Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
When it comes to jazz, I fully admit that I am an extremist: I mean, one of my current fave-rave groups is an avant-soul-Dixieland quartet called Mostly Other People Do the Killing. And yet, unlike the tea-sipping lunatics currently chained to the gates of our government, I believe this genre has ample room for every kind of derivation. This is why A Place For Jazz’s first concert could be electrifying while its second offering – featuring the Jeff Hamilton Trio – never went beyond pleasant (at least for me)… and BOTH shows delighted a nearly-full house at the Whisperdome, with each group taking a standing ovation home with them.
Like the aforementioned Joe Magnarelli/Jerry Weldon blowout, the Hamilton Trio gig could also have been called “a gathering of friends,” except the meeting place for these friends was quite different. “I see some familiar faces from the Jazz Cruise,” Hamilton told the crowd after the former sideman for Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson finished his first number. Hamilton added wryly, “But I almost didn’t recognize you because we’re not weaving!” One hopes that comment was related to the ship’s stability instead of any visits to the punch bowl the audience members might have taken.
Apparently they like some of their jazz to be quiet on the Jazz Cruise, because quiet is what Jeff Hamilton serves up in big batches. (No surprise, given his former employers – Peterson will never be confused with Professor Longhair, and Brown’s own music mirrored what he and Peterson made together.) The big band Hamilton co-fronts with John Clayton may blow it up real good, and Hamilton’s sidemen – pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty – may go for broke when they’re onstage with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. But when it’s down to a trio, Hamilton returns to his more hushed roots. He demonstrated this with an opening take on Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” that made the Lee Shaw Trio’s version sound like the Ramones had taken a whack at it.
Things did crank up a little, in relative terms: The following piece, George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” started out cool, but then it was as swinging as Hamilton’s trio ever got, with Hamilton making a brush-based drum solo sound as aggressive as if he’d been playing with sticks; “Hat’s Dance” (dedicated to Hamilton’s great aunt Harriet) was a sweet blues that had Hendelman dancing down the scale as he soloed in the clear; and Luty bowed a gorgeous intro for a hopping take on Harry Warren’s “The More I See You.” The trouble was, these were flashes of heat on a decidedly chilly evening. Giving Stephen Bishop’s 70’s mega-hit “On and On” the West Coast treatment didn’t make the song any less vapid, and the trio’s re-arrangement of “Poiniciana” took Ahmad Jamal’s best-known recording from a delicious minimalism to a unmemorable drone.
Let me stress that it was just a select few that felt this way; the rest of the house ate both sets up with two spoons, giving Hamilton and his partners big love all night long. Other than the occasional original, it was classics all the way, which will never get you thrown out at A Place For Jazz. And from a technical standpoint, I definitely had no complaints because this show wasn’t just watertight – it was airtight. Hendelman and Luty clearly were giving it their all on every number, and every idea they added to the musical conversation made perfect sense. Several students who’d attended a clinic with Hamilton that afternoon got another clinic that evening, as Hamilton demonstrated the kind of solos and support he’d provided his legendary employers. My problem stemmed from any lack of edge to anything performed this evening – and yes, West Coast jazz can have an edge! Dig into the discographies of Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan to see what I’m saying.
And then I remembered my own advice to anyone going to their first Grateful Dead show: “If you get bored, just watch the drums.” That sounds facetious, but it’s not. Hamilton’s time with Peterson and Brown gave him a world of tools to get sounds and accents from his kit without roiling the West Coast zeitgeist of his employers. Hamilton doesn’t need sticks to make a proper noise – he drummed with his hands and with his fingers, knocked the cymbals with his knuckles, and ran his thumb up and down one of the traps to make a shaker sound that Airto Moreira would have approved. It’s elegant moments like these that make me want to take drummers who don’t (or won’t) play with brushes by the scruff of the neck and scream, “YOU’RE ONLY DOING HALF YOUR JOB!”
Hopefully, those students got that message from this show. The crowd had itself a great time, whether they got the message or not. Tim Coakley and APFJ got to present a band they had been trying to book for a long time. (The dam broke when Coakley met Hamilton last year on – naturally – the Jazz Cruise.) And me? I got to write a jazz column that referenced the Grateful Dead, the Ramones, and the Tea Party. All things considered, I’d say everyone was a winner.
Additional photographs by Rudy Lu at Albany Jazz
COMING UP: Next up on the schedule for A Place for Jazz is trombonist Conrad Herwig and his band, who perform at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome at 7:30pm on Friday (October 18). Tickets are $15; $7 students; children under 12 FREE.