By Chaz Kangas
By Katherine Turman
By Phillip Mlynar
By Harley Oliver Brown
By Abdullah "T Kid" Saeed
By Matt Caputo
By Devon Maloney
By Chris Chafin
Albam (born 1922) has developed a liking for high voicings, and his "Dearly Beloved" was typical, opening with a netting of flutes, soprano saxophone, and muted brasses (a bass clarinet served as ballast) that emphasized the song's hymnlike qualities and subtly parted to reveal bassist Todd Coolman bowing the tune. Coolman has a bright cellolike arco tone, but as too much depended on him and the high-register brew, the result was dilatory and flat. His version of "Old Man River" was, by contrast, almost obstreperously clever, with speedy dueling trombones, a locomotive (OK, steamboat) vamp, clamorous fours, and a Cat Anderson overlay from the leader. It was hip enough and swinging and maybe the song is too much a cliché to play straight, but Kern was left at the dock and the point of the adaptation was lost.
The second half began with arguably Kern's greatest songs, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "All the Things You Are," but this time the band, excepting the rhythm section, was nowhere to be seen. Just as well: These numbers featured Gary Bartz, who was burning with pitched lyricism. One of the things that has always distinguished jazz musicians is their determination to find signature sounds or timbresinstantly recognizable calling cards that let you know right off if Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster is playing. Yet certain timbres are now so much at the heart of jazz that other musicians, no matter how individual, eventually gravitate to them as platonic ideals. Louis Armstrong's trumpet is one and Charlie Parker's alto is another. Bartz, always an imposing technician, who began his career in the 1960s with a ragged, edgy attack and later attempted a Coltrane-like effusiveness, can now summon Parker's burnished voice without sacrificing his own. It's a fluent, opulent, blues-driven approach that contains multitudes of jazz history and speaks with complete authority.
On both pieces, Bartz balanced shadow and light, taking his time, mining the changes, employing the melodies. He served Kern as he served himself, using the enharmonic riff the songwriter inserted in "The Way You Look Tonight" as a refueling station, slowing it down before revving himself up, and turning "All the Things You Are" into an homage to Parker, beginning with his vamp and interpolating "Now's the Time." It would have been gratifying to hear more of Bartz, say in a quintet with Faddis. It would be more gratifying still to see him recording for a major label, documenting what may well prove to be the apogee of his career. Evidently due to a lack of rehearsal time, he performed only once with the band, on Mossman's spacey, Miles-ian "The Song Is You," and struggled with the arrangement, though his solo shot off like a bullet.
But there were other bright moments. Mossman's sparkling arrangement of "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" began with a cool staccato intro and moved into an unexpectedly fitting Latin rhythmthe melody lazing over the "Manteca" beat as naturally as if it had been born on the islands. Several soloists were allowed to shine, especially the greatly underrated tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, who leaped in with a series of breaks and pushed forward with his spacious sound, relaxed swing, and storytelling logic. Like Bartz, he suggests the history of an instrument in his knowing timbre and attack, and is another gifted player who, though not yet 50, operates beyond the radar of the record business for reasons that have nothing to do with music. Faddis, who has never quite made his high-note blasts fit the confines of a recording studio, showed how evenhanded he can play on Abene's discreetly arranged "Sure Thing" (from Cover Girl). Pianist Renee Rosnes, who was excessively featured, revealed her ample technique without quite making a point on Albam's best piece of the night, a concerto version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," with a lambent voicing of the theme. If you're going to pay tribute, you gotta play the tune. Even Gillespie, back in those not so innocent days of 1946, knew that.