Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
All the music on Keith Pray’s new disc “Confluence” was played by a “quartet plus one,” a concept Pray got from the jazz icon Joe Henderson. At the Van Dyck, though, it was just a quartet that took the stage in front of a literally packed house; it seems the “plus one” – guitarist Chuck D’Aloia – moved to Los Angeles in December. Mind you, nature abhors a vacuum, so between the four excellent musicians (plus one surprise guest star), the gap left by D’Aloia’s absence was filled in less-than-nothing flat.
As Pray kicked off the first set with the title track from the disc, it struck me that this swinging thing warming the stage so nicely was actually created as an afterthought: Late in the creation of the disc, Pray realized he didn’t have “a high energy and up-tempo swinging tune” in his arsenal, so he wrote this piece. Never mind that there are other places on “Confluence” that swing like Spiderman on a bender, but that’s an argument for another day. All that mattered here was that Pray was already blowing his head off while pianist Peter Tomlinson, bassist Lou Pappas and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel bubbled and sparked underneath him… and this was only the first tune!
With the amount of muscle Pray brings to his solos, it’s easy to forget that he’s got such a solid technical base. In other words, he’s not just out there waving the flag. His solo structures are elegant on their construction, taking simple ideas and simply blasting them into the ionosphere. In that light, Tomlinson is a perfect complement for Pray, because his approach stresses the technical over the emotional. Nevertheless, as the only “traditional” foil on stage, Tomlinson had to do double duty, so he kicked his attack up a notch or two, keeping hold of his lyric while bringing even more excitement to the party. Although we did get to see Pappas’ lyrical side when it was his turn to solo, he played it right down the middle for the most part while Siegel showed what he can do when he leaves the kid gloves at home.
The second-best-dressed drummer in the area, we have Siegel to thank for Pray’s wicked take on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy.” Part swinger, part blues, part stop-start head-turner, Pray put the piece through bunch of changes, and Siege made every one just a little bit better. He worked every angle he could find on his solo during “The Calling,” kept everything hopping and dancing on the samba “Triangle, Circle, Square,” and his trade-offs with Tomlinson on John Coltrane’s “Africa” were top-notch. Again, Tomlinson filled in for D’Aloia on the guitarist’s meditative “Alley Cat,” and while the piece didn’t have the same snap as the recorded version, the free sections were REALLY free, and the overall product went in a direction that fits this particular band configuration. The same could be said for the first-set-closer “Vamp for Peace,” which proved once again that all Pray needs to rock the house is a single figure and a star to sail her by.
Pray was his usual affable self throughout the show. He gave sincere thanks to everyone who supported the KickStarter campaign that helped “Confluence” get made, and gave separate shout-outs to WCDB-FM’s Bill McCann and Nippertown’s own Andrzej Pilarczyk for their respective contributions to the disc. He also dedicated “Winter Brings” to his band members, who’d been commuting from downstate for the rehearsals and recording, and had to drive through “a little bit of snow” for this gig. Finally, Pray gave two big nods to his wife Katie with the pieces “Two Years of the Lotus Blossom” and “Song for Katie.” When Pray told us “Two Years” was a second-anniversary gift, the crowd gave the predictable “Awwwwwww…” Pray stepped away from the mic and made expansive “Keep it going” gestures with his arms. “I just wanted to milk that for everything we’ve got,” he cracked.
There was another “Awwwww…” moment that turned into an “Aww RIGHT” moment when Pray brought on his unannounced special guest — his 5-year old son, Maceo, who strode purposely onstage, took his melodica out of its case, and joined in with the band on a straight-ahead blues jam. While the younger Pray still needs to develop his solo style, his own lines were completely appropriate for the piece, and he didn’t falter in the face of a cheering audience. It was one facet of this jewel of an evening, where “Confluence” got the drop party it deserved, and Keith Pray got to strut his new stuff in fine fashion – with or without the “plus one.”
Additional photographs of the concert by Rudy Lu at Albany Jazz