Blue Notes: Mingus Big Band, The Cold Spring Quartet, more
By By Geoffrey Himes
Feb 17, 2015 | 10:47 PM
One of the great jazz traditions in New York is the Monday-night performances by the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard. When I heard them there on Jan. 12, the top soloists were saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trombonist Frank Lacy, and trumpeter Alex Norris. Norris, of course, grew up in Howard County and teaches jazz part time at the Peabody Institute. And at the Jazz Standard’s bar, he told me he’d be holding the special “pre-release” show for his new album, “Extension Deadline,” at Peabody on Jan. 27.
The show, in Peabody’s Joe Byrd Hall, was led by Norris in a baggy black suit. At his right shoulder was Baltimore native and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, director of Peabody’s Jazz Studies program. Behind Norris on the B-3 Hammond organ was his fellow Howard Countian, George Colligan, who now teaches at Oregon’s Portland State University. On drums was the one non-Marylander, Rudy Royston, the anchor of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new, astounding Bird Calls band.
The quartet played all eight tunes from the new album, six by Norris, one by Colligan, and a ballad from Bobby Hutcherson. The title track, so named when Norris was sweating deadlines for both his taxes and a recording date, was a brisk hard-bop number with an easily remembered theme announced by Norris’ trumpet and countered by Thomas’ sax. As on the terrific studio version, the live version was pushed along by Colligan’s stabbing organ chords, a bass line tapped out on the organ’s foot pedals, and Royston’s restless ramble across his entire kit.
Most of Norris’ originals were in a similar vein, strong melodic material offered at a quickened tempo and then twisted into new shapes in a series of solos. ‘What Happened Here’ did this in an odd meter, and ‘Where Angels Fear’ lent a push-and-pull stutter to the momentum. ‘Red Flag’ set a new melody to the chord changes for ‘What Is This Thing Called Love.’ Norris switched to flugelhorn to display a more tender tone on the more relaxed tunes, his own ‘Night Watchman’ and Hutcherson’s ‘Little B’s Poem.’ The evening was a great introduction to a fine album.
Colligan released a brand-new album himself in January. The title, “Risky Notion,” refers to the fact that Colligan is playing an instrument that most people have never heard him on. Colligan is leading his new quartet, Theoretical Planets, from the drum stool. He has been playing in Jack DeJohnette’s band in recent years, and he has learned some lessons from that master drummer. He doesn’t focus obsessively on the snare, high-hat, and kick as so many drummers do; he plays the toms melodically, coaxing baritone sounds from those resonant drums. Colligan wrote all 10 tunes, and while the horns (saxophonists Nicole Glover and Joe Manis, joined on three tracks by trumpeter Tony Glausi) make the melodies most obvious, Colligan and bassist Jon Lakey provide deeper echoes of those singable lines even as they push the music along.
More Marylanders are featured on “Warming Trend,” the new, third album from the Cold Spring Quartet. Half of this straight-ahead bop foursome are teachers at Loyola University: English professor Mark Osteen and music professor Anthony Villa. Villa, the group’s new pianist, proves especially valuable when he negotiates the album’s two Thelonious Monk tunes. The rhythm section is two Baltimore natives: drummer Greg Mack and bassist Gary Kerner.
Osteen, the current president of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, is the quartet’s principal composer and the producer of the new disc. The saxophonist wrote nine of the 14 tunes: five instrumentals and four vocal numbers with lyrics by poet Ned Balbo. Despite the glaring lack of rhyme and matching line lengths, Osteen is able to makes Balbo’s verse sound conversational over relaxed melodies and then sing the results in a respectable tenor. Osteen’s economical tenor-sax solos are even more eloquent, carving out harmonic extensions in sure phrases that get straight to the point.
The annual February concert by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at An Die Musik has become a tradition during African-American History Month, this year on Feb. 21. And a cherished ritual it is, for the trio of percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins, and trumpeter Corey Wilkes use chants, vamps, and dance to connect African folk music to avant-garde jazz. All three are longtime members of Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.