LIVE: The Gary Bartz Quartet @ Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, 6/30/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks, Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Good things come to he who waits,” I told myself repeatedly as the doors to the Zankel Music Center’s concert space continued to stay closed. Even so, it had been three years since I’d attended a show at the Skidmore Jazz Institute’s annual concert series, so my impatience was a hard thing to keep in check. It turned out that saxophone legend Gary Bartz (described by emcee/Skidmore Jazz majordomo Todd Coolman as “living jazz history”) had to make some last-minute lineup changes to his quartet, so the band’s soundcheck had run commensurately late. And for once, an old wives’ tale proved to be spot-on, because good things eventually did come – LOTS of good things!
As the quartet came out to big-time applause, I speculated on whom the latecomer was. It could have been drummer Greg Bandy, whose attire was more suited for hanging at the just-completed Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival than it was for a gig in a concert hall. Then again, while pianist Larry Willis wasn’t listed in the program, he’d just played Freihofer’s the previous Sunday with Bartz and fellow Hall of Famers Ben Williams and Al Foster, so maybe Bartz had asked him to come back for one more performance. In the end, it didn’t matter, because even though Bartz runs a show in his own unique way, this band stayed as tight as it could be without the use of Superglue and duct tape.
The show began with “Nomo the Magic Song”, which can only be described as a bluesy invocation. “We do this for us as much as we do it for you,” Bartz happily informed us before he began singing in a high, strong voice I never knew he had. “Bad thoughts got to leave this room,” Bartz ordered in church-soaked song, and then he put a tiny soprano sax to his lips and proceeded to blow those suckers right out of the place! Bartz had a mic clipped onto the sax’s bell, so he could look where he wanted while he played what he wanted, including an enticing call-and-response with Willis. As we went deep into the blues with him, Bartz paused, played a few haunting notes in the clear, and then shifted into Great American Songbook mode.
Thus was the show’s performance arc created: Bartz “counted off” by playing the first few notes in space, and the band fell in on “I Wish I Knew”; Bartz would explore the tune from every angle, letting Willis and bassist James King insert their takes on the proceedings, making the standard seem not just new, but in a completely muscular form it didn’t have before. Then Bartz would pause again, sending musical thoughts out through his bell to hang in the air like glittering diamonds… and then Bartz would “change the subject” to something like “Blues Minor” or “Transitions,” and break down that subject every which way. By the time the band finally did take a break, we were over thirty minutes into the evening. “We don’t like to stop,” Bartz told us, smiling. “That just takes away the energy!”
Energy was never a problem during the 90-minutes-plus set. Alternating between soprano and tenor sax, Bartz was an absolute powerhouse, taking us down multiple streams of consciousness that never seemed like anything but his own creations, even though he was playing standards as different as Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” and Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose.” The tone was absolutely superior, and every solo had just enough soaring asymmetry to take it away from any comparisons with previous recordings or performances. While Willis flirted with the outside of the envelope, he stuck primarily with keeping his piano lines powerfully elegant, working simple phrases in a McCoy Tyner mode that let the song take a breath but never lose rhythm or focus. There were a few moments when Bartz caught Willis by surprise, leaving the piano man to hold up charts with a look that definitely said, “Is it this one?” But eventually Willis caught on to whatever Bartz was cooking up and expanded on the overall picture.
Bartz used the rideout on “Rose” to switch to a piece he called “Of Loving Kindness.” In meditation, loving-kindness is a practice that brings out positive attitude changes as it develops a state of acceptance and healing in the mind. Looking back, while the only overtly spiritual music was Bartz’ opening “invocation,” the spiritual state had definitely been part of this mammoth musical experience. The bad things had left the building, and good things had most definitely come to pass.
The Skidmore Jazz Institute’s concert series continues with bass master Ben Williams & Sound Effect in concert at 8pm tonight (Tuesday, July 7) at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. Tickets are $8; $5 seniors; FREE students & children.