Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Okay, let’s review what we “know.” We “know” that the Chronicles are the best party band in Greater Nippertown: Doesn’t matter what the critics say or what the Readers’ Poll says (unless, of course, they agree with what we “know”); it’s just a “fact.” The Chronicles’ last album – the hard-hitting vinyl/digital release Spanning the Gap – was produced by Alan Evans, the engine behind Soulive and its horn-intensive offshoot Lettuce. Put the Chronicles in a club like Red Square or the Hollow Bar + Kitchen and real estate on the dance floor disappears in a heartbeat. The funk is delicious, the horns are killer, and the beat is undeniable. That’s a party band, my friend, and don’t you forget it!
So why were the Chronicles playing the upstairs concert space at the Van Dyck? I mean, you can’t dance in front of the stage unless you’re really, really, really skinny! Besides, even though the McDonalds have booked many different types of bands since taking over the place a few years ago, the Van Dyck will be known as a jazz club now and forever, Bird without end, ay-men! Maybe trombonist/leader Bryan Brundige got cabin fever. Maybe he’s as addicted to the Van Dyck’s pulled pork sliders as I am. The reasons don’t matter, and what we “know” DEFINITELY doesn’t matter. The night was tremendous, and so was the band – THAT’S what matters!
The surprises in the first set started immediately when Brundige announced their first number – “Naima,” the best ballad John Coltrane ever wrote. The surprise wasn’t that they were doing it, since a hardcore jazz tune like that is right in sax killer Jeff Nania’s wheelhouse. (Nania dedicated the piece to his godfather, who had recently passed.) The surprise came when drummer Andrae Surgick seemed to be counting in on Coltrane’s original tempo… and then promptly doubled it in his opening riff! Daniel Lawson’s bass stayed with the original recording’s tempo, which made a great contrast to the down-home cooking Surgick and keyboardist Nicholas Lue were turning out. And when Brundige and Nania hit the melody like it stole their girlfriends and guitarist Justin Henricks dropped a truly vicious counter right in the middle of it all, the results were absolutely freaking awesome!
Some people believe you can’t have fun with jazz. You’re simply not supposed to even try, because it’s “just not done.” Jazz icon Herbie Hancock’s attempts to have fun with the genre are targets of traditionalist scorn to this day. So it pleased me no end as the Chronicles channeled Hancock’s Head Hunters period as they finished making “Naima” their own, charged through the super-fly “Tag,” and then lit into Ralph McDonald’s “Mister Magic.” If Gato Barbieri’s take on “Europa” is smooth jazz’s “Stairway to Heaven,” then Grover Washington Jr.’s recording of “Magic” is that sub-genre’s “Hey Jude.” Mind you, Nania’s juicy tenor and Henricks’ Scofield-esque guitar was about as epic as “Hey Jude,” but the only way you remembered Grover’s recording was Lawson’s steroids-stacked version of the original bass line.
Speaking of the ’70s, the Chronicles have brought back the talkbox, one of the things that helped Frampton come alive. Brundige used it on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” during their winter residency at Red Square, but here he pulled it out for a mind-blowing reboot of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” that made you wish Hancock had gotten to the King of Pop before Quincy Jones did. And returning to Hancock’s Head Hunters sound, you need some nasty-ass Fender Rhodes to pull that off, and even though Lue was only pinch-hitting for regular keyboardist Paulie Phillipone on this evening, he delivered the goods in no uncertain terms. Aside from keeping the rest of the set bubbling in solo and support, Lue’s own composition “Quartal” generated a sweet spot of its own on this evening.
The Chronicles have been doing a souped-up take on Gerry Mulligan’s arrangement of “Carioca” for some time now, but it never sounded better than it did filling the Van Dyck’s high ceiling. What we hadn’t heard from the Chronicles was a ripping version of Avishai Cohen’s “Hands on It,” which is how they closed the first of two sets to howls from the audience that had been filing in since Surgick hit his opening beat. The night was still a party, even as it shows how tremendous this band can be (both individually and collectively) when they break out of Focused Mode and display their full musical wingspan. That said, it really seems like The Chronicles have turned some kind of corner in the last few months, and if this evening was any indication of what’s to come, I cannot wait to see what’s around the next corner.