Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
One of these things is not like the other.
If Massry Center impresario Salvatore Prizio wanted to showcase two extremes of the same genre, this was the bill to do it. The question was, who would break first: The traditionalists who had come to see Nippertown’s living legend of trad-piano jazz, or the younger generation that was drawn to Allison’s latest efforts to push the music forward?
Watching Shaw being escorted across the stage by her long-time bassist Rich Syracuse makes you grit your teeth. Her various health issues have been well documented, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her on a portable oxygen unit as she haltingly stepped over various cables and sat gingerly down on the piano bench. (“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she told us. “It’s a little complicated, as you see.”) Nevertheless, the effect was the same as watching an old friend or a cherished relative going through pain you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
But then we witnessed what I call the Brubeck Effect – named for jazz icon Dave Brubeck, who shows every inch of his 92 years when he moves or speaks. But when you sit Brubeck down at a piano, the years and the pain zip into the nearest Black Hole, and he’s ripping through “Blue Rondo a la Turk” like he’d just written it the day before. For Shaw, her crossover piece was Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker,” the opening track of her disc Live in Graz, and Shaw was on it like white on rice as Syracuse and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel kicked it off.
The trio’s hour-long opening set split time between material from Graz and Shaw’s last disc Blossom, and her performance was the same as it ever was: Top notch, with an elegant, crisp attack that didn’t falter once. Syracuse – who has been playing with Shaw for 20 years – gave his leader a solid counter on every number; his own solo on “Elegy” was outstanding, and he bowed deep and dark to give Siegel’s “Shifting Sands” a little extra mystery. This was the first time I got to watch Siegel’s hands as he played, and the magic he weaves during the opening of “Holiday” is something you have to see to believe. Siege did all the little things necessary to make the music even better, saving his biggest noise for Shaw’s blues-infused closing take on Victor Young’s “Street of Dreams.”
With no reeds, horns or keyboards in the arsenal, it was a pretty safe bet that Allison’s set would bear little resemblance to the intimate subtlety of his “Jim Hall Project” debut at Athens Cultural Center last month. (Read review here.) Not that Allison’s own music can be compared to a shrinking violet: His 2006 disc Cowboy Justice is still one of the toughest things I’ve ever heard, and Allison closed out the night with “Man-Sized Safe,” the brutal second chapter of his bile-fueled “Dick Cheney Suite.” Also in attendance was longtime collaborator/guitarist Steve Cardenas, who showed just how much ass he can kick on the 2007 Justice follow-up Little Things Run the World. As Allison counted in the opener “Roll Credits,” I had no clue that Cardenas would only be the second-wildest guitarist on the stage.
The winner of the “Nels Cline is an Introvert” Award goes to Massachusetts native Brandon Seabrook. It’s interesting that Allison introduced the set by saying, “We’re gonna play some film-inspired music for you tonight,” because Seabrook looks like someone put a young Robert DeNiro’s face on Lyle Lovett’s body – tall hair included. Seabrook plays banjo as well as guitar, and his work on “Fred” and “Green Al” was in the same league as Bela Fleck. Mind you, two things separate Seabrook from the Big Flecktone: Bela doesn’t bow his banjo like Jimmy Page doing “Dazed & Confused,” and he doesn’t pretend he’s Dave Mustaine as a bluegrass artist and shred his instrument into newly harvested wheat. Seabrook did both these things when he wasn’t going toe-to-toe with Cardenas or finding new ways to pull progressively weirder noises out of his effects boxes.
If all this music was film-inspired, Allison’s Netflix account must be truly dark! It’s a rare thing when Rudy Royston isn’t one of the rowdier players on the stage, but his usual muscular performance simply blended into the laser-guided explosiveness that Allison managed with aplomb. Although Allison gave us beautifully resonant figures on his in-the-clear intro to Cardenas’ “The Language of Love,” he was more than happy to just stand back, direct traffic and grin like a fool as Seabrook and Cardenas rocked the house harder and harder.
Recently in The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwartz closed a review of Ted Gioia’s new book, “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire,” by giving us the latest pronouncement that jazz is dead – essentially, because the Great American Songbook is a relic, so jazz must be a relic, too. But although the music of Lee Shaw couldn’t be more different than Ben Allison’s music if it tried, the raft of vibrant originals both groups gave us proves jazz is not only alive and well, but a good, long (and unbiased) look would show that it’s thriving quite nicely.
Jeff Waggoner’s review at Albany Jazz