Sometimes it’s hard for me to not look at musicians the way some parents look at their children: Frozen at an age that’s long since past. Pianist Danilo Perez was one of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie’s last gifts to the world before he died; John Patitucci was the wunderkind bass player walking the front of the stage at SPAC with one of the hardest rocking groups ever made, the Chick Corea Elektric Band; and drummer Brian Blade was one of two huge surprises that backed up Joshua Redman on his second tour EVER in 1994. (The other surprise was a then-unknown piano player named Brad Mehldau.)
But these three artists aren’t children. They’ve been cutting their own respective swaths in jazz when they weren’t helping sax icon Wayne Shorter kick ass and blow minds. But for me, having this trio together making their own special music – both onstage at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre and on their Mack Avenue release Children of the Light – was like seeing your kids fully grown for the first time.
The pattern for this evening was pretty much set with the first tune: Perez started out in the clear, barely touching the keys as he coaxed soft high notes out into the open while Blade gave a handful of bells the barest of shakes. Patitucci worked off Perez’ lines and left-hand chords as the Panamanian native added texture and complexity to his work one paper-thin layer at a time. Eventually the band found a single, off-kilter direction and went off as one, with Perez working the melody while Patitucci countered and Blade filled the gaps on brushes. Perez made two more trips into the clear, and then took off on the first “official” solo of the night, his partners right alongside of him while making their own individual inroads. That last bit important, because it’s one of the things that set Perez Patitucci Blade apart from any other piano trio on offer today.
The way things usually work in jazz is that when a soloist starts doing his or her thing, the other band members give the soloist the full stage while offering the barest support or foundation the piece requires. In short, they lay out while the soloist carries the piece. That tradition was nowhere to be seen during PPB’s near-two-hour set. There were recognizable solos to be sure, but at no time did the other band members hang back. Essentially, everybody countered everybody’s work – on every single number, and throughout that number! The show turned into a tennis match at the U.S. Open, with every head in the audience on a permanent swivel. You couldn’t focus on one player or one solo because you would mess some little bit of magic someone else was doing. Everyone in the house was riveted, ignoring moments where crowds usually clap because they didn’t want to miss a note.
There’s a tremendous mix of styles that make up Perez’s riveting playing – jazz, Latin, classical, blues, all of it rotating through for a second or a line or whatever it took to take whatever dizzying music Perez was attacking to whatever level was next. While he kept primarily to the acoustic side, Perez also added lines and flourishes from a small electric keyboard when he wanted to expand the music even further. As killer as Patitucci’s single tune on 6-string electric was, his work on double bass was utterly bewitching, offering a tone of infinite depth while offering breaks and monologues that showed a passionate lyricism. Sure, he can keep the floor, but having John Patitucci simply hold the foundation is like having LeBron James just pass the ball. Blade remains one of the most artful, subtle drummers on the planet, doing more with less than almost anyone I can think of. He does so much work on the hushed end of the scale that when he DOES drop the bomb, it shakes you to your core. It wasn’t just the young musicians sitting beside me that was eating up this perfect musical storm.
All this said, I must admit the performance did have an insular quality to it, as the group had eyes and ears for nobody but themselves. There were moments during pieces where somebody in the band laughed with delight or called out encouragement, but because of the unique “Everybody into the pool” playing style of the group, you had no idea what note, figure or flourish elicited the outburst. The group addressed the audience exactly three times: Perez and Patitucci individually thanked the near-full house for their attention and enthusiasm, and Perez introduced Blade’s spiritual piece “Within Everything”, adding “How can we bring light to these times we live in?” Apart from that, the group held an on-stage conversation that happened to include some utterly devastating music.
And you know what? I don’t care. None of us did. This wasn’t about promoting new releases or explaining the background of whatever they were playing. This night was about creation and re-creation in its purest form. It was about three artists who came to us as young men and are now fully formed, both individually and collectively. This group has been a side project the players worked when Shorter wasn’t touring. If there is any justice, Perez Patitucci Blade is a group that will be part of our musical lives long after these “kids” attain Shorter’s age and status.