Monday, March 31, 2008

Chris Byars at the Village Vanguard

Although technically, a Teddy Charles gig, the set I saw at the Village Vanguard Sunday night belonged to saxophonist Chris Byars.
Byars is a concise and pithy improviser and his three recordings on Smalls are stellar. It was his 2006 release Night Owls that made me take a greater interest in listening to all of my mail. With no foreknowledge of him I put it on. It just happened to be on top of the stack and I was floored by the arrangements for his octet. Meticulous and lush, the group captured the luxurious veneer of '50s jazz without sounding stuck in that period. The solos took advantage of contemporary rhythmic edges and abstractions. His next release, Photos in Black, White, and Gray offered equally stunning work for a quartet. The smaller setting allowed two of his bandmates, pianist Sasha Perry and bassist Ari Roland, a chance to shine. I haven't given his third disc, Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himilayan Art, a fair shot yet, but it's near the top of the stack.
Byars gig at the Vanguard, was constrained mostly by the presence of vibist Charles, a veteran of the jazz wars who turns 80 in April. Like many a veteran he's played with everyone and at one point Byars read a list of the luminaries with whom Charles has played.
See the problem? Byars was too enamored of his bandmate to just let loose. The set included much fine playing, particularly on Gigi Gryce's "Sans Souci" and Charles' s "Arlene," but overall the band felt like it was stuck in a gear just shy of burnin'.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Drew Gress at Jazz Standard

The trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums quintet has been a cornerstone of small combo jazz for more than 60 years. At Jazz Standard Wednesday night (March 26) the Drew Gress spin on the format, a group he calls Seven Black Butterflies performed a set that wandered through that history with such an elegant progression it was almost a narrative.
Gress is a bassist of the first call depending on who's in your phone. He's worked as a sideman with his 7BB bandmates, saxophonist Tim Berne and trumpeter Ralph Alessi as well as such notables like pianist Uri Caine and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. In addition, he's played behind a good many novelty acts.
I first saw Seven Black Butterflies last fall at CIM in Brooklyn and they played music that owed to third stream tonalities and just left of center structure that made me wonder if he'd played with Andrew Hill. At Jazz Standard, they took a different tack, showcasing Gress's compositional talents and gently moving forward with esthetic and historical progressions.
The opening tune was a gentle hard bop piece that relaxed the groove (i.e. when I say hard bop, think Golson's Along Came Betty, not Timmons.s Moanin') and offered solos that recalled pastel blends rather than the blunt basic colors that hard bop often traffics in.
I thought that this might be his way of telling the nearly full house that he knows the tradition but has his own ideas of how to articulate it. But I may be underestimating the crowd. I think the current jazz crowd is too young to feel a sense of betrayal by modernity and avant garde tendencies in jazz. Going to an expensive nightclub like Jazz Standard now is all part of taking in music that more challenging (thankfully) than the conventional fare be it Amerian Idol or a hotel bar pianist churning out standards.
The second piece moved forward and westward. It began with a collection of spare notes from each of the five that took their sweet time cohering into a abstracted beat that melted into a fiery solo by pianist Craig Taborn. Drummer Tom Rainey, a master of nuance and subtlety but not a banger, followed along with Taborn but got blown down by his ferocious gusts. It seemed a tribute to the Chicago avant garde of the mid '60s, Taborn's solo was very Muhal-esque.
The rest of the set moved gently forward. There were pieces that echoed the early '70s free-ish fusion, late '80s traditional jazz with a few pop resolves sneaking in, and the set closed with a piece that felt very now, unusual rhythms dissolving into duos and trios and finally the band working out on a beat that sounded completely new and yet accessible.
Much of the music was from Gress' new disc, The Irrational Numbers (Premonition), which was produced by Gress and David Torn. It captivated me when I first heard it earlier this year, but I didn't stay in its grasp long. Now, it's going into heavy rotation.