Hall in 2014. Lamb prefaced his trio’s set by explaining how the late Dave Brubeck told him you have to know the lyrics of a song if you want to cover it instrumentally. If that’s the case, Lamb is well-versed in Dylan’s songbook, because his bluesy opening take on “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” was right on the money, and the crowd laughed as it sang the song’s infamous chorus following every verse. Under Lamb’s skilled hands, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had the ethereal quality of Joni Mitchell’s ‘70s jazz period, though a quick snippet of “All Along the Watchtower” gave the piece a flash of fire. “Like a Rolling Stone” had that bitter “Bye, Felicia” tone of Dylan’s original recording, while “Lay Lady Lay” can never be anything but Dylan’s closest try at a love song. Vocalist Ria Curley joined Lamb for a closing rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that was decidedly brighter than the dirge-like epitaph Dylan created for the Sam Peckinpah bloodfest “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.”

As I said, taking Bob Dylan into the jazz idiom is not without precedent: My favorite effort is Ben Flocks’ smiling version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But mounting an entire evening of Dylan a la jazz had the potential to be either a golden triumph or a raging dumpster fire. Thanks to Eck’s outstanding choices and the wonderfully varied approaches taken by all the bands, triumph won by at least eight lengths. I’m hoping there will be a sequel to Jazz in the Key of Dylan – preferably at a time when the Springs isn’t awash with racing junkies looking to drink away the day’s losses.

ARCH STANTON QUARTET
Blues For Soli CD release party
Parish Public House
Albany, NY
October 25, 2014

By J Hunter (Nippertown)

It’s always a worry when a club you like quotes Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins (“We hope you like our new direction…”), but the Party Place Formerly Known as Red Square has really just fine-tuned the NOLA vibe they kinda-sorta had in the first place. Either way, it was a wonderfully unconventional place for a wonderfully unconventional group to drop their sophomore release. Even the audience was unconventional: I mean, how many shows do YOU go to where a former U.S. ambassador is in the crowd? Props to the Stanton Quartet for not doing the drop-party thing and just playing the disc as-recorded; they expanded on every number from Soli, including having former drummer Jim Ketterer play tabla on “Groovin’ at the Azur.” The club may have tweaked their direction, but the ASQ’s creative track is working just fine!

ALEX TORRES Y SU ORQUESTA
Saugerties JAS Festival
Saugerties, NY
September 12, 2003

By Kitty Montgomery (Saugerties Times)

 

KEITH PRAY’S BIG SOUL ENSEMBLE
The Van Dyck
Schenectady, NY
August 6, 2013

By Dylan Canterbury (Albany Jazz)

Sometimes, it’s all a matter of perspective.

When it comes to the monthly gathering that is the Big Soul Ensemble’s residence at the Van Dyck, my usual perspective comes from the back left corner of the bandstand. Wedged snugly but comfortably between drummer Bob Halek and fellow trumpeter Terry Gordon, I get a first-hand glimpse into the mind of saxophonist/composer/bandleader Keith Pray. Most of my focus is dedicated solely to not getting lost in Pray’s cerebral and technically demanding charts; the remaining portion is spent listening steadfastly to my section-mates, doing my best to follow their lead and blend in as best I can. It is, perhaps inevitably, an experience that stimulates and challenges the intellect in rigorous fashion.

The evening of August 6th, however, was different. Sidelined from playing by a minor medical issue, I now had, for the first time, the opportunity to take on the perspective of a listener. My mind was not concerned with interpreting a smattering of little black dots strewn across several dozens of pages of lined paper, but rather on taking in and interpreting the multi-layered complexity of a 17-piece big band blazing continuously forward at full, unrepentant strength. The stimulation was now centered less on the intellect and more on the soul; an equally challenging, but vastly different experience, to be sure.

So what is there to say about this particular perspective? An awful lot, actually. First and foremost is the overall balance of the ensemble. Dominating my traditional perspective from the view (sound?) of the back row is the potent blend of the thunderous Halek and the mercurial brass. The perspective of a listener, however, bears a completely different fruit. The brass and drums retain all of their earth-shattering power, of course, but they are now complimented by the added dimension of a reed section that can hang with the best of them. The deep, resonant woodiness that Pray and his fellow saxophonists attain really does bring the band together in a way I don’t normally have the pleasure of fully experiencing – it’s that profound.

Then there’s the new perspective I have of Pray the composer. The common thread that holds such seemingly disparate musical stylists as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans together is their abilities to take advantage of their ensembles’ potential. Pray (as well as Albany’s favorite expatriate, composer/pianist Yuko Kishimoto) fits snugly into this tradition as well. The Big Soul Ensemble is, at the very least, a band of many stylistic stripes. Its range stretches from the guttural depths of Adam Streeter’s tuba to the stratospheric acrobatics of lead trumpeter Jon Bronk; from the silky-smooth bop of Lee Russo to the more angular extrapolations of fellow tenor man Brian Patneaude. Pray and Kishimoto are masters at not only pitting these various elements against each other to create tension, but also uniting them together in ways to create incredibly deep and complex aural expressions. One can experience this dimension only so much from the bandstand; taking a full-frontal audio assault amounts to a feeling not different from when I heard the music for the first time.

Of course, there’s also the new perspective on the musicians themselves. I have already mentioned in passing the range of their stylistic personalities, but I feel I need to expound upon this a bit more. The twin tenors of Brian Patneaude and Lee Russo are, next to Pray himself, the band’s most featured voices, and what a pair of voices! For both Patneaude and Russo, it’s all about their sounds. Patneaude possesses a tone that manages to be cutting and full at the same time, rooted in the lineage of the late, great Michael Brecker, but clearly his own man, not content with hiding in the shadows of a giant. On the other hand, Russo’s tone can best be described as the musical equivalent of a down pillow – pure, unbridled coziness. The contrasts continue with the higher reeds, as Dave Fisk’s subtle bluesiness and dry execution provide for a significantly different (but amply satisfying) alternative to his fellow altoist Pray. I’ve known Jeff Nania since we were in high school, and although his typical axe of choice is tenor, his baritone playing this particular evening was nothing short of thrilling; hopefully he’ll be revisiting the big horn more in-depth in the future. The trombone tandem of Ken Olsen and Ben O’Shea provides yet another layer of contrast, with Olsen’s more urbane approach being countered by O’Shea’s more pugilistic tendencies. Trumpeter Steve Lambert has long been one of my favorite musicians in the area, as his bittersweet lyricism is something I wish to have more of in my own playing. His counterpart, the aforementioned Terry Gordon, provides a raw, relentless sense of experimentation with a dose of good old fashioned power to back it up. Filling in the spot I normally occupy was Chris Pasin, whose blend of avant-garde harmony and old school bop-based phrasing makes him a truly unique voice on the instrument, one that I never tire of listening to. Although there wasn’t a lot of soloing to go around the rhythm section this particular evening, their affinity for each other is worth noting in and of itself. Pianist Cliff Brucker, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Bob Halek have an almost supernatural way to not only lock in with each other, but with whoever they were accompanying at the time. Maybe mindreading is possible after all…

Finally, there is, of course, Pray the saxophonist. By now, his reputation is familiar to most, if not all, of the regular audience members. Having played with Pray in a wide variety of formats over the years, I have had numerous opportunities to partake in his ceaselessly jovial musical antics. This night, however, was (to paraphrase Monty Python) something completely different. His first solo of the evening came on Kishimoto’s composition “Elements,” and what I experienced showcased a wonderful new direction in the veteran reedman’s playing. Pray’s explorations could best be described as the love child of Cannonball Adderley and a snake charmer, but as odd as that may sound, it was a musical ride that was about as wild as they get. Pray’s relentlessness didn’t let up all evening; he dug deep into every bag of tricks he has, from gutbucket funk to blazing bop to vocal-like squeals and honks. His brief sojourn into the world of the soprano saxophone was equally enthralling. Not once did he fall prey (no pun intended) to the common pitfalls that so many soprano men fall for, instead sticking with his own unique approach to the reediest of reeds. Experiencing Pray’s musicianship from the front as opposed to alongside is something I hope to do more frequently in the future, as his playing never fails to excite my ears.

A few quick specific highlights from the show: the fleetness of the reed section’s ensemble work, in particular on John Fedchock’s arrangement of “Fried Buzzard” and Sammy Nestico’s “The Blues Machine;” the surprisingly sinister rumblings of the Sam Rivers-inspired avant-hip-hop “Sam’s Tune;” the rhythm section shifting to a more 1960s Miles Davis vibe behind Pray’s solo on the otherwise groove-based “The Other Funk;” Brucker’s sparse but captivating introduction to an almost garage-band-raw version of Pray’s “Transconfiguration;” the mini soli section on Pray’s arrangement of the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones” (side note: this is one of the first charts I ever played with the band, and this is still one my favorite parts of the whole book); and, of course, the Paul Gonsalves-inspired tenor battle to end all tenor battles on “Blues for P.G.,” complete with full band playing riffs from Gonsalves’ iconic solo from the Newport Jazz Festival.

As I said at the beginning, it’s all a matter of perspective. Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble has, for the past 5-plus years, provided me a source of relentless intellectual stimulation, technical challenge, and musical exploration. Getting a chance to take in the band from an atypical location has now given me a completely new understanding of the band – the understanding of a listener, an understanding which draws and continues to draw crowds of all ages, shapes and sizes month in and month out. This new perspective showcases an ensemble that is powerful, unpredictable, and exciting. Most of all, this is a band that is just plain fun to listen to. When all’s said and done, isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

KEITH PRAY’S BIG SOUL ENSEMBLE
Live At The Lark CD Release Party

Tess’ Lark Tavern
Albany, NY
January 31, 2010

By J Hunter (Albany Jazz)

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 Smaldone 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.

 

KEITH PRAY’S BIG SOUL ENSEMBLE
The Linda, WAMC Performing Arts Studio
Albany, NY
September 18, 2008

By J Hunter (Albany Jazz)

I know what you were thinking (and when I say “You”, I mean the people who thought about coming out to The Linda to see Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, but ultimately didn’t): “Hey, they played the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival two weeks ago! And that was free! Why would I want to pay when I just saw them for free? And besides, the Linda show is being recorded for a later broadcast! I’ll hear the show then… for free!”

Okay. First, I can totally get behind the concept of “free”; I used to work in radio, where the unofficial staff motto at every station I worked for (regardless of format) was, “If it’s free, it’s for me!” That said, some things are worth plunking down a few dollars to see, and one of them is the Big Soul Ensemble – not only because of the wealth of local talent in the band, but because whenever Big Soul plays, Pray likes to slip a few wild cards in the deck.

Keith played his first Joker right out of the gate, launching the show with a mind-boggling take on the spiritual “Down by the Riverside.” This was an Oliver Nelson arrangement in 6/4 time, with charts that had BSE playing lightning-fast changes before they’d even gotten settled. We’re talking a 17-piece band ripping through unbelievably complex changes, and doing it as easily as you or I would cross a deserted street. That re-defines the term “impressive.” Then a cherry got plopped on top of the cake when Steve Lambert, Terry Gordon and Dylan Canterbury traded solos that were all clear, high, and immensely powerful.

Canterbury himself qualifies as a wild card. A SUNY-Purchase underclassman who’s been studying with Jon Faddis, Canterbury more than held his own in Big Soul’s bodacious horn section: He was faultless on the four-way trumpet spotlight during the Mingus/Coltrane mashup “Syeeda’s Moanin’ Song Flute”, and his solo on Pray’s expansive Mohawk River suite “The Gate” was remarkable. Canterbury was an integral part of the youth-intensive orchestra Erica Seguine led at The Linda back in June; seeing Canterbury work seamlessly with a veteran group like BSE only confirms that bigger things are out there waiting for him.

Then there’s the perpetual wild card, Joe Barna. Barna’s the Dizzy Gillespie of Big Soul. He’s the guy clowning in the back, keeping it loose while Pray is doing his bandleader schtick up front. What people forget about Dizzy – and what I’ll happily talk about, at length, about Barna – is his consummate level of musicianship. With Lou Smaldone laying down rebar-fortified foundations on every number, Barna was free to fill, accent, embroider, and just generally play his butt off. He literally gave Gordon’s solo on Yuko Kishimoto’s “Blues Lee” an extra kick, and it was a blast watching Barna do so much with so little on the intro to Pray’s Sunday-go-to-meeting take on “All By All.”

The Chris Potter composition was one of several points where Brian Patneaude showcased his new dimensions. There’s always been a little R&B in Patneaude’s laser-like tenor; now, though, Brian’s going deeper and broader, tapping a rich vein of soulfulness that simply takes the breath away. Tack this onto Lee Russo’s shiny West Coast tenor on “A Shade of Jade” and Scott Hall’s dynamic bari sax on “Buck the Schmuck”, and it’s no wonder Pray sits back and smiles when the rest of the reeds are doing their thing.

Band members exchanged big grins during Pray’s burning alto solo on “Walkin’ the Dog.” Keith doesn’t solo that much with BSE, which is a bummer for those of us who could listen to him until the sun comes up. On one hand, this makes it more of an occasion when Pray does get up and wail; on the other hand, focusing on his role as bandleader affirms that Big Soul is a unit, and not a star vehicle. Any of these players are handfuls on their own, but to see them working together is to watch the musical version of an 800-pound gorilla: It sits anywhere it wants to, and does whatever comes into its head. You’ll get to hear that (for free) when WAMC airs this concert later in the year. But save your pennies, because there’s a Big Soul Ensemble live disc in the offing. And if the show at The Linda was any indication, it’ll be cheap at twice the price.

 

EMPIRE JAZZ ORCHESTRA featuring CURTIS FULLER
Schenectady County Community College
Schenectady, NY
April 21, 2009

By J Hunter (Albany Jazz)

The message in the box above the program’s set list dedicated the evening to “the memory and spirit of our friends Jack Fragomeni and David Newman.” There’ve been some good words written about Fragomeni, from Greg Haymes’ expression of loss in the TU to our own Jeff Waggoner’s tales of having the late guitarist as a teacher. For those who missed Empire Jazz Orchestra’s spring show last year, David “Fathead” Newman was the guest artist, and the set he played had all the snarl and buzz that comes from a tenor player as talented as he was.

EJO musical director William Meckley didn’t address the dedication until after his big band’s opening number, a raucous take on Benny Carter’s “Rompin’ at the Reno.” Meckley told us that Newman wanted to do a recording with the EJO, but things never came together before Newman passed last year. Meckley also said he didn’t want the evening to go negative (My words, not his), but he wanted us all to know “Jack’s in our thoughts tonight.” The situation was handled with elegance and class, and Meckley deserves plaudits for that.

Meckley followed “Reno with a ballistic take on Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” that fluently translated bebop’s patron saint into a big-band context. Brian Patneaude’s mic hadn’t been up far enough on “Reno”, so some of that solo was missed. No such problem here: Patneaude’s tenor was deep, wide, and totally appropriate for classic Bird. Steve Lambert’s follow-up solo proved there was a good reason why the trumpet section is placed at the back of the stage. Lambert had it turned up to 11 on this evening, as did Terry Gordon on Bill Holman’s Warner Brothers cartoon send-up “Zamboni.” That was the final number of the first set, where Meckley informed us “If we have something strange to do, (that) is where we’re gonna do it!”

It wouldn’t be an EJO concert without Colleen Pratt – a spirit shared by the audience, whop gave her a big pop when she came out during the first set and tucked into Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “I Won’t Dance.” (Meckley preceded this by sharing that there is no bigger pleasure for a trombone player than to do a Nelson Riddle song.) Pratt was smiling, relaxed, and every bit the performer as she worked through Al Cohn’s “Night Bird” and Moe Koffman’s “Swinging Shepard Blues.” The latter tune had Pratt making divine harmony with Keith Pray’s soprano sax. Pratt’s pure, bright voice is a joy to hear, and the material was perfect for her – particularly that arrangement of “Night Bird”, which had been written for the great Anita O’Day.

To give you an idea of how long guest artist Curtis Fuller has been around, he said his bustling tune “Arabia” – which opened the second set – was inspired by him watching “the rich kids come to school in their Duesenbergs while I rode the bus!” (Duesenberg was a 1930s car company that was not “too big to fail.”) Anyone familiar with the Skidmore Jazz Institute knows Fuller, who’s been a faculty member for several years. But given that documenting the players this trombone legend has worked with could wipe out a small forest (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and Hank Mobley are just a small sample), every jazz fan has probably experienced Fuller at some time.

What the crowd here experienced was a set of big band that shared a penchant for layering harmonies in ways most modern composers won’t even touch. Almost all the pieces were composed by Fuller, and all the music was arranged by Don Sickler; three years ago, Sickler got Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet to re-create the labyrinthine sound of Thelonious Monk without using a piano. Pieces like “Alamode” and “I Will Tell Her” were tailor-made for the EJO, and they took to the material like starving lions to a broken-down lunch wagon. Pray simply wailed on alto during “Time Off”, Kevin Barcomb blew soulful tenor on “Sweetness”, and Rick Rosoff’s roaring trombone solo on Kenny Dorham’s “Minor Holiday” got a big grin from Fuller, along with a hand signal that unquestionably said, You got it!

It took a little while for Fuller to get warmed up: His first solos on “Arabia” and “Bit of Heaven” lacked shape and power. But bit by bit, Fuller got himself dialed in; he was totally on his game by “Time Off”, quoting the theme from Summer of ’42 during his solo, and Fuller was in full cry on the impromptu encore “Night Train,” Even if he hadn’t found his groove, Fuller’s humor and between-song stories about his travels through jazz made him worth twice the admission price.

Considering the quality of the players and the dedication of Meckley, an EJO show is guaranteed to produce fine musicianship and excellent entertainment. But pair them with a legend like Curtis Fuller, and the performance becomes an event. This year was no exception, and I’m already psyched for next year’s show.

 

EMPIRE JAZZ ORCHESTRA featuring DAVID “FATHEAD” NEWMAN
Schenectady County Community College

Schenectady, NY
April 8, 2008

By J Hunter (Albany Jazz)

Where David “Fathead” Newman ranks among past guests of the Empire Jazz Orchestra is up for grabs, given who’s appeared with the EJO in the past – Randy Brecker, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, and other Hall-of-Famers too numerous to mention. I guess it all depends on what part of jazz history you revere the most. The thing is, Newman’s resumé touches on almost all of jazz’ modern era: I first heard Fathead with Herbie Mann’s wild post-Memphis Underground group Family of Mann, and that was many years after Ray Charles gave Newman his first big break. Almost thirty years after Newman played dueling flutes with Mann, Fathead is still cranking out top-notch recordings like I Remember Brother Ray (High Note, 2005).

But we’ll come back to Newman in a minute. Let’s talk about the EJO, which is one of this area’s major treasures. Aside from the fact that the Orchestra’s work – both on disc and in concert – is consistently excellent, some of the region’s hottest players are (or have been) members of the EJO. I counted five acknowledged leaders and a handful of established sidemen as the Orchestra took its seats for the first set of the evening. That set would be all theirs; Newman would join them after Intermission.

Bob Halek literally kicked things into gear as the EJO pounced on Oliver Nelson’s “Daylie’s Double.” Halek’s drum kit was the orchestra’s engine as three rows of monstrous players built a lovely attack that gave equal space to nuance and power. Although most of the first set’s solos were relatively short, each one was a tasty morsel: Steve Lambert and Brian Patneaude acquitted themselves very well on Benny Carter’s “The Legend”; Terry Gordon and Keith Pray really jumped to it on Johnny Richards’ Birth of the Cool-esque “Dimples”; SCCC faculty member Peter Bellino stepped to the front of the stage and blew cool flugelhorn on the Henry Mancini Latin-Jazz piece “Dreamsville”; and percussionist Mark Foster’s switch from congas to vibes put an electric spin on Don Menza’s “Time Check.”

As music director William Meckley himself acknowledged, there were more than a few people in the sold-out auditorium that were there to see Colleen Pratt; they got their wish midway through the first set, as the blonde songstress stepped onstage in a black almost-knee-length dress that sparkled at the hem. In the Big Band spirit, Pratt got her own three-song mini-set, filled with the same classic material that drove I Thought About You (Nova, 2007), which earned Pratt and the EJO international acclaim. She was in great voice, demonstrating her own sense of nuance on “Too Close for Comfort.” Unfortunately, the Orchestra’s power got the better of the soundman, and Pratt’s vocals nearly got lost in the sauce on “Cheek to Cheek” and the Sinatra standard “The Summer Wind.”

One look at Newman’s wardrobe – black beret, black shirt, black pants, black shoes – and there would be nothing you could say except, “That’s a jazz musician!” Not only did Newman look the part, he played it, too.  Like James Moody – another septuagenarian multi-instrumentalist – Newman hasn’t lost a step: His tenor on set-opener “Keep the Spirits Rising” was deep and strong, framed perfectly by the EJO’s mighty collective voice; Newman’s alto on “Cristo Redentor” – inspired by the statue that overlooks Rio de Janiero – was sweet and evocative, and it had real snap on the encore “Hard Times”; and his flute on the “Caravan”-like “Pharaoh’s Gold” was as hypnotic as it was back in the Family of Mann days.

You’d expect playing with an artist like Newman would inspire the EJO, and you’d be right. As great as their normal game is, the Orchestra kicked it up a few notches more. The breaks Pray and Patneaude played on “Cousin Esau” was right up there with some of their best leader work, and Jack Fragomeni bulled through his own sound-mix issues to give “Pharaoh” some hot hollow-body action. For all that, though, you could see this exemplary unit inspired Newman as much as he inspired them, and the set was all the better for it.

As much as I loved this show, what I loved even more was that the audience was dotted with current members of the SCCC music department (some of whom referred to the EJO’s leader as “Mister Meckley”). They got to hear some outstanding performances, from Newman and from some SCCC faculty and alums. But more importantly, they got to hear jazz at its best – being played by people who live it and love it.