LIVE: James Weidman’s Spiritual Impressions @ Senate Garage, 3/4/18
You rarely get do-overs in real life: The chance usually passes you by and keeps right on going. Happily, that wasn’t the case with Jazzstock’s Black History Month concert, Spiritual Impressions, which was cancelled by the President’s Day Weekend snowmaggedon. Everybody got out their calendars and did some smooth-yet-hectic juggling, resulting in pianist James Weidman bringing his passion project to Senate Garage along with two key players from his dynamic Inner Circle Music release Spiritual Impressions: vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Nelson Jr.
Floyd’s deep, rich, wide-ranging alto delivers the heartfelt lyrics to the collection of negro spirituals Weidman chose for the date, and she makes you feel every emotion connected to every piece – be it power or pain, victory or defeat, joy or sorrow, or any combination of the preceding. Nelson is the X Factor on Impressions, using his vast instrumental arsenal to add color, shading, and just the right amount of light to all the pictures Weidman and Floyd paints. Tony Jefferson was originally scheduled to play drums on this gig, but the make-up date had the kit manned by Steve Johns, who is a true badass in his own right. Add the incomparable John Menegon on bass, and you knew there was going to be one righteous meeting in Kingston that night.
Weidman opened the show in the clear, setting the tone with a thoughtful, swirling solo that definitely had church in its strong chords and cascading runs; that said, there was also a dissonance that would raise eyebrows in a congregation and smiles in a jazz club. (The effortless crossover of those two worlds is one of the things that makes Impressions such a treat.) Then Weidman hit the opening chords to “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and we were off and running. Senate Garage’s singular acoustics made Floyd’s voice even more resonant, giving us palate-teasing tastes of jazz, gospel and even a little Paul Robeson as the band rocked the original loping melody and then spun it into a swinging blues.
Nelson arrived just after sound check, so his tenor sax was a little too far forward in the mix for this first piece, but that was the only complaint I had all night. His big, beefy, rolling lines had just enough spirit to latch onto the core of “Daniel” and just enough chaos to take the piece beyond the norm. Nelson’s bass clarinet added an extra level of sadness to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Let My People Go”, while his soprano sax work on “Wade in the Water” had the kind of buoyant tone usually associated with a standard clarinet. For me, though, Nelson’s best moment happened when he brought out the flute for the yearning ”Deep River,” keeping it elegant under Floyd’s reverent vocals and then breaking out for a raspy, soaring solo that recalled the best days of Hubert Laws.
Weidman acted as both host and educator, giving us a little background on every piece he introduced. That sounds stuffy, which this night definitely was not. Weidman stepped away from the piano for “No Hiding Place Down Here” to accompany Floyd on lilting melodica while Johns hand-drummed underneath and Nelson countered on soprano. It was all so playful and happy, but Weidman preceded the playfulness with in-the-clear prelude on melodica that was just as contemplative as the piano break that opened the evening. I’ve been a fan of Weidman’s ever since I saw him play with Joe Lovano UsFive, but his work on this night stunned me further and further, as he repeatedly took us to that shining space between the secular and the spiritual that Ramsey Lewis built from scratch.
Given Weidman’s past work with Abbey Lincoln, it made perfect sense for Jazzstock co-founder/Impresario Teri Roiger to give Floyd a mid-set break and join the band for a couple of tunes. Roiger’s affinity for the iconic singer/songwriter is well documented, most notably on Roiger’s own Inner Circle Music release Dear Abbey: The Music of Abbey Lincoln, and Roiger nearly teared up as she spoke of Lincoln’s work as both artist and activist. The two pieces Roiger performed – “Driva’ Man” and “Freedom Day” – came from We Insist, Lincoln’s 1960 collaboration with über-drummer Max Roach that is a classic now, but was considered “too political” back in the day. Roiger was entirely in her element on both tunes, with Weidman and Nelson adding their own unique voices to make Lincoln’s compositions live and breathe. Menegon closed “Driva’ Man” with a long sonorous bow that was one of many magical moments he made just a little bit better.
“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” was less a concert-closing coda as it was one final, glorious charge, and Weidman and his partners took no prisoners. Weidman and Nelson had been countering each other beautifully all night long, but they kicked it up three or four notches here, with Weidman bringing the big percussive sound and Nelson blowing us away on tenor. Johns had kept things suitably spare throughout the set, but his final solo had a punch and an attack worthy of Anderson Silva. We were all on our feet at the end, energized by this powerful, positive music and thankful that – for once – we got the chance to have a do-over, and it was as soul-searingly great as it should have been.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…