LIVE: The Jeff Siegel Sextet @ A Place for Jazz, 10/20/17
There’s always a feeling of homecoming when you attend a show at A Place For Jazz. For far too many years, the brainchild of the late Butch Conn was literally the only game in town for Greater Nippertown jazz fans, and APFJ’s current governing body thinks global but keeps it local by booking one homegrown artist every season. Drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel got the gig this year, and the sextet he brought set the high-water mark that all other locals will have to meet from this point on.
Siegel is no stranger to APFJ, having backed up the late Lee Shaw at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome along with bassist/longtime co-conspirator Rich Syracuse. This also isn’t his first time as a leader, having worked with tenor master Erica Lindsay and pianist Francesca Tanksley in the quartet that created Siege’s outstanding 2010 disc Live in Europe. But this night’s two-set performance was all about the ARC recording King of Xhosa, where the aforementioned players get together with percussionist (and Siegel’s old UAlbany chum) Fred Berryhill and South African horn wizard Feya Faku. And while Xhosa may be one of the most interesting releases of 2017, it was merely a harbinger of the tasty intercontinental goodness Siege and his partners laid on us all.
We were immediately immersed in the musical and spiritual world of Xhosa on the opening piece “Totem,” where Berryhill hand-drummed a mesmerizing beat while Faku spoke and vocalized in the native tongue of his South African tribe – a tribe that’s also given the world Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba. From there, the band went right into the meditative intro of Tanksley’s “Prayer,” with Berryhill switching to shaker while Siegel rang bells and chimes, and Syracuse bowed long, thoughtful notes. Faku laid the crystal-clear tone of his flugelhorn on top of it all, and when Siegel kicked into the piece’s mid-tempo beat, Faku and Lindsey flew in perfect harmonic formation on the melody, evoking the spirit of late-career Coltrane that runs the length and breadth of Xhosa.
It wasn’t just the compositional aspects of the music that rang that bell, as well as others linked to early-‘60s Blue Note records. This group was on the tail end of a seven-show East Coast “mini-tour” that included a date at one of my favorite NYC concert spaces, Greenwich Village’s Zinc Bar, and a lot of expansion and experimentation happened on those stages. As such, five-minute tunes became 10-minute tunes, and 10 minutes became 20, as both the music and the musician’s comfort zones got deeper and wider, and we reaped the epic results of that searching. This was straight-ahead jazz with Africa and Afro-Cuban rhythms adding spices and flavors that don’t always show up on your daily palate, and while the tastes may have shocked some, they entranced almost everyone. What’s more, the subtleties that went into the quieter aspects of “Totem” and the night’s coda “The Elder” were tailor-made for the Whisperdome’s exquisite acoustics.
Lindsay cooks up tenor sax just the way I like it – sizzling hot, with the fuzz still on it. The blood, sweat and soul she brought to “Prayer” was only the beginning of a night, where my smile stretched from ear to ear and rarely left my face. Last month I wrote that a tenor player should never be a shrinking violet, and Lindsay rose up on every opportunity to show us how it’s done. Her solo on her own composition “Call to Spirits” swirled like a dust storm on the plain, and Tanksley’s soul-searing “New Freedom” let Lindsay pull us into her magical wheelhouse and demonstrate that the only choices a tenor player can make are “Go Big” or “Go Home.” That binary option even went for Siegel’s heart-tugging “Ballad of the Innocent,” which was inspired by the 2016 bombings in Belgium but could easily apply to the horrific attacks in Paris, Manchester and Las Vegas.
Although Faku did bring a trumpet onstage, he only played it when special guest Dylan Canterbury joined the group for a blowout take on Lindsay’s bluesy “Get Real.” For the rest of the show, Faku stuck with flugelhorn, just as he did on Xhosa, and that was a real good thing: Aside from the fact that Faku is one of those rare horn players who can make a flugelhorn sound like it’s got guts, the instrument’s particular tone combined with Lindsay’s buzzsaw tenor to make a singularly satisfying harmonic – one more thing that makes Xhosa stand out from the rest of the crowd. It also helps that Faku’s attack takes no prisoners, and his uncompromising tone sliced through the night on every piece, though most notably on “Innocent” and the disc’s title track.
Tanksley is one of those pianists where you have to spend just as much time listening to her left hand as you do her right. While her solos always have a stunning brightness and a solid lyric, the counters and foundation riffs she brought to “Prayer” and “Spirits” were riveting in and of themselves. When Faku or Lindsay brought us all to the highest of highs, Tanksley would ease us back to Earth so we could take a breath, only to find were on a new musical path that was just as exciting in a completely different way. If you didn’t know it before, you wouldn’t have guessed that Tanksley had injured her right hand earlier in the day and was only onstage by the grace of her acupuncturist. While her usual Tyner-like percussiveness may have been slightly muffled, the musical pictures she painted were as bright as ever.
Although Siegel and Syracuse had great solos of their own, their best work was done with Berryhill, giving this incredible music the kind of scintillating support it needed, and that earned the band a long, loving standing ovation at the end of the night. I’ve been waving the flag for King of Xhosa ever since I heard a rough mix and immediately volunteered to write liner notes for the final release. But Siegel’s APFJ set proved that any recording an artist or group makes should never be the end of the music’s evolution; if anything, it should only be the beginning.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…