LIVE: The Professors @ Gomen-Kudasai, 8/29/15
Review and photographs by J Hunter
The Professors are a quartet of SUNY New Paltz music educators – which doesn’t sound that fantabulous until you hear that the bass player is none other than John Menegon; the drummer is Greater Nippertown’s own Jeff ‘Siege’ Siegel; and guitarist Matt Dziuba is the Director of Jazz Studies at New Paltz! Dziuba was still on summer break, so he wasn’t scheduled to play at Gomen-Kudasai, a snug Japanese noodle house just off the New York Thruway in New Paltz; the fourth Professor, pianist Vinnie Martucci was scheduled to play until he came down with a last-minute illness. It was on Facebook where I read that Francesca Tanksley, who is on the faculty at Bard College and Berklee School of Music, would pinch-hit for Martucci. For me, though, Tanksley was more than a “visiting Professor.” (See what I did there?) She had been a member of the original Jeff ‘Siege’ Siegel Quartet, which blew my head off way back in the day when Siegel dropped his BRW release Live in Europe at Justin’s – the former epicenter of live jazz in Greater Nippertown.
With the last-minute nature of the gig, the natural thing to expect would be for the trio to just call classics they all knew, and let the chips fall where they may. Not in this case: All three players brought original material to the table, with no compunction about putting them into the mix. If any of the musicians didn’t know the music, they did know each other: In addition to Siegel and Tanksley’s aforementioned collaboration, Menegon told me he and Tanksley have known each other for years, and have worked together on numerous occasions. With the interpersonal relationships established, Siegel brought out his arrangement of Victor Young’s “Beautiful Love,” and we were off to the races. The title suggests ballad, but Siege’s arrangement went forcefully the other way, serving up hot, savory piano jazz as more customers came into the restaurant. Gomen-Kudasai was one of the many venues contributing to the weekend-long Hudson Valley Jazz Festival, so while some customers were only in search for a good meal (some of them looking like parents who’d just dropped off their kids – and their money – at SUNY), others were hungry for what the Professors were handing out the moment they walked in the door.
Even though “Beautiful Love” was only meant as a warm-up number, Tanksley was already spreading her musical wings. My previous experience with her had been in quartets, so to have her as the ostensible lead instrument offered a multitude of possibilities I was already seeing as Menegon laid down a lovely fat foundation and Siege worked his kit over with hard brush strokes. Siegel traded 8s and then 4s with his partners before leading them back to the head. The warm-up done, the trio dove into the originals pile, beginning with Menegon’s own “Motian Detector.” Dedicated to the best non-drumming drummer jazz has ever known, Tanksley took to the medium ballad like it was one of her own, adding a nice McCoy Tyner toughness to the asymmetrical lines that would have to be part of any tribute to Paul Motian. The following two numbers – Tanksley’s “Dance in the Question” and Siegel’s swirling “Shifting Sands” – brought me back to that night at Justin’s, but only for a moment. Again, that band was a quartet, so Tanksley was happily filling two roles – or, rather, making her own role here as big and bright and bold as you could want. Then again, she was playing with a rhythm section that had two big, bold solo voices, so keeping it small wasn’t a great strategy.
The afternoon was two sets long, with a relaxed meal break in between, and the quality mix of standards and originals never let up. Wayne Shorter’s “Ana Maria” bounced with love and light, buoyed by a Menegon bass solo that was as sweet as dark chocolate ice cream, and Ornette Coleman’s “Latin Genetics” showed you can turn a calypso beat upside down, and it’s still big fun. Tanksley brought two more originals to the table: The dizzying “Trickster,” which was a wild stepchild of “Satin Doll,” and the grooving “New Freedom.” The second surprise of the afternoon came when Menegon’s spouse, vocalist Teri Roiger, showed up and sang two knock-out tunes of her own – Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and Abbey Lincoln’s “First Song.” Roiger was singing without a mic, so it was a sign of big respect when the crowd stopped talking so they could hear more. The trio rocked out on the Great American Songbook staple “There Is No Greater Love” to wrap it all up.
I’m not big on reunions, but when this opportunity popped up in my news feed, there was no way I could stay home. Besides being able to watch piano-trio jazz played with awesome depth and limitless exploration, I also found a wonderful alternative to the inconsistent quality of New York Thruway rest-stop food. What’s more, Gomen-Kudasai now offers live jazz to New Paltz residents and students once a week, so there’s another reason to pause in your travels before you start climbing into the Catskills or head on down to NYC. Mmm mmm GOOD!