Review by J Hunter
Photos by Rudy Lu
It was a meeting of two truisms: “Timing is everything” and “It’s not what you know – it’s who know!” Pianist Bruce Barth and vibes master Steve Nelson were set to play a duo show at the Rochester Jazz Festival the other weekend. Knowing they were going to be passing through the area, Greater Nippertown drummer/educator Michael Benedict got in touch with Barth and asked if the duo would like to warm up with a quartet gig at the Van Dyck. Phone calls were made, emails were exchanged, and before anybody knew it, every table in the club’s upstairs space was filled with people. That doesn’t happen on a Friday night in June, and the anticipation was palpable as we waited to see what this one-off group would do.
Mind you, this wasn’t completely a one-off group: Both Benedict and bassist Mike Lawrence have played and recorded with Barth in Benedict’s smokin’-hot outfit Bopitude, while Nelson was the primary foil on Barth’s 2012 Savant release Three Things of Beauty. The latter disc had a rhythm section of bassist Ben Street and drummer Dana Hall, neither of whom you’d see on a list entitled “Slouches.” To hear Barth tell it, though, he couldn’t have been happier with the place he was playing or the people backing him up. “Albany’s become like a second home to me,” he told us, gesturing towards Benedict, “thanks to this wonderful drummer…” Barth also called Lawrence “the nicest guy in jazz,” making sure we knew that “nice” applied to his playing abilities as well as his personality, and intimating that if Lawrence ever decided to roll the dice, he could make some serious noise on the New York City jazz scene.
It was noise that greeted us on the first number – a taut version of “A Joyful Noise for J.W..” Nelson’s warm tribute to the late pianist James Williams. The band coalesced around Bruce’s opening vamp, with Nelson filling under Barth before going off on his own. The ideas flowed like water from the Dave Holland Quintet alum as he hunched over his vibes, avoiding playing twenty notes when one or two would suit the mid-tempo waltz just fine. Barth fell in easily behind Nelson, keeping his comping spare but substantive until Nelson became more adventurous, at which point Barth expanded his scope. The spotlight passed seamlessly from Nelson to Barth, and the pianist ran like hell, showing his rare talent of being percussive and lyrical at the same time.
There are piano/vibes combinations that stick in my mind for the beauty, harmony, and synergy they have created: John Lewis & Milt Jackson is the pair everybody knows, but there’s also Warren Bernhardt & Mike Mainieri, Renee Rosnes & Bobby Hutcherson, and the more recent team of Geoffrey Keezer & Joe Locke. Barth & Nelson don’t have the history of those duos, but if they put their minds to it, they could build one: As sharp as they sound on Three Things, on stage you’d swear this was a partnership that went back decades. The sounds they made in formation & harmony on the opening section of “Wise Charlie’s Blues” knocked us all flat, and Barth amped his game up even further on “Wingspan,” a Mulgrew Miller piece Nelson had played on back in the day. (“I bought Mulgrew’s records as soon as they came out,” Barth confided. “He left a mark on people!”) Wilson did everything but levitate on this hard bopper, and then he went the other way with the cool, hushed beauty of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” It reminded me of Nelson’s next-level performance when the Holland Quintet parachuted into the Van Dyck in 2005 and demolished the place with music intended for their as-yet-unrecorded disc Critical Mass.
While Benedict has firmly established himself as a leader in these parts, he leaped into a support role on this night like a man doing a cannonball into the deep end of a pool. The drummer kept things bubbling and snapping, off-handedly trading measures with the soloists on the title track to Three Things and bringing the big noise on “Wingspan” and the second encore “Just Friends.” Lawrence plays with just about everybody in Greater Nippertown, so it wasn’t surprising to see him hook up with Barth & Nelson like this was their regular Friday night gig. But even in a support role, Lawrence retains his own sense of style and self: He was fat and happy on “Wise Charlie’s Blues,” Death By Chocolate-rich on Barth’s complex original “Be Blue’d”, and Lawrence combined with Benedict to display the infinite chemistry that helps make Bopitude much more than just another repertory outfit.
When he introduced “Three Things of Beauty”, Barth admitted he wasn’t sure what those three things were. “Maybe for me, tonight, it’s these three gentlemen.” Cheesy? That’s your opinion, but you’d understand it if you saw the encore version of Hammerstein & Kern’s “The Song is You,” which Barth and Nelson turn into a sharp-yet-elegant duet on Three Things. With Benedict & Lawrence joining in after Barth & Nelson’s initial trade-offs, the classic piece both grew and glowed as the rhythm section lifted the soloists to yet another level. A table in the back tried to cause good-natured “trouble” by chanting “One more set! One more set!” Nobody would have objected if that had happened, and that includes the “one-off group” that had thrilled us all evening long.