Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Tim Coakley and the merry band at A Place for Jazz in Schenectady should have sub-titled the opening concert of the series’ 26th season “A Meeting of Friends.” Although this would be the first time we’d seen them play together, horn master Joe Magnarelli and tenor monster Jerry Weldon have gifted Greater Nippertown with their respective presences multiple times, earning them many fans and acres of good feelings. Given how familiar we are with these two artists, this show should have contained no surprises, but there was one big surprise – at least for me.
That their quintet came out with guns blazing was no surprise. Magnarelli and Weldon may not have been completely together on the opening of Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” but that actually made things better, giving the piece an air of “Screw the polish! Let’s just play!” And anyway, their “unison” play didn’t last long before Magnarelli took off on his first solo, which was as clean, bright and muscular as you’d expect it to be, and even included a sub-reference to the Depression-era tune “We’re in the Money.” An unbound Magnarelli is a sight to see, and he gave the swelling crowd an eyeful with his first solo, and a taste of what the rest of the night would bring.
It was Weldon’s turn next, and HE gave us everything we expected: Hot, filthy, in-your-face tenor that goes straight for your (insert body-part euphemism here) – and, by rights, listening to this solo should have been frustrating as hell. You see, Jerry Weldon is pathologically incapable of standing still when he’s soloing; he simply cannot do it, which makes playing into a stationary microphone kind of problematic. That’s fine if you’re in a New York club or a Colonie bookstore (both of which come in pint size), but in a space the size of the Whisperdome, there can be issues. Thankfully, Weldon played the ‘dome’s legendary acoustics like a pool champion plays the cushions: When he wasn’t firing his nastiness up into the ‘dome to swirl, he slowly sprayed notes at the window wall in back, creating his own organic echo effect. Maybe it wasn’t as loud as we were used to, but the intention was undeniable.
The quintet’s two-set fare was bopalicious in the extreme, with a healthy mix of standards and originals: A crystalline version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was followed by a super-fast take on “The End of a Love Affair,” disproving the maxim that sad songs can only be played slowly. Weldon followed Magnarelli’s not-quite-a-ballad “Easy Transitions” with his own torqued-up samba “Sunny Valentine,” which closed the first set. Magnarelli started the second set with – confusingly enough – “The Third Set,” a piece from his latest release Live at Smalls. That disc contains one of the late Mulgrew Miller’s last recordings, so the piano chair had a little pressure going on, but it was pressure Rick Germanson was more than up to. The former Elvin Jones sideman was the cool-down foil both Magnarelli and Weldon needed for contrast, and he played that role perfectly all night long when he wasn’t dovetailing with resonant bassist/Walter White lookalike Mike Karn (last seen in these parts playing with Ralph Lalama’s Bopjuice at Athens Cultural Center) and serious-money drummer Brandon Lewis. The North Texas State graduate was filling in for Magnarelli’s regular drummer Jason Brown, but Lewis caught everything that didn’t sting, and hinted at a strapping artistry that made you want to see him in a freer setting.
Germanson’s in-the-clear opening to “You Don’t Know” was utterly sublime, setting Magnarelli up for what flugelhorns do best: A ballad. Now, I’ve written before on how Magnarelli is one of the few horn players who can strap a turbo onto a flugelhorn and give it power not always associated with that instrument. But it was here, and on “Transitions,” where Magnarelli showed a sense of touch and texture he didn’t really have the chance to display with Joe Barna’s Sketches of Influence. (Magnarelli name-checked Barna during a between-songs rap, calling him “your local hero.”) That same touch can be found on Live at Smalls, too, but to see Magnarelli caress a solo rather than crush it was the aforementioned “big surprise” for me, and increased my already-large admiration for him.
Speaking of admiration, Magnarelli & Weldon held a mutual-admiration society all night long, as each player obviously inspired the other to blow just a little harder than he did the last time. At the end of Weldon’s rock-solid solo on “Amsterdam After Dark,” Magnarelli patted his chest where his heart should have been; Weldon was calling out enjoyment and encouragement to Magnarelli all night long, and yelled “Look out!” during a break in Magnarelli’s blistering solo on Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy,” which closed the evening on a sweet blue note. Before the night started, Coakley told us that this pairing came out of a debate on whether to have Magnarelli OR Weldon play APFJ, which ended with someone saying, “Could we have both?” Given how much fun this night was, I’m hoping A Place For Jazz has many more “What if?” moments.
Jeff Nania’s review at Metroland
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Magnarelli’s own ‘Easy Transition’ was, in fact: a top-down, wind-in-the-hair road trip, with pianist Rick Germanson ascending busy scales and arpeggios. Weldon naturally starred in his own ‘Sunny Valentine,’ a treat and a tribute to [Sonny] Rollins in which he went furthest outside. He delighted in Magnarelli’s fleet solo, grinning and shaking the piano as he danced against it, loving what his compadre did with the tune. Weldon’s body language was both expressive and functional. He seemed abandoned, wild, engaging the music with hips as well as lips. But he was carefully calibrating his volume by advancing and retreating on the mic, dynamic in more ways than one… Un-flashy journeymen, the serious Magnarelli (who cited many Albany area gigs with giants past and present) and the jovial Weldon won’t likely be household names, but instead seemed totally comfortable and in command, workmanlike artisans of jazz who ably summoned up a variety of well-made moods in smoothly articulate and usually familiar language.”
UPCOMING: Next up on the A Place for Jazz concert schedule is the Jeff Hamilton Trio, who grace the stage at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome at 7:30pm on Friday (October 4). Tickets are $15; $7 students; children under 12 FREE.