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Big Soul Ensemble

Joe Barna

Dave Gleason

Big Soul Ensemble

Brian Kaplan

Lee Russo

Dave Fisk

photos by Rudy Lu

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The Linda, WAMC Performing Arts Studio
Albany, NY
September 18, 2008

by J Hunter

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 Smalldone 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.

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.