LIVE: The Harlem Quartet @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 2/4/16

The Harlem Quartet
The Harlem Quartet

Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Strings that swing? Oh yeah, for sure…

Leaving behind their usual classical repertoire in favor of an all-jazz program at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Thursday, the Harlem Quartet served up a rich and rewarding concert with an undeniably international spin.

Seated in a centerstage semi-circle from left to right, violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, cellist Felix Umansky and violist Jamie Amador delivered two sets of sparkling jazz performed without amplification of any sort. Taking full advantage of the Music Hall’s legendary acoustics, the quartet had no problem making their music heard, nor letting their personality (as an ensemble as well as individual musicians) shine through.

The Harlem Quartet isn’t the only string quartet to stray from the classical world and venture into jazz. But they have earned a Grammy Award for their work with Chick Corea and Gary Burton on 2012’s Hot House.

The musically globe-trotting evening began in Wynton Marsalis’ home state of Louisiana with several quite playful movements from the trumpeter’s “At the Octoroon Balls,” including sections that musically mimicked vintage New Orleans’ barrelhouse barrooms (a woozy, wobbly, slightly out-of-tune [intentionally] romp through “Rampart Street Row House Rag”) and the sweltering Louisiana swamps (instrumental impersonations of croaking frogs, buzzing mosquitoes and other denizens of the bayou in “Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms”).

From there the journey took off for northern Africa with a spirited spin through Dizzy Gillespie’s standard “A Night in Tunisia” with each of the players stretching out during aroun-the-horn improvised solos. Then a quick trip to Brazil (for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s intoxicatingly breezy “The Girl from Ipanema”), Puerto Rico (Rafael Hernandez’s percolating “Variations on El Combanchero”) and Cuba (Abelardito Valdes’ hip-swaying “Alendra”).

But all of that only seemed to be a warm-up for the main event of the night – a scintillating run through three movements of Chick Corea’s “Adventures of Hippocrates” – from sensuous Argentine rhythms of “Quasi Tango” to the uptempo “Quasi Fugue,” unquestionably the most ambitious, dramatic and complex composition and performance of the night.

And after traveling the world during the 90-minute concert, it seemed only appropriate for the Harlem Quartet to wrap up the journey (and the performance) with a sweetly swinging homecoming chug through Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Take the A Train.”

At the Octoroon Balls, String Quartet No. 1 (Wynton Marsalis)
1. Rampart Street Row House Rag
2. Creole Contradanzas
3. Mating Calls & Delta Rhythms
4. Hellbound Highball
A Night in Tunisia (Dizzy Gillespie)
The Girl From Ipanema (Antonio Carlos Jobim)
El Cumbanchero (Rafael Hernandez)
Almendra (Abelardito Valdes)
Adventures of Hippocrates (Chick Corea)
1. Quasi Tango
2. Quasi Waltz
3. Quasi Fugue
Take the A Train (Billy Strayhorn)

Jaime Amador
Jaime Amador
Melissa White and Felix Umansky
Melissa White and Felix Umansky
Ilmar Gavilan
Ilmar Gavilan
Melissa White and Felix Umansky
Melissa White and Felix Umansky
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