BRUCE BARTH TRIO &
A Place for Jazz always gives you value for money. They’ve been bringing us top-flight players at cut-rate prices for so long, it’s almost impossible to remember a time when they weren’t doing that. But APFJ took it up a notch the other night, giving us three bands on two stages, and all three were amazing in their own right. (Okay, a little clarification: Two of the bands featured the same rhythm section… but that doesn’t mean pianist Bruce Barth and saxman J.D. Allen didn’t blow the doors off the Whisperdome, because they blew it up real good!)
The rhythm section was Allen’s own working group, but the same-night switch in leaders made no never mind. The collective résumé of drummer Rudy Royston and bassist/Schenectady native Gregg August is something to behold, featuring names like Ornette Coleman, James Moody, Arturo O’Farrill (That’s from August’s half), Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ben Allison and Don Byron (That’s from Royston’s), so these guys were used to mixing it up. Whatever else happened, the foundation was guaranteed to be superlative.
Barth got things jumping with his uptempo opener “Why Not.” Barth is my kind of piano player, because he doesn’t sacrifice melody for power, or vice versa: There was a hint of a waltz that had spirits dancing as Barth rode it straight down the middle, with simple, clean lines that grew a little more and a little better with each chorus. He wasn’t trying to impress anybody; he was just out there having fun, so therefore we did, too. August was dialed in from the jump, playing meaty lines that fell just short of a counter, while Royston was sticking and moving with agility reminiscent of an accomplished middleweight boxer.
Everything Barth played over 60 minutes came from his own pen, and offered a satisfying array of tastes. The samba “Wilsonian Alto” (a play on “Brazilian Alto”) was a joyous tribute to reed wizard Steve Wilson, who recorded the tune on his 2003 disc Soulful Song; “Afternoon in Lleida” had all the passion of the Catalonian town it’s named after; and if anyone didn’t believe August and Royston weren’t dialed in from the jump, a soaring piece Barth recently wrote (tentatively titled “Blues in F”) gave both players the opportunity to respectively revise and expand their musical remarks with solos that simply killed. Barth said he “didn’t want to keep us” from what was to come, so he sandwiched “Yama” and “Someday” together to give us a whisper-soft ballad that changed into a buoyant romp that never lost the first piece’s intimacy.
APFJ leader Tim Coakley didn’t really need to introduce Allen, because the Detroit, Michigan native announced his presence with authority, firing off a ringing glissando that marked his territory in nothing flat. In an instant, August and Royston went off like Pavlov’s Dobermans:
The drummer was simply a blur behind his kit, and while the bassist had used his bow with a feather touch during Barth’s set, August simply tore into his axe with an awesome solo that paved the way for a resounding call to prayer that channeled both Pharaoh Sanders and late-career Coltrane. It was a heck of a high-water mark to set first thing out of the box, but Allen was more than up to the task of matching (and exceeding) it.
This wasn’t a set of tunes as much it was an unbroken train of thought: The subjects were many and varied, most of them wrapped around bop as hard as diamonds, but the concepts just kept flowing, and the crowd was completely enraptured by one of APFJ’s most powerful sets. Allen only stopped playing to give August and Royston room to search & destroy, and any pauses in the music lasted no more than two seconds. It became comical watching people waiting for breaks in the set to take their leave, only to find they were standing (and, subsequently, running) during the beginning of another creative assault. Allen told me afterwards that he has no idea what he’s going to play next, which made the sudden appearance of a blues-soaked “Stardust” that much more surprising. As marvelous as it was, the Hoagy Carmichael standard got lots of laughs from the audience – partially because it was such a contrast from what came before, but mostly because Allen was finally playing something they recognized!
Footnote: The third band was a pickup group of students from Oneida Middle School and Central Park International Magnet School. Led by their respective instructors (one of whom was alto monster Keith Pray), the kids were an absolute joy as they played for the crowd during intermission. The seeds have definitely been sewn, and somewhere down the road they will bear fruit.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.